Mix and match

It has long been established that children and young people from
certain ethnic minority groups are disproportionately represented
in public care. But there has been relatively little information
available about their subsequent life chances and experiences after
leaving care.

At Royal Holloway, we have recently completed research for the
Joseph Rowntree Foundation that casts new light on this
much-neglected area, while underlining the complexity of the issues
surrounding ethnicity and disadvantage. Our study was conducted in
three London boroughs and three local authorities in the Midlands
and the North  and included a survey of 261 care leavers aged 16 to
21. Among those surveyed, 44 per cent were from ethnic minority
groups. But we could also work qualitatively, exploring young
people’s views and experiences through a series of in-depth
interviews. In addition, we interviewed professional workers and

The findings indicate that it was white young people who had
experienced the worst outcomes, both during their time in care and
after leaving. This applied specifically to placement disruption,
educational attainment and homelessness, as well as risk-taking
behaviour including criminal activity and drug use.

African-Caribbean and mixed parentage young people were also among
those who were at a higher risk of disadvantage – and the study
provides useful insights into their particular experiences. For
example, while both African-Caribbean and mixed parentage young
people experienced lengthy periods in care, it was the former who
achieved greater levels of stable, same-race placements. They were
also more likely to be living in multiracial areas.

Moreover, although young people from white, African-Caribbean and
mixed-parentage backgrounds experienced high rates of school
exclusion, the African-Caribbean grouping were more likely to go on
to college to obtain educational qualifications. Despite this, they
still experienced high rates of unemployment. Yet mixed-parentage
young people not only spent lengthy periods in care, but also
experienced severe disruption in placements and their education
outcomes were poor.

African and Asian groups emerged as experiencing the most stability
in care and in education. Many of these young people entered care
as adolescents and therefore spent a shorter period being looked
after. Many of the African and Asian young people had had stable
care placements. They were also least likely to report being
excluded from school. Asian young people also reported the highest
levels of satisfaction with their social worker.

We found that the disparate outcomes among these groups were linked
to the length of time young people had spent in care, as well as
unstable placements and school disruption (including exclusion).
They were also linked to teenage parenthood. A quarter of the
sample we surveyed were young parents, and four out of 10 young
women – predominantly white – were mothers. Many of these reported
a lack of educational qualifications.

Compared with other groups, care leavers from white,
African-Caribbean and mixed-parentage backgrounds tend to be
severely disadvantaged over a long period. By the age at which they
leave care, the accumulation of such overwhelming and long-term
disadvantage clearly affects their subsequent life chances.

Several issues were highlighted concerning the experience of young
people from ethnic minorities while being looked after and
eventually leaving care. The in-depth interviews in the qualitative
part of the study focused on experiences after care. However, some
respondents did comment on both prejudice and discrimination they
had experienced when in care. In particular, they believed they
were not always given appropriate cultural and racial support
during placements in residential and foster care. For young people
seeking asylum, uncertainty about their legal status and their
prospects left them unsettled and highly vulnerable to stereotyping
and racism on a daily basis. Yet social work professionals
commented favourably on the tenacity of asylum seekers in trying to
put trauma and adversity behind them and working for a positive

The study also highlights issues of white and mixed-parentage
identity. Those classified in these two categories came from a
range of cultural backgrounds. Those who identified as white
included some young people with an Irish/East European/Romany and
Indian/white family heritage. Several young people who had
classified themselves as having a mixed parentage described how
they had experienced the process of belonging to one or
both/multiple ethnic groups. Others described how much of the time
they had been “passing for white”. Many reported a lack of exposure
to a positive framework around race and ethnicity that could have
provided them with a secure base regarding individual and group
ethnic identity. Nearly half had been placed in white families and
one-third with African-Caribbean families.

By contrast, African-Caribbean, African and Asian young people were
generally self-assured and secure in their individual and ethnic
group identity. Living in a multiracial locality was cited as an
important factor.

Surprisingly, only one of the six local authorities involved in the
research had a specific policy for service provision for young
people from ethnic minorities or had attempted to make equal
opportunities issues central to their pattern of provision and
sensitive to the distinctive needs of children from ethnic minority
groups. This is required by the Children Act 1989 and the Race
Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.

Agencies recognised the importance of matching young people with
social workers from the same ethnic background. Many reported that,
were the young person to request this, they would comply.

Young people, on the other hand, seemed less concerned with ethnic
matching than with the quality of the worker. However, they did
comment on the importance of appropriate matching with their
aftercare worker. They thought this increased the likelihood of
them being given suitable and sensitive preparation and support for
independent living. Practitioners thought that some of the
assessment and action records used, particularly in the transition
planning process, were mechanistic and provided insufficient scope
for a sophisticated exploration of race and ethnicity.

At a time when the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 is being
heralded as an important step to support care leavers, this
research indicates that major challenges might still need to be
acknowledged and met regarding the complexity of ethnicity and
disadvantage. The research suggests that, as corporate parents,
social services departments must actively seek to reduce disruption
and instability to avoid social exclusion and accumulative
disadvantage in the lives of young people.

RAVINDER BARN is professor of social policy and social work
in the department of health and social care, Royal Holloway,
University of London. She has researched and published widely on
the situation of looked-after ethnic minority children and young
people and is known as a leading authority on race, ethnicity and
child welfare in Britain.

Training and learning
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The article describes findings from research into the life
chances and experiences of young people from different ethnic
groups after leaving public care.

About the research
Our study was conducted in three London boroughs and three
local authorities in the Midlands and the North and included a
survey of 261 care leavers aged 16 to 21. Among those surveyed, 44
per cent were from ethnic minorities. But we were also able to work
qualitatively, exploring young people’s views and experiences
through a series of in-depth interviews. In addition, we
interviewed a number of professional workers and managers.

Further information

  • The full report, Life After Care: A Study about the
    Experiences of Young People from Different Ethnic Groups
    published for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by York Publishing
    Services, 64 Hallfield Road, York YO31 7ZQ. Tel: 01904 430033. ISBN
    1859351913; £13.95 plus £2 p&p. It can also be
    downloaded free from www.jrf.org.uk  
  • After the Act: Implementing the Children (Leaving Care) Act
    , Children and Families Research Unit, (CFRU), Monograph
    No 3
  • A National Voice www.anationalvoice.org/index.htm

Contact the author
By e-mail: r.barn@rhul.ac.uk

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