The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 was supposed to usher in a new era of support for young people leaving the care of the state. But, as the Commission for Social Care Inspection has found, too many looked-after children are still unaware of their entitlements and receiving sub-standard services.
Roger Morgan, the commission’s children’s rights director, surveyed almost 200 young people who had left or were preparing to leave care and found many flaws in the current system, which young people typically described as “crap”.
The Children (Leaving Care) Act established that all young people in care should receive a leaving care pathway plan, drawn up in agreement with their social worker, which sets out how they will be supported. But many of those surveyed by Morgan said they had not been given a chance to say what they wanted, as is required by law.
Lisa Christensen, the Association of Directors of Social Services lead on leaving care, says this is “fundamentally poor practice”, adding: “It takes us back to the dark ages of social work practice.”
Morgan also identified “drastic variations” in the financial support and general entitlements provided to leavers, and in response he plans to produce a guide that will contain succinct information on their rights.
Months in bed and breakfast
One of the main concerns of care leavers was the suitability of the accommodation found for them.
They spoke of having to wait for months in bed and breakfast accommodation before promised flats became available. A number also raised concerns that accommodation was unsafe and situated in bad areas.
One said: “The places they put you are not good – there are no positive role models. You are around people who have no jobs and sit around all day.”
These comments echo findings in the There’s No Place Like Home report, published last year by A National Voice, the organisation run by people who have been in care.
More than half of care leavers surveyed for that report felt they had no real choice in the accommodation offered to them, 29 per cent did not feel safe in their accommodation, and half felt that housing departments were not aware of the particular needs and circumstances of care leavers.
Maxine Wrigley, national co-ordinator for A National Voice, says: “Housing is so important. How can you expect people to get an education and do well if they haven’t got a decent place to live?”
This is particularly important when you consider that looked-after children tend to leave care aged 16 or 17. The general population leave home aged 23, on average.
Christensen says: “We know there are issues around the provision of suitable housing for young people leaving care. It’s not an area where we are awash with resources.”
Harsh and uncertain life
Morgan states that life for young people leaving care is “typically much more harsh and uncertain” than it is for other young people, who mostly choose when to leave home and can expect continuing support from their family if things go wrong.
But with the report highlighting so many obstacles and problems for young care leavers, it is encouraging to note that many of those surveyed were still optimistic and had good experiences.
Independence was the best thing about leaving care for 40 per cent of those returning questionnaires. Other positives were greater financial security and more privacy.
Conversely, though, one of the greatest worries for care leavers was loneliness, while some were concerned they would not have enough money.
The government has an imminent opportunity, in the shape of its soon-to-be-published green paper on looked-after children, to address some of the failings identified in Morgan’s report.
However, Christensen says the integrated children’s services agenda promoted by the Every Child Matters green paper and the Children Act 2004 should also improve support for care leavers.
“The Children Act and local safeguarding children boards will have an impact in getting people like district councils and housing providers to realise their responsibilities around children and young people,” she says.
“What happens to care leavers is a really good test of whether things are moving in the right direction.”
Download Young People’s Views on Leaving Care
Download a summary of There’s No Place Like Home