The leaving care act was supposed to end the scandal of 16-year-olds being thrown out of care and left to cope on their own. But, as Natalie Valios reports, there is a welter of evidence to suggest that, for many care leavers, little has changed
“I don’t feel that social services have done anything for me. They have just left me,” says Lucy Bradley.* “I’m crying for help but nobody is there.” Lucy left care at 16. She didn’t feel ready and, with nowhere suitable to go and lacking support from social services, she is still struggling four years later (see I failed my GCSE’s and became suicidal).
Lucy’s story is a common one. Despite one of the aims of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 being to ensure that young people do not leave care until they are ready, local authorities are still putting pressure on them to leave as soon as they are 16.
Indeed, many local authorities run independent living training for looked-after children as young as 14 and 15 to prepare them. Jim Goddard, secretary of the Care Leavers Association, says: “You wouldn’t do that with other children at that age, it’s ridiculous. You can’t have them leaving at 16, no matter how well prepared they are, and not expect them to struggle.”
He continues: “The expected improvements under the act simply haven’t happened. There are still large numbers leaving at 16 and 17 and they are not all leaving of their own freewill. A lot do feel pushed out.”
And after being pushed out they are often left to fend for themselves in unsuitable housing, unable to get in touch with their personal adviser (another entitlement under the act). Care leavers often end up feeling at risk in bedsits, B&Bs and supported lodgings sharing space with adults addicted to drugs, or with mental health problems. Hardly surprising that they become a sub-group of the statistics for prisons, prostitution, drugs and homelessness.
The frequent complaint the association hears from care leavers is that they feel abandoned. Goddard says: “The typical pattern is that they are unhappy in the care system, they tell social services they want to get out and get a flat and social services does that. They quickly realise that life on the outside isn’t that nice and that they have little support, but it’s too late to go back.”
The association wants local authorities to keep all young people in care until they are 18. Not easy when you have a 17-year-old kicking off who wants to leave, Goddard admits. “But if you were a parent you would try to work it out so they would stay in the family home. The problem is there’s nothing forcing local authorities to do that. They give up far too easily because it solves a problem.”
Department for Education and Skills figures for the year ending March 2005 put a positive gloss on the leaving care figures. More than half of looked-after children (53 per cent) left care around their 18th birthday; 28 per cent left at 16; 15 per cent when they were 17; and just 4 per cent were older than 18.
But recent research from the Foster Care Association contradicts this. Its figures for the year ending March 2006 show that 45 per cent left FCA placements at 16; 29 per cent at 17; 20 per cent at 18 and 6 per cent were older than 18.
Luke Chapman, national co-ordinator of care leavers’ services at the FCA, says that neither social workers nor the system are challenging the underlying culture that young people leave care at 16.
“From an independent agency view we are losing half our kids at 16. They are leaving prematurely,” he says.
“Local authorities fund the placements and they are expensive, but that’s because they are good quality services meeting these young people’s needs. At 15 they are seen as being in need of the service and at 16 they aren’t. In some cases financial pressure is blatantly being stated as a reason for ending placements.”
The same is happening to placements that have traditionally been considered safe, says Janet Rich, business director at Bryn Melyn, a provider of therapeutic care for children who would probably otherwise be in a psychiatric unit or secure provision. The expectation has been that they would be guaranteed residential provision until they were 18. But Bryn Melyn has had three cases this year already where placements have been ended at 16.
“Commissioning managers we trust and who understand these children’s needs are saying this is about money,” says Rich. “I know one provider who had a commissioning officer virtually in tears on the phone because they had to pull someone out of a placement.”
Bryn Melyn runs a small grants scheme for care leavers up to 26. The expectation was that older care leavers, who had spent their leaving care grant but still needed help, would apply. But it is now finding 17-year-old care leavers being pushed to apply to its grants scheme by their local authorities.
Rich was told by one personal adviser at a London borough that she was spending most of her time phoning charities. The local authority had cut the leaving care grant to £350 – to buy everything to set up home for the first time – and told her to ask charities to make up the difference.
The associate parliamentary group for looked-after children and care leavers is well aware of the problems. Its chair, MP David Kidney, says: “The act is a good one, but it does leave actions to local authorities’ discretion. The best do good work and the rest use their discretion to do nothing.
“Leaving at 16 should be the exception to the rule. It’s wrong to force them out for financial reasons, it should be based on their needs and their views should be taken into account.”
He would like to see national minimum standards to ensure councils cannot force care leavers out for budgetary reasons. He, like many, will be looking to the green paper on looked-after children, expected in the autumn, to address these gaps in the system.
As Rich says: “The tide of fury throughout the whole sector about the gap between promises and political vision and the reality is getting stronger by the day.” If the green paper ignores these problems, society will continue to pick up the pieces of many more young people like Lucy.
‘I failed my GCSE’s and became suicidal’
Lucy Bradley* ended up homeless, pregnant and sleeping on a friend’s floor when she was 16. She went into care at 15, but after a couple of foster placements broke down she asked her social worker if she could go to a children’s home or have another foster family. She was told she was too old to go into residential care and no other foster family was found.
“I stayed with a friend’s family, but I failed my GCSEs and became suicidal.”
When her friend’s parents could no longer look after her she ended up in a hostel. She was thrown out for taking drugs, moved to another hostel and was thrown out again. She moved in with her boyfriend but when that didn’t work out she left. By this time she was pregnant.
“At that time, when I was homeless, pregnant and sleeping on a friend’s floor, someone should have been helping me get accommodation.”
But they didn’t. Instead she moved in with her mother two months before giving birth to her son. Two years later she is still living with her mother but the situation is unstable. Every couple of months they argue and her mother throws her out. “I feel unsettled,” she says. “It’s not good for my son. Everyone thinks I’m OK because I’m living with my mum. But social services are supposed to be my guardian parents.
“Instead they make presumptions. That’s why so many care leavers are slipping through the net and going into prostitution, crime, drugs. If I didn’t have my son I would too.”
* Not her real name