This year about 6,000 young people will emerge from the care of the state. What is their future?
Some 4,500 of them will leave with no educational qualifications whatsoever.
Within two years of leaving care 3,000 will be unemployed, 2,100 will be mothers or pregnant and 1,200 will be homeless. Of the 6,000, just 60 will make it to university. The scale of this failure is what has prompted the government to publish its looked-after children green paper this week.
It is not just a tragedy for the individual. A successful care system would transform this country. At a stroke it would empty one-third of our prisons and shift half of all prisoners under the age of 25 out of the criminal justice system. It would halve the number of prostitutes, reduce by between one-third and a half the number of homeless people and remove 80 per cent of Big Issue sellers from our street corners. Young people from care are having an impact out of all proportion to their numbers. Imagine the transformation of our society if they became successful young adults rather than be condemned to a lifetime’s membership of the underclass.
The failing care system is the main cause of social exclusion in this country. The children the state needs to reach are already in their care. As Felicity Collier of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering put it: “It’s no good talking about ending child poverty when the government itself is creating the parents of tomorrow’s poorest children.”
Young people from care are clear what is happening. As one young man I spoke to said: “I was done over by my family. Then done over by social services. I don’t know which was worse.”
The care system should provide children with stability. Too often it mirrors violent and chaotic home lives and reinforces distrust of adults. Many young people I interviewed had lost count of the number of times they had arrived at a new placement,clutching their belongings in a plastic binbag.
As one 14-year-old girl who had been through 30 placements said: “You feel like a bit of rubbish yourself who no one wants.” They had ceased to count the turnover of social workers in their lives. Another said: “They come and go and never say goodbye – just like my mum really.”
Local authorities, of course, want to do their best by the young people in their care. The system dictates, however, that the earlier a young person fails, the sooner they cease to be a cost to their local authority. It is better for the local authority’s budget to have a young person go to prison, for example, rather than university. Prison is paid for by the Home Office, university by the local authority. In the topsy-turvy world of care, failure is cheap, success a financial burden.
The crises in the care system call for urgent and fundamental change. Behind the statistics lie examples of great tragedy, heartbreak and neglect which should not be countenanced in a civilised society. The primary objective of reform must be to provide secure, stable, long-term and loving care for difficult children. The perverse financial incentives which prevent local authorities from providing that type of care must be acknowledged and removed.
Local authorities should have the following simple, achievable yardstick: what percentage of their care leavers is a taxpayer by the age of 30? How local authorities and their social services reach that target should be left to their judgement.
Our care system should be a unique opportunity to transform their lives. Instead vast sums of money go on a system that contains rather than cares or transforms. “It get kids out of sight and out of mind,” said a director of a children’s charity.
That is until they fetch up in our prisons, drug addiction centres and psychiatric wards or as the parents of the next generation of children in care. We are spending an awful lot of money on failure
Harriet Sergeant is author of Handle with Care, published by the Centre for Policy Studies