A recent Ofsted study of council care leavers’ services has pointed the way to best practice in key areas of young people’s lives.
Making the transition from care to independent living can be challenging for some young people leaving care. Last month saw the publication of a report by Ofsted into how local authorities can better meet the needs of this client group who are renowned for slipping through gaps between services.
Support for Care Leavers is based on Ofsted’s study of six local authorities’ care leavers’ services between August and December 2008. It urges all councils to do more to address the barriers young care leavers experience to using low-level mental health services, employment and proper accommodation.
More than three-quarters of the 103 care leavers surveyed said they received good levels of practical help and guidance to prepare them for independent living. Using this information, the report identifies six areas of support key to successful working with care leavers, including: accommodation, employment, and education.
The report finds that effective housing partnerships and strategies are those that prioritise care leavers and provide a good range of housing options, “giving a choice of, and access to, safe and suitable accommodation”. In order to provide suitable accommodation for care leavers, all the local authorities surveyed had developed corporate housing strategies and protocols, and were working with the third sector to develop further housing options.
The London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames has between 100 and 120 care leavers aged between 18 and 25 at any one time. Mike Ferguson, principal manager for looked-after children and leaving care, says the council provides a good range of accommodation for young people through placements with fosters carers as well as through dedicated housing.
In particular, Richmond has a seven-bed semi-independent unit for use by care leavers that has staff on-site 24 hours a day and is run for the council by St Christopher’s Fellowship. Ferguson says the unit is used as a means to assess young care leavers’ living skills, such as their ability to cook for themselves, before they move on to semi-independent living.
“The whole ethos of the service is to do what a good parent would do,” Ferguson says. “That’s what it boils down to.”
Each of the local authorities surveyed used their strategic position as a large local employer to help care leavers into employment at the councils and with other employers. Three of the six local authorities had specialist employment workers in their leaving care teams.
Dorset Council provides work experience opportunities for any of its willing 180 care leavers aged between 18 and 25. Jane Edwards, Dorset’s children and families team manager, says that offering these placements provides care leavers with invaluable experience.
“We tailor each work placement to the young care leaver’s needs and we look at what it is they can gain from the work experience, and what help they can be to the department they are placed in,” she says.
The council’s work experience programme places young people for between six and eight weeks across different departments in the local authority ranging from IT to trading standards.
Edwards admits that it may be challenging for some council departments who do not traditionally have dealings with care leavers to ask them to accept a placement, but says it is all about the right level of support offered by her team to the young person and the department itself.
According to the report good corporate parenting maintains care leavers in education. And most of the young people preparing to leave care surveyed reported they had personal education plans in place.
Edwards says Dorset Council strives to “look beyond what the young person sees for themselves” and beº flexible about the support it provides. Within her team, a skills development co-ordinator works with young care leavers aged 19 and over to help them reach their educational goals.
“Sometimes care leavers go to college later than their peer group and we have to encourage them so they are not disheartened,” she says.
One young care leaver who had left university after his first year, was supported by Edwards’ team a year later to apply for a different course at another university and is now being supported by a bursary to complete his studies.
“We knew he left his first degree and we picked him up and gave him a second chance,” Edwards says. “It’s all about giving young people the opportunity to do things again if they don’t work out first time.”
- Be open and honest about what support you can and cannot provide for a care leaver.
- Build a relationship with the care leaver so they know they can rely on you and, by association, the care leaving service.
- Do what you tell the care leaver you will do; if you are reliable they are more likely to be so too.
- Be in it for the long-haul as it takes time to gain a care leaver’s trust.
This article is published in the 30 July 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Helping care leavers gain independence