By Mike Stein
To mark the start of National Care Leavers Week today, University of York professor emeritus Mike Stein examines how care leaver services in the UK stacks up against the rest of the world.
The challenges facing leaving care services in the United Kingdom and most of Western Europe are very different both in scale and type of need compared with most of the world.
In many African, Asian and South American countries and in some post-communist European societies, most young people living apart from their families are living in large institutional care – currently estimated at 2 million children and young people.
This is mainly a result of poverty, disasters, war, famine and disease – of which Ebola is the latest epidemic – on families and communities.
Under the auspices of the United Nations, many of these countries are trying to reduce institutional care and its damaging consequences for care leavers through programmes to support children remaining within their families and kinship groups. They are also moving towards smaller children’s homes and foster care placements.
In the UK and many Western European countries most young people leave care from foster care, small children’s homes, residential centres and kinship care. But there are differences.
In comparison with other Western European countries, young people in the UK are the least likely to leave care from kinship placements, highly likely to leave from foster care and far less likely to leave from residential care.
In Western European countries, including the UK, most of these young people leave care between 16 and 18 years of age – far younger than young people leave home, resulting in them having to cope with major changes in their lives in a far shorter time period.
In the UK and other Western European countries there are new laws and policies being introduced to give young people the opportunity to ‘stay put’ in placements where they are settled.
In England, young people can remain in their foster care placements until they are 21 years of age. In Scotland, from April 2015, young people will be able to remain in any type of placement – not just foster care – until they are 21 years of age. This also applies in Germany, where it is defined as a legal right to assistance for ‘upbringing and education’ until the age of 21.
The UK has been at the forefront of introducing specialist leaving care legislation in Europe that combines ‘duties’ and ‘powers’ as part of a wider ‘corporate parenting’ policy framework.
In Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the main approach has been ‘universalism’ where law and policies are developed that aim to include all young people in mainstream services rather than specialist responses.
However, recognition of the failure to meet the needs of care leavers has led to the introduction of specialist legislation, mainly with permissive powers and still within a ‘universalist’ framework.
Overall, the UK countries have a strong legal framework in comparison with other Western European nations. However, ongoing challenges include providing more stable high-quality placements, addressing educational deficits, extending the use of kinship care, and providing more opportunities for young people to remain in placements until they are ready and prepared to leave.
Making international comparisons is not easy, but reaching beyond a parochial understanding of young people’s transitions from care has the potential to improve the lives of care leavers, wherever they are living in the world.
Mike Stein is professor emeritus in the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York. He is also the author of Young People Leaving Care: Supporting Pathways to Adulthood.