Support for care leavers remains patchy and ineffective despite positive developments in national policy and the legal framework, according to report from the National Audit Office.
The government spending watchdog found huge variation in local authority care leaver support and little connection between the amount spent and the outcomes achieved.
While the average council spent £6,250 a year on each care leaver aged 16-21, the National Audit Office found the amount ranged from as little as £300 to £20,000.
The report also notes that the number of over 16s leaving care has risen 50% since 2003/04 and that 41% of 19-year-old care leavers are not in education, employment or training – the highest level since 2001/02. In comparison 15% of all 19-year-olds are unemployed.
Although the government’s Care Leaver Strategy is a positive step, the watchdog acknowledged, its implementation remains flawed and poor monitoring of care leaver outcomes is hampering efforts to deliver improvements.
“There was no strong evidence of government working in an integrated way: limited implementation capability; no regular reporting of progress or outcomes; and no evidence of a sustained effort to continuously improve,” the report concluded.
It is too soon to assess whether the Staying Put policy, which allows young people to stay with their foster carers until 21, has had a positive effect, the report found.
Young people unaware of support
The National Audit Office also found many young people still leave foster or residential care unaware of what support they are entitled to and often have problems accessing their health histories or personal documents, such as passports.
High caseloads and staff turnover were identified as key reasons why care leavers sometimes get a lack of personal support.
“Addressing the poor life outcomes of young people leaving care is a longstanding problem. The cost of their not moving into adulthood successfully is high,” said Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office. “Stronger central and local leadership is urgently required to get a grip on this problem.”
Central and local government should work together to develop better and more comparable data on the care leaver outcomes and use that to assess whether support services are delivering value for money, the report recommended.
Payment by results
The watchdog also urged the government to examine how incentives like payment by results can be used to improve the medium- and long-term outcomes for young people who leave foster or residential care.
Meg Hillier MP, chair of Parliament’s Committee of Public Accounts, said: “Care leavers are in dire need of effective care and support but this report finds care leavers who are not involved in their care leaving plans and who do not know what support they are entitled to.”
Give foster carers a lead role
Responding to the report, the National Association of Fostering Providers have called for foster carers to take the lead role in preparing young people for adult life, and voluntary sector providers to be given formal responsibility for managing the transition to independence of young people in their placements.
“Foster carers, supported by supervising social workers and properly funded, would take on the social worker/personal adviser roles and decision making tasks,” argued Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the organisation.