by Jack Brookes*
A few weeks ago I went to visit a 17-year-old lad, Steve, who had recently left our care. He had moved to a “semi-independence” place in South London. I was greeted by Steve and briefly introduced to a bored-looking member of staff who did not leave the office and who seemed reluctant to engage in meaningful conversation.
The home had a generally run down appearance and I felt depressed just standing in the lounge. But Steve’s bedroom was much worse. It was dirty, the wallpaper was curling up the walls because of damp, the windowsill was loose, creating a draft, and a noisy fridge-freezer stood in the corner.
I have been broke many times in my life and lived in some very substandard accommodation – I would never have rented that room.
Steve, who among numerous other issues has Asperger’s, was distressed and tearful.
Steve said he had spoken to his social worker that morning but he felt she was not listening and had essentially told him he had no choice but to put up with it. I did not take this at face value because Steve had regularly accused staff of not helping him when, in fact, they were doing everything they could and he was not engaging. However, when I emailed the social worker my concerns, her response was defensive to the point of aggression and she confirmed Steve had no other option.
Not good enough
I recount this story, as I could many other different but equally appalling examples, to illustrate how massively not good enough the provision for care leavers in this country is – perhaps more so for those in residential care. It is a scandal. I would be surprised if a single professional or policy maker could coherently argue against this.
Young people in foster care now have the right to remain in placement until they are 21. This seems a pretty good idea to me. For a young person, who has been in placement for a while, to remain in a known environment and be supported by established relationships with one or two carers as they transition into adulthood is, where possible, the ideal solution.
So, superficially, it follows that what is true for young people in foster care, should be true for those in residential care. And why should they not be given the same option?
Well, in Steve’s case it would certainly have been a non-starter. As distressed as he was at having to leave, it was very much a case of you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Prior to his placement being closed he had been completely refusing to engage in any kind of training or work. He was absconding for days at a time and, when in the home, he was consistently verbally abusive and threatening to staff. He had recently caused significant criminal damage to the local neighbourhood during a drunken spree.
More importantly he was systematically introducing each new referral to the local street kids and weed dealers. These same kids would stand on the street throwing things at the house and damaging the staff’s cars.
Difficult to manage
Now, I guess it could be argued that this is an extreme example to use as an argument against residential care until 21. But most young people who are placed in residential care, instead of foster care, are placed there for one simple reason: their behaviour is difficult to manage. Unfortunately this is an issue that has rarely disappeared entirely when they reach 18. You would subsequently have to manage this behaviour without being able to use whatever consequences/rewards and so on the home uses to manage children’s behaviour. Because, dress it up how you like, residential care to 21 would mean supporting adults in an environment which contains, and is set up for the purpose of looking after, troubled and vulnerable children.
Let’s imagine that the funding is available and everything I outline above is just doom mongering. Let’s imagine an engaged and emotionally stable 19 year old man. He does an ordinary 19 year old man thing – he goes out with his mates on a Friday night and rolls up at one in the morning drunk. He’s a bit loud and clatters about a bit as he makes his way to the bathroom and then bed, but he is no real bother. Now, let’s imagine the impact of that on the new 14 year old girl whose father was an abusive and violent alcoholic. Imagine how scared she would be.
Extraordinary level of care
The children in residential care are not ordinary kids and they need an extraordinary level of care. To claim otherwise is a denial of objective reality. How would you manage even the mundane scenario above? Really tight boundaries? You can’t come home after 11pm? No returning under-the-influence? This would be setting up any 18 year old, let alone a care leaver, to fail.
And when they did fail, their placements would have to be closed. Meaning that – at a time in their lives when they are understandably scared and fragile – instead of the possibility of a thought-out, planned move, they would experience a sudden and potentially catastrophic rejection.
Certainly the amount of money spent on care leavers should be the same as that spent on them in residential care – initially at least. But better to spend that money funding good quality alternative support and provision.