Young people leaving foster care or residential care are at last
to receive some support. The Leaving Care Act has filled a gap
overlooked for too long. Frances Rickford reports.
“How’s your son, Mary?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t seen him for several months.”
“I thought he was only 16.”
“Yes that’s right, but his father and I thought it was time he
stood on his own two feet. We gave him some furniture and £500
so I expect he’ll manage.”
“Did he get his GCSEs?”
“No, but that’s his problem.”
“What about a job?”
“No, no job, he’ll just have to try to get one, won’t he?”
“Did you fall out?”
“No, we just thought it was time he became independent.”
In 1992, the late Barbara Kahan opened a feature she wrote for
Social Work Today magazine with this fictitious exchange
between two senior social services managers, contrasting it with a
much more likely chat between the same pair about their teenage
children. Barbara Kahan was characteristically ahead of her time
pointing out forcefully that local authorities were failing as
corporate parents – although, as she notes later in the piece, the
Short Committee’s report on children in care published nearly 10
years previously had urged that local authorities should have a
statutory duty to provide proper support for care leavers.
Nine years later the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 is on the
statute book and about to come into force. At a time when social
services departments are anxiously watching health and education
muscle in to their traditional territory, they are also preparing
for this major increase in their responsibilities. At last young
people leaving public care should have something approximating the
support most other young people rely on from their own families in
their teens and early twenties.
Inevitably there are challenges for local authorities, and the
signs are they are keen to tackle them as the Department of
Health’s lively and well attended roadshows around the country have
Among the most pressing challenge for local authorities is to
make sure they have a workable and efficient system for providing
financial support to 16- and 17-year-olds when their entitlement to
benefit stops on 1 October. They have also got to recruit – or
nominate – personal advisers, and train them, which raises many
issues. What size caseload will each personal adviser have? How
will the personal advisers’ role fit with others involved with care
leavers, such as staff in an existing care leavers’ team or hostel
workers? How will the personal advisers juggle their
responsibilities to their employing authority with their role as
champion for individual young people – and what mechanisms will be
needed to sort out disputes between young people and their
responsible authority about the level or sort of support to be
There is also the business of co-ordinating the different
streams of support now available to young people – most obviously
Connexions – and building robust protocols with housing providers
to make sure young people’s different housing needs can be properly
Caroline Boswell, policy and communication manager at First Key
which supports and lobbies on behalf of care leavers, has helped
lead the roadshows. She believes the personal advisers should in
most cases be people with some understanding of the family and
other difficulties young people from care may have experienced, but
stresses that well-forged links with other agencies – especially
those well placed to offer more specialist advice and support to
young people – will be crucial to meeting care leavers’ support
Members of young people’s own extended family can offer a great
deal, but are too often sidelined when support for care leavers is
being planned, according to Peter Marsh, professor of child welfare
at the University of Sheffield. Marsh found in a major study for
the DoH that most young people leaving care could name someone in
the family they felt they could rely on – usually not their mother
– and that the family member nominated by the young person
confirmed that they would act as a back-up.
Yet in most cases the young person’s social worker had no idea
who the “key kin” was and they had not been invited to reviews.
Marsh says: “Young people themselves are experts on the resources
in their own family – and they should be asked. The new legislation
has real potential and is very positive. But it is important we
don’t focus all out attention on developing new professional
services if that means we fail to help tap into sources of family
Money now being paid as income support by the Department of Work
and Pensions (formerly the Department of Social Security) to 16-
and 17-year-old care leavers will be transferred to local
authorities, together with some extra cash from the Quality
Protects’ pot. But there are inevitably anxieties that the cash
available will not be enough to do the job – that social services
departments have once again been given duties and powers to do what
everyone acknowledges is the right thing to do, but without the
means to do it properly.
But Caroline Boswell is upbeat. “The new procedures and systems
required can seem very complex, and there are always worries about
“But this is a great opportunity. And as I have been saying at
the roadshows, if you start from the needs of the young person, you
won’t go far wrong.”
Nuts and bolts
What is expected of local authorities under the act?
The act amends the Children Act 1989 and gives local authorities
in England and Wales new duties and powers to assess and meet the
needs of care leavers. Eventually, any young person from 16 to 21
(or 24 if they are in full-time education or training) who has been
looked after for at least three months since they were 14 should
get a service. But the act is not retrospective – the first cohort
of young people to be covered by the act will be those who are aged
16 and 17 when it comes into force on 1 October.
The main changes are:
Keeping in touch: The last local authority to look after the
young person will have a legal duty to keep in touch with him or
her until they reach 21, and assist them “to the extent that (the
young person’s) welfare requires it”. Help can be in kind, or
exceptionally in cash.
Pathway plans: All young people leaving care must have a
“pathway plan” which will take over from their existing care plan
and will run at least until they are 21. The pathway plan will
cover education, training, career plans and specific support needs.
It will be based on regularly reviewed needs assessments.
Personal advisers: All care leavers must have a personal
adviser, until they are at least 21. The personal adviser will help
draw up the pathway plan and ensure it addresses the young person’s
changing needs, and is implemented. It will be the personal adviser
who keeps in touch with the young person and makes sure they
received the advice and support they are entitled to.
Financial support: Care leavers aged 16 and 17 will no longer be
able to claim benefits. Instead, local authorities will be under a
new statutory duty to support them financially.
Education and training: The responsible local authority must
assist a child who has left their care with the costs of education
and training up to the end of the agreed programme. It must also
help them with accommodation during college vacations.
Employment: Young people who have left care will be entitled to
help with the costs associated with getting a job.
And not before time…
Omri Shalom explains how the Leaving Care Act will help young
The Leaving Care Act is set to make significant changes to
services received by young people leaving care when it comes into
force later this year. It was the government’s response to the 1998
Children’s Safeguard Review which found that young people leaving
care needed a better aftercare service. A great deal of effort has
gone towards the development of the new policies and procedures so
that young people will benefit when leaving care.
Under the act young people leaving care will now be entitled to
better services including support for education beyond 21. New
benefits will also include a personal adviser, a pathway plan, and
financial assistance with accommodation.
The new Leaving Care Act was due to come into force on 1 April
2001. But earlier this year the Department of Health announced that
implementation was going to be delayed by six months to 1 October
This was to allow service providers time to familiarise
themselves with the new policies and develop the appropriate
This has been of benefit to service providers but young people
leaving care between 1 April and 1 October will miss out on the new
benefits due to circumstances beyond their control. And while it
may be good practice for the local authority to provide for these
young people in the same way as those who are formally eligible,
there is no guarantee they will do so. If we could rely on “good
practice” would there be a need for this new legislation?
It will also be interesting to see how the government is going
to make sure that councils implement the act and monitor its
Young people should really benefit from the new act. It is good
to know changes are being made to improve services for young people
Omri Shalom has been in local authority care and now works for
First Key. He writes here in a personal capacity.