Super models

The current debate about what kind of worker is right for children’s services is also relevant to care leavers who have difficulties negotiating myriad service needs.

Three studies recently by the Thomas Coram Research Unit have provided some answers to the types of services that are likely to provide effective support to young care leavers.

The first looked at higher education. Few care leavers go to university. Many of those who participated in the study(1) said it was crucial that foster carers understood the importance of education and could support young people who wanted to continue to higher education.

Just as important is the support from local authorities to enable care leavers to complete courses. In particular, financial support is vital to sustain young people throughout their university courses, provide accommodation during holidays, and pay for other equipment and expenses. The study revealed wide variations in the levels of support awarded to young people by local authorities.

A study of teenage pregnancy and parenthood(2) showed that, for young mothers and fathers from a care background, support had to be consistent, holistic and non-judgemental. Specialist mother and baby foster carers, personal advisers, key workers and specialist midwives who built relationships with young parents over time were highly valued by the young people. These relatively new roles in social care often contrasted with the more distant and sporadic input of social workers and other health professionals, such as GPs.

Nearly complete is a study about care leavers and access to services exploring the factors that let them or prevent them using health, social care and services.(3) Interim findings indicate that care leavers rate general adult employment support services such as Jobcentres and benefits offices far lower than integrated and person-centred models of information, guidance and support, or one-stop shops that take account of individual needs. These one-stop shops acknowledge that their needs are often complex and not related to a single aspect of health and well-being.

The question then arises as to whether the occupational models now used for working with care leavers address their needs for a holistic service as well as recognise the uniqueness of their individual lives and circumstances. The Connexions service was intended to support young people’s education and employment decision-making in a comprehensive way but, for other aspects of their lives, in what direction could or should young people turn? Four types of care work, on a continuum from formal to informal, can be considered.

If pedagogues such as those elsewhere in Europe – highly trained professional workers using a holistic framework centred on notions of supporting “upbringing” as well as citizenship – were widely available in this country, their role as a point of contact for care leavers would seem appropriate. They would focus on the everyday needs and interactions of young people, yet would be able to work on an equal footing with professionals in other fields.

Many care leavers have or are at risk of having a criminal record. To address such social exclusion mentors have emerged to befriend an at-risk young person, develop their skills and social capacities and help them take on board law-abiding values to avoid further criminalisation.(4) In terms of providing holistic support to young people, this model shows great promise since it is built on an essentially voluntary relationship between the young person and the mentor and has a general remit that is broader than simply offering a specific service.

Mentees were said to value mentors’ unpaid status and saw them as a trusted source of support in all dimensions of their lives. But difficulties in sustaining a volunteer workforce and increasing demands on the role of the mentor have paved the way for professionalisation through training schemes and, in some instances, payment of mentors. This process echoes the changes to foster care and, in turn, raises questions about possible implications for the voluntary, supportive and trusting basis of the work.

Whichever way the formal occupational models for care leavers develop, there will remain a place for informal care in offering continuing support to care leavers. Usually thought of in relation to elderly kin or very young children,(5) there are signs that care leavers who have had good relations with foster carers rate continuing contact highly, particularly as leaving home has become a protracted process for young people in terms of financial support for education.

The loss of such a foster care figure can be particularly hard. A young woman whose former foster mother died unexpectedly felt very left out when the birth children excluded her in the grieving process.

A study of private foster care,(6) often used by West African families as a method of extended child care or as a way of offering their children an education and an upbringing in Britain, does not explicitly concern children in public care. But private foster carers are subject to state regulation, although in the past this has seldom been carried out, and they often view themselves as substitute parents.

While this arrangement can constitute continuing informal care, the study revealed that private foster carers in transracial placements often showed a lack of awareness of cultural issues. Whether young people receive enough support when leaving the care of private foster carers appears to be based on luck rather than training or planning.

In the search for services and occupational models to address the needs of care leavers, it is important to remember that care leavers rarely want to be marked out as different, and usually have the same kinds of ambitions as other young people. When they do want and need help it is often to negotiate complex bureaucracies and specialist services. Findings from the research we have described indicate that these young people value a person-centred befriending style of support worker, such as a personal adviser or key worker, where attention to their individuality is paramount and swathes can be cut though the mire of administration.

We have still some way to go in developing occupational models that consistently address this need.
A conference, In Care and Beyond, will be held to debate these issues on 23 February at BMA House, Tavistock Square, London WC1. Further details from conference organiser

Claire Cameron (above) and Elaine Chase are researchers at Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. Cameron previously worked in residential and field social work. She has conducted many national and cross-national studies of children’s and young people’s services, mainly focusing on workforce issues. Chase has a background in health promotion and public health. She has conducted studies, nationally and internationally, on the health and well-being of children and young people, with a particular focus on marginalised young people.

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This article summarises recent research about care leavers and considers four occupational models that might provide care leavers with workers they can trust and holistic services that meet their individual needs. The occupations  require different levels of professional training and include: the north European pedagogue; the mentor; the private foster carer and the less formal care worker. 

(1) S Jackson, S Ajayi, M Quigley, Going from University to Care, Institute of Education, 2005
(2) E Chase et al, Experiences of Pregnancy and Parenthood among Young People in and Leaving Local Authority Care: Implications for Policy and Practice, NCB, 2005
(3) C Cameron, K Bennert, A Simon, V Wigfall (forthcoming), Care Leavers, Young People and Access to Services, DfES, 2005
(4) V Greenlaw, I St James Roberts, “Mentors for children and young people who offend or are at risk of offending: an emerging profession?” in J Boddy et al (eds), Care Work: Present and Future, Routledge, 2006
(5) A Mooney, J Statham, “Informal care across the generations” in Care Work: Present and Future
(6) E Peart, “Semi-formal care work: the case of private foster care” in Care Work: Present and Future

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