Projects that prepare children for a life after care

Leaving home is a shock to the system for many young people. Getting a job, budgeting and becoming responsible for your own place can be daunting – even if you have parents you can turn to for help when there is a problem.

Care leavers don’t always have that help to hand, which is why it’s vital that children in care are prepared beforehand for living independently.

Attending life skills courses is now standard, but some care providers are coming up with innovative ways to prepare children in care – including disabled children in residential care – for adulthood.

Horse power

The London Borough of Croydon’s Oak Avenue project works with vulnerable young people with the aim of preventing them being taken into care or, for those already in care, offering interventions to enable them to reach their potential.

It runs a life skills group once a week, managed by vulnerable young people’s substance misuse co-ordinator Tara Cresswell. As well as more familiar sessions, Cresswell is now about to introduce horse therapy.

Unsurprisingly, she had to overcome some scepticism first. But the young people were keen to use it and requested that a bid went in to the Youth Opportunity Fund, which was successful.

Cresswell will use the US-based Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (Eagala) programme after being impressed with the results that this psychotherapy method has with offenders and vulnerable young people in the US. Although it is used widely there, it is less well known in the UK Cresswell is one of only 12 in the country to have completed the level one and two Eagala training.

Cresswell says: “A lot of young people we work with have never had a pet or had any contact with animals. A horse is a powerful animal. It can do what it wants and, to get what they want out of it, young people have to establish a relationship. And that’s the basis of what they have to do in real life. They are used to relationship breakdowns, so it teaches them how to form relationships. Some of the most vulnerable children get so much from it.”

Horses work well as therapists because they are social creatures with their own personalities like humans, and what works with one will not necessarily work with another.

There are various tasks that the young people can be set and the horses’ intuition is incredible, Cresswell says. “Sometimes they display behaviour that mirrors the young person. For example, during our training, a young person was working with her parents in the arena. The parents were arguing and the young person was acting out to get their attention. The task had been for the family to catch the horse and put the headcollar on, but they were arguing too much.

“While the young person was acting out the horse wandered over to the headcollar and picked it up with his teeth. He began to swing it about in an attention-seeking way. The therapists then asked the family to notice the behaviour and they recognised that the horse was mirroring the young person’s behaviour. This paved the way for a discussion about how the young person felt about her parents’ argument.”

As well as Cresswell, a horse therapist will be in the arena to ensure safety and to highlight the horse’s behaviour. If the horse places itself between two young people who are arguing, the human therapist – in this case, Cresswell – might explore how the clients interpret this, who or what the horse represents, and how it makes them feel to have the horse in that position.

“People think that to achieve the five Every Child Matters outcomes you have to put it on a platter as something academic, but it’s much more about sneaking it in through the back door sometimes,” says Cresswell. “Setting creative tasks, such as with horse therapy, they don’t realise they are learning something that can be used in everyday situations.”

What do you think?

“This sounds like an innovative way of working with young people leaving care to address any issues they might be facing. I am on the panel of a fostering agency which had a horse for the young people in their care and they loved it, although it was not used as a mode of therapy. I would be interested in hearing how this works out in practice and the impact it has.”

Victoria Hull, national development worker, Care Leavers’ Association

Getting young people on board

Three children living in care homes run by private provider CastleCare are gaining a head for business. Catherine Dalton, one of CastleCare’s directors, says the idea for giving children the chance to attend board meetings and be mentored by a board member to gain business experience came from one of the children.

A representative from each home sits on a regional forum and it was one of these young people who came up with the idea that they should also be on the board. The idea was received very positively by the board, says Dalton.

The three volunteers have already been to regional managers meetings and, recently, had their first board meeting. “I was astonished at how articulate they are and how clear they are about what should be provided,” says Dalton.

Michael Smith, non executive chair, is mentoring 14-year-old Sean: “I explained what the company does, how it makes decisions and monitors quality, and how we hope to hear more from young people about making changes. They came up with suggestions with insight.”

Dalton adds: “The emphasis is on them learning the importance of education and that, if you really want to get somewhere, you can achieve it but you have to stick at school, get a degree and work your way up. It’s about the reality of working life.”

What do you think?

“I’m very supportive of what they are doing. Many local authorities have looked at how they become a ‘family firm’ by giving employment opportunities to young people leaving care, so it links with this agenda. It’s something we have been looking at with our large corporate sponsors to get more than just financial support.”

Paul Moore, director of children’s services, NCH North West

Gap years bridge to equality

Young people with profound and complex learning and physical disabilities and significant additional needs are often overlooked when they reach the age where their contemporaries go on to further education, training or employment.

Scope’s Orchard Manor transition service in Meldreth, Hertfordshire is bridging this gap. The service opened in December with a team, including social workers, skills tutors, a physiotherapist, a speech and language therapist and an occupational therapist.

It takes referrals for young people aged 16 to 25 who have been in special schools, sometimes on a residential basis, and others who have been placed away from home.

Andy Lusk, Scope’s director of education early years, says: “They frequently move from special schools to residential care. They are a group of young people who traditionally aren’t offered transition services and they find it impossible to get into further education. They are in that gap by virtue of the complexity of their impairments, but what about the equality question?

“The majority of their peers have all sorts of opportunities. You can’t ship 19-year-olds into residential care and say that is acceptable.”

The young people will stay at Orchard Manor for about three years, where a personalised programme concentrates on independent living skills, with the aim of them moving on to a more independent lifestyle as adults in settings such as secure tenancies in supported housing.

What do you think?

“You can’t take people with multiple impairments from residential care and immediately put them in the community, so if this is a halfway house that will lead to independent living then it is a positive step. But only if, at the end of the three years, they are supported to live in the lifestyle they want.”

Anne Pridmore, chair of UK Disabled People’s Council

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 Natalie Valios

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