For young care leavers who are about to become parents the excitement enjoyed by most mothers and fathers-to-be can be tempered by the prospect of social services intervention. A young person who has been in the care of a local authority is still legally the responsibility of its leaving care team until they reach 21 – or beyond if they are in full-time education and it has been agreed in their pathway plan. So should a care leaver fall pregnant or become a father between the ages of 17 and 21 (or over), social services have a duty to support them.
But it is this support that can prove problematic, with many care leavers complaining that it often results in unwelcome and overly intrusive attention rather than constructive help.
During a young parents’ workshop run last year by The Fostering Network and care leavers’ charity A National Voice (ANV), some participants said their babies had been placed on the child protection register before birth, and one director admitted that their local authority automatically instigated child protection proceedings for every care leaver who became a young parent.
Sara Gomes, a 16+ specialist advocate at children in care charity Voice, has anecdotal evidence of such an approach being used more widely. Young care leavers tell her they are “over-scrutinised by social workers” who see the fact that they have been in care as a risk factor when they become parents. She knows of care leavers who have pre-birth child protection conferences because social workers have concerns about the unborn baby for many reasons, including that they have been in care.
“The label of ‘in care’ is associated with being a bad parent and social services often don’t look at these young people as individuals but at the statistics that care leavers don’t become good parents,” Gomes says.
Care leaver and ANV vice-chair Jonny Hoyle adds: “Social services can get their wires crossed when young people in or leaving care have children and think they cannot parent.”
But Hoyle’s experience is proof that not all social services departments respond negatively to care leavers becoming parents. When he became a father at 20, having been in care from age 11 to 19, he was in the unusual position of working for North Yorkshire Council as a support worker in its leaving care team as well as accessing its support. Rather than intruding in his and his partner’s lives, staff congratulated him and asked what, if any, help they needed.
He believes that local authorities who immediately dispatch child protection social workers “lack foresight”, arguing they should send their leaving care social workers. Under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, leaving care social workers are expected to visit care leavers just once a month. By comparison, child protection social workers are required to visit children on their caseloads every two weeks.
Hoyle says: “The child protection social workers are there to work for the good of the unborn or newborn baby. But this is not necessary if leaving care social workers are doing their jobs properly and supporting the babies’ parents. Given the right amount of time and proper caseloads, this can be provided.”
Jim Goddard, secretary of the Care Leavers’ Association, says young care leavers who are parents want social workers to be available only when they need them.
“Continuity for young people leaving care is important and in their pathway plans it needs to be a priority,” he says. “The only reason many of these young people need social workers’ support is because they are teenage parents, not because they are care leavers.”
This article appeared in the 29 November issue under the headline “Just give us some space”