Foster carers fight on to raise age of leaving care to 21

There will be a dark cloud hanging over the 18th birthday celebrations of Juliette Cleverdon’s daughter next month. With four sisters in attendance, the party should be a lively affair. But rather than looking to the future with eager anticipation, Cleverdon and her daughter will be approaching this milestone with trepidation.

Cleverdon is a foster parent and the funding she receives for the care of her foster daughter (who has a functional age of just five years old) will halt abruptly when she turns 18. “She is absolutely distraught,” says Cleverdon. “She’s saying to me ‘mummy, do I have to leave home now?’ and I don’t know what to say.”

Cleverdon has been a foster parent for more than 25 years. She currently looks after five “difficult to place” young people aged 10, 14, 16, 17 and 21, all of whom have complex and often expensive needs. She feels let down by the system.

“I am absolutely livid,” Cleverdon says. “We have always believed that our children would be funded right the way through their education and I have pieces of paper saying that would be the case. But it just hasn’t happened.

Difficult choice ahead

“Between zero and about 16 the support is very good. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with the care teams we deal with but you can’t really fault them. But as soon as you hit 18 everything stops.”

This leaves Cleverdon and her husband with a stark choice: either continue to support their former foster children out of their own pocket or abandon them to an insecure future of bedsits and supported housing.

p18 and 19 Feb 21 issue“The council says it has supported lodgings,” says Cleverdon. “But that’s going to cost them hundreds of pounds a week. All I want is a bit of financial support to help buy clothes and food. It all seems so stupid.”

Cleverdon is also aware of what can befall young people who leave care unsupported and unprepared for the outside world. Two years ago one of her former foster children, a “wild boy” who had left home and “gone back into the system” suffered a fatal heroin overdose. “I don’t ever want to have to go through that again,” she says.

Yet the cost of looking after young people in her care will not suddenly disappear on their 18th birthdays, and Cleverdon cannot afford to support them indefinitely. “They are my girls and I am so proud of them all. It would break my heart to have to turf them out. But we are not a bottomless pit.”

Cleverdon’s situation is far from unique. About 3,000 looked-after young people move out of foster care each year. While young people in the general population generally leave home at about 24 and may return intermittently, foster children are often expected to leave at 17 or younger.

Many of these young people have already had severely disrupted lives. Their emotional and educational development may have been delayed and they may lack a stable support network. They are almost uniquely unsuited to independent living. Yet that is what the system expects of them at a much younger age than is expected of their peers.

Let down

Under current legislation, fostering services are not legally required to provide for placements beyond the age of 16. That should change with implementation of the Children and Young Persons Bill, currently passing through the Lords, which proposes raising the cut-off age to 18.

However, many foster carers feel that this is still not enough. And they have good reason to feel let down. Last year, the government’s Care Matters green paper on looked-after children promised to “provide young people with the opportunity to benefit from staying with foster carers – or in residential care – until age 21”.

But this cut off age was then scaled down to 18 when the bill was published in November. The government then stumped up £6m to fund 11 pilot projects to give young people a greater say over whether they stay in care until they are 18, or move out into independent flats or hostels.

A further £1.5m has now also been pledged to fund several more pilots to be launched later this year to investigate ways to enable young people to remain with foster carers up to the age of 21.

According to schools minister Lord Adonis, the intention of these pilots is to “create an environment where young people can move on at a time of their choosing with the right support”.

“We hope that these pilots will give us a better understanding of the possible practical and financial barriers, including such issues as the tax status of carers and how, if young people are remaining longer with former foster carers, local authorities manage to develop new fostering capacity to offer placements to younger children entering care,” Adonis says.

But Robert Tapsfield (pictured), chief executive of the Fostering Network, is unimpressed, insisting it is “not legitimate to pilot things that are already known”.

Tapsfield’s main concern is that the pilots could delay progress, with those local authorities not involved in the projects leaving their own funding policies unchanged until the pilots are finished.

“A lot of local authorities already make arrangements to support those leaving foster care,” he says. “But every one [of these schemes] is different and the young person is reliant on what is provided by the individual authority.

Lobbying government

“Rather than launching all these pilots, it would be much better to do an in-depth look at what is happening already to see what works well and what doesn’t. We don’t need pilots.”

Tapsfield is also angry that, having seemingly won the argument over raising the leaving age to 21, foster carers are once again having to lobby government to put their own conclusions into action.

“During the Care Matters process, ministers placed great emphasis on the importance of young people being able to stay in care until they were 21 if they wanted to,” he says. “It was therefore very disappointing to see that was not carried forward in a more positive way when the bill came out. I suspect that the reasons for not proceeding were purely financial.”

There is no denying that there will be cash concerns about allowing fostered children to remain longer with their carers, not least because it will increase the pressure on councils to expand their stable of available foster carers. However, Tapsfield believes that these extra costs can easily be absorbed and, ultimately, will be worth paying.

“I don’t deny that the financial concerns are real and I understand the challenge faced by local authorities,” he says. “But there are also financial implications when young people leave care too soon. We know that care leavers are over represented among mental health service users and the prison population, and are more likely to depend on benefits. We believe strongly – and there is evidence to suggest this – that by allowing young people to stay in care longer they will have better outcomes in the future.”

It is still possible for the Children and Young Persons Bill to be amended to allow young people to stay in foster care until they are 21. MPs are due to get their first chance to debate the bill next month, and the Fostering Network is planning a day of action to coincide and will be organising a lobby of parliament. Community Care will be supporting their efforts.

Do you think pilots are needed or that funding should continue after 18?

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