Will efforts to help young people stay in foster care post 18 work?

A national scheme to give children the opportunity to remain in care past the age of 18 is producing some promising results, but, asGordon Carson reports, its future is far from assured

A national scheme to give children the opportunity to remain in care past the age of 18 is producing some promising results, but, asGordon Carson reports, its future is far from assured
(picture: Gregory Davidson with his foster carers Charlie and Jan Ayling. See case study)

After several years pondering my future, as well as a couple of false starts, I eventually left home for good aged 25. Most of my peers were the same – secure in the knowledge that we could always return if things did not turn out as planned.

Children in foster care or residential children’s homes are not so fortunate when making the transition from childhood to adult life. Many experts have pinpointed this as one of the key problems facing care leavers. The consequences of forcing a young adult to leave home and live independently when they are not ready can be expensive with many ending up in the criminal justice system or addicted to alcohol or drugs.

To counter these issues the Labour government set up the Staying Put pilot to assess the benefits of allowing children to stay in care and with foster carers past the age of 18. The £4.5m pilot scheme, which started in July 2008, and runs until March 2011, and enables young people in 11 areas of England to stay with their foster families until they turn 21. The pilot councils have used the funding to recruit project-specific workers, provide training and advice to young people and pay carers.

An interim evaluation by Loughborough University’s Centre for Child and Family Research, published last month, highlighted the models that have been developed by the pilot authorities and also some of the issues that have so far caused problems including benefit entitlements and taxation for carers.

The final report, due to be published next year, will provide more analysis of the outcomes for young people in Staying Put compared with those who chose not to stay with their carers beyond 18, plus the cost of the pilot compared with standard provision.

However, the interim report records that most managers in the pilots feel the scheme is beneficial to the lives of care leavers.

In some areas it has helped to formalise arrangements that already existed between carers and children, with the added benefit of funding and support structures, and the extended attachment has varied from weeks to years depending on those involved.

In York, 10 young people are being supported by the city council’s Staying Put scheme which has adopted the “pure familial” model, where young people remain with their existing foster carers.

David Purcell, the council’s Staying Put development officer, says young people involved in the pilot are expected to be in education, training or employment and the carers provide the emotional and practical support to enable this.

North Tyneside Council identified 34 young people who could benefit from its Staying Put pilot. Half chose to leave foster care before their 18th birthday but the other 17 remained in their placements. Of these, eight continue to live with their carers full-time while two have left to attend university.

Paula Gibbons, manager of North Tyneside’s fostering service, says the greatest benefit for young people has been “the chance to make their choices when they are ready to make them, not determined by their birth date or finance”.

“Young people in general stay at home a lot longer so why shouldn’t children in care?” says Barbara Doh-Nani, manager of the 16-plus team at Merton Council, another of the pilot authorities.

Merton has allowed young people in its pilot to choose whether they stay with existing carers or go into supported housing or lodgings. Doh-Nani says the Staying Put pilot has raised the profile within the council of the need for an extended transition for young people in care, and brought in extra support from other agencies, including child and adolescent mental health services.

Both North Tyneside and Merton want to continue with the scheme after next year.

“You can’t put a price on anybody’s life so if it’s in young people’s best interests we have to find a way,” says Doh-Nani.

However, the concern is that such worthy ambitions may be sacrificed under cuts. While the government has promised to support the pilots until their conclusion, and children’s minister Tim Loughton is known to be an advocate of the scheme, there are no long term guarantees.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it would use the interim evaluation to “share best practice from the pilot authorities across the country” and the government wanted “a flexible approach to the age children leave their care placements”.

But such an approach requires money – carers need to be paid, support services need to be provided and there are question marks over whether this is affordable.

“It’s a simple idea, it really works and the outcomes for young people are immense,” Purcell agrees. “But it needs government support to fund it.”

More information on the interim evaluation: 

Case study: ‘There’s more trust in me now’ – Gregory’s story

Gregory Davidson says taking part in Staying Put has made him feel more secure. “Fewer things can go wrong, and if they do there’s always someone there to go to,” adds the 18-year-old, who has been in care since he was two and has lived with the same foster family in Merton, London, for 15 years.

The scheme has given him the breathing space required to plan his future. He wants to join the fire brigade but needs a driving licence, so he needs to get a job to pay for driving lessons. Staying with his existing carers relieves some of the pressure.

“If I was moved on it would be hard for me,” he says. “If the Staying Put pilot wasn’t in place I would have left as soon as I turned 18.”

Gregory also says his relationship with his carers has improved because there are fewer restrictions on his movements. “I was a bit rebellious so I didn’t see eye to eye with them all the time,” he says. “But now I’m 18 there seems to be more trust in me.”

He’s aware that others are not so fortunate, though, and tells of another boy who was ordered to leave home by his carer when he turned 18 because payments stopped. “That will send someone down the wrong path,” he says.

Case study: ‘You’ve got to show willing’ – ‘Paul’s story

aul is 18 and has been in foster care in York for five years. In discussions with his pathway worker he decided he was not ready to live independently, and felt Staying Put would offer him more time to mature. He says he likes to know there is someone at home to talk to and offer support.

He now has a full-time job but also tried various part-time jobs, which he would not have been able to do if he lived independently. Staying Put has also enabled him to continue with his hobbies and social activities, and he has improved his cooking and budgeting skills.

Paul is now considering moving into a flat with a friend. “Staying Put isn’t about staying in bed and learning nothing. You’ve got to show some kind of commitment to wanting to learn or train or get a job.”

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