Can councils still afford to house care leavers?

Legislation to improve the lot of children leaving care needs to be backed by money, finds Joe Lepper

 Care leavers without a permananent address can find themselves sofa-surfing at friends’ homes and leading unstable lives

Legislation to improve the lot of children leaving care needs to be backed by money, finds Joe Lepper

The Southwark judgement of May 2009 sent shockwaves across children’s services as all councils faced up to their duty to provide homeless 16 and 17 year olds with accommodation and support.

Councils argued that extra funding needed to be made available to meet the extra demand with the Local Government Association (LGA) putting the extra annual cost at £160m.

“But councils have still not received any additional money to pay for this,” says Colin Green chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Service’s families, communities, young people policy committee, adding, “they have had to find it from their own budgets at a time of recession.”

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which reached the House of Lords last month, is set to put further pressure on increasingly tight leaving care budgets.

The bill proposes to give looked-after status to children on remand. Those on remand for more than three months will also be entitled to leaving care support. The Ministry of Justice has confirmed it will provide councils with additional funding but how much each council will get, how it will be provided and for how long are still details under negotiation.

Councils are now looking at their local young people on remand population to estimate the extra resources needed.

Dean Woodward, assistant director of targeted youth, children and young people’s services at the London Borough of Lambeth says that about 50 young people from the borough are placed on remand each year. Of these 15 to 20 are likely to be eligible for leaving care support.

“The cost of a placement for example could be £2,000 a week,” he says, “or it could be cheaper through foster care. We do know that 15 to 20 more looked-after children are effectively an extra caseload that would require an extra social worker.”

He backs the principle of giving those on remand looked-after children status, because it focuses support on their welfare needs. But he fears that any extra funding from the government will simply not be enough.

“The problem is this government does not understand the cost of things. I think it believes volunteers are going to come in and do it for free,” he says

Woodward is worried that early intervention budgets and long-term support for care leavers could be sacrificed to make ends meet “creating a terrible cycle where you are taking money from the very place which will lead to a decrease in remand”.

David Graham, national director of the Care Leavers Association estimates that a third of councils are already taking innovative measures to ensure the quality of service to care leavers does not dip, a third are more complacent and a final third are offering a poor quality of service.

Some of the more positive examples include a co-operative across north-west England with 22 councils looking to cut costs by jointly tendering for a care leaver and young homeless support service.

Elsewhere, Devon’s Staying Put initiative offers foster care placements to care leavers (see box) and Wandsworth has a dedicated team supporting care leavers.

Amy Norris, a social worker in Wandsworth and a spokeswoman for the College of Social Work, says having a dedicated team means the level of support is unaffected if there is a sudden rise in child protection cases.

“If the service is not separate there is a danger that social workers will be diverted away and have to focus on those in crisis first to the detriment of leaving care services,” she says.

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, confirms this is already happening in some areas.

“It is shocking to hear from care leavers that they are not getting enough visits from their social worker,” she says.

Care Leavers Foundation trustee Janet Rich also wants more councils to take Devon and Wandsworth’s approach. “Too often children are just left to become ­independent without support at 16 and without adequate money,” she says.

Leaving care grants, to help care leavers furnish their first home, are key to giving them a good start as independent adults, she adds.

The Foundation estimates between £2,500 and £3,000 is needed but grants can be as little as a few hundred pounds. “This leaves them with some tough choices such as whether to buy carpets or a cooker,” says Rich. This is especially hard on care leavers because they also have to deal with “the absence of unconditional love in their lives,” Rich says.

“It’s hard for a corporate parent to create that, but they should not be kicking them out at 16. They need to ensure whatever resources they have are used to encourage them to stay and provide the support they so desperately need.”

Helping young people stay put

Devon Council’s Staying Put scheme has helped meet the surge in demand for its leaving care services following the Southwark judgement.

Launched three years ago the scheme offers foster care and assisted lodging placements to encourage care leavers to remain in care beyond 18.

Hosts receive on average £175 a week and care leavers make a weekly contribution of around £20 towards heating, lighting and food costs.

The council’s children’s services lead member, Andrea Davis, explains that the council’s 16- to 17-year-old looked-after children population doubled to 200 following the Southwark judgement.

There are currently 60 young people using the staying put scheme, “and most are in education, work or training,” she adds.

The total cost of the initiative is £550,000 a year, which is largely offset from housing benefit contributions from the county’s district councils, which are responsible for housing.

Davis admits that the council’s leaving care grant is just £1,000 but says Staying Put has been unaffected by £14m worth of cuts across children’s services this year.

Southwark judgement

● The Southwark Judgement, made by the House of Lords in May 2009, ruled that all children’s services have a legal duty to provide accommodation and support to homeless 16- and 17-year-olds under the Children Act 1989.

● It brought to an end the case of a homeless 17-year-old, known as G, who took legal action against the London Borough of Southwark over the quality of support he was offered.

● Previously children’s services had argued not all 16- 17-year-olds were entitled to leaving care support.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill

● Introduced into parliament in June 2011, the bill will give councils responsibility for young people on remand by giving them looked-after status.

● Those on remand for 13 weeks or more will be entitled to leaving care support, including accommodation.

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