‘We spend thousands a month on each child in care, but many are ejected with nothing’

To mark National Care Leavers Week, Mark Kerr shares findings from one of the largest studies into outcomes for care leavers

PhD researcher Mark Kerr

I’ve just completed one of the largest studies to improve our understanding of outcomes for looked-after children, and my findings reinforce the argument that leaving care support is the Achilles heel of the care continuum.

The Outcomes of Care research sampled over 200 care leavers across two cohorts, pre and post the Care Leavers Act (2000), mapping their experiences, a range of psychometrics and in-depth interviews with 30 young adults. One of the main aims was to see if the Care Leavers Act had improved the lives of care leavers.

Encouragingly, and contrary to the belief that care leavers have poor educational outcomes, over 30% had A Levels, a degree, or both. However, most achieved these as mature students. While successive governments have made significant efforts to ‘narrow the gap’ between looked-after children and their peers, the expectation has always been for the gap to narrow at key stages (16 or 19 years old).

But this fails to acknowledge that traumatic childhood experiences produce inevitable developmental delay, educationally and emotionally. We need to look at a much longer timescale to really assess outcomes for those who have been in care.

However, better than expected educational attainment was found in both cohorts, so this cannot be attributed to the Care Leavers Act.

Sadly, this is the main improvement in outcomes found. In some important aspects of the care journey, things are getting worse. The younger group had more placements, social workers and, in line with other evidence, were more likely to have been sexually exploited. A high level of mental health problems was largely due to the trauma experienced in childhood. The level of homelessness experienced by this sample was extremely high, between 24 and 71% depending on the cohort and placement. This is not surprising considering that few received the recommended care leaving grant or support on transition into adulthood.

In many ways the situation is bemusing; we spend thousands of pounds a month on an individual child in care, but many are ejected from the system with nothing. What’s worse – this is acknowledged by the government. Children’s minister Edward Timpson has written to each local authority asking them to provide care leavers with at least £2000 to set up home, but he forgot to attach the cheque…

I sympathize with some local authorities because in many ways they face the perfect storm. Politicians call for more children to be taken into care, but increase the costs to local authorities by pursuing a privatisation agenda, which always increases costs to the customer in the long-term. This is on top of a 40% cut to their funding. The consequence? Rationing of care resources is now a necessity.

We face unprecedented challenges in delivering an effective service for looked-after children and care leavers and no viable solutions have been proffered so far. The call for care leavers to stay in care until 21 is to be welcomed, but those calling for it – mainly charities who stand to gain financially from such a move – fail to outline how this is to be financed. We need to reassess the way we support looked-after children in their journey to independence, but this requires more research, evidence and above all else, money.

Mark Kerr is a PhD researcher and assistant lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent.

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3 Responses to ‘We spend thousands a month on each child in care, but many are ejected with nothing’

  1. Edna October 23, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

    The ‘elephant in the room’ is that public sector pay / pension desires from those in the social services sector competes against the resources that become unavailable for children in / leaving care.

    When resources are limited through taxation and there is no increasing ‘pot’ what right have people in the statutory and senior staff / directors of companies in the private ‘care’ sector to ever increasing wages?

    Businesses do and are usully, as with modern politicians, expected to show greedy and immoral behaviour- that is what the personal power seeking engage with. But what exuse do those who complain of ‘low pay’ in the social services depatrtments and council offices have when the people they are supposed to help become desitute?

    • Loo October 24, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

      I earn £29,000 a year as a frontline child protection social worker, just £4,000 a year less than my friend who works as a receptionist in a private company. I do not feel overpaid in any way shape or form. I have come into social work as a career change after having held lots of other jobs in the public and private sector and it is the worst paid job I have had given the number of hours I have to work, the level of responsibility I carry, and the impact of my work on family life/stress levels. The elephant in the room is not what soclal workers get paid per se, but the loss of resources due to the amount of money paid to agencies who make a packet providing workers who are not willing to become permanent employees because of the low wages and high risks involved!

      • Edna October 28, 2013 at 11:57 am #

        The issue is not whether one feels overpaid or not. Those who seek more pay never feel overpaid, however much they earn.

        £29000 is more than the national average and I can assure you many people do very stressful jobs, on much lower pay- care workers on zero hours are a very good example. They do not even get the level of ongoing training I know for a fact (I know many in the public sector) receive on paid salaries- including social work.

        As to responsibility- it is a well known fact social workers in child protection do not act completely autonomously and are very much ‘shaped’ by management practices in the department. Yes workloads are high, but how these are dealt with is an issue.

        I agree agency staff recruiment is a waste of public funds. But then it is lack of management / business skills in local authority departments which fails to develop ‘bank staff’ to fill posts rather than use agency staff. Bank staff do not have agency costs associated.

        People do take pay cuts to do the jobs they want rather than work for a high wage- these are life choices and quite frankly it sounds as if you regret the choice you made. Unless one is very gifted, skilled, self motovated or exceptionally able one has to accept what one gets in the end.