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.