The government has announced a new legal duty that will ensure young people can remain with their foster care families until they turn 21.
The Who Cares? Trust, which has long campaigned for the legal change, called it “the most significant reform for children in care in a generation”.
As of April 2014, local authorities will be legally obliged to support every young person who wants to stay in foster care until their 21st birthday. The government will give councils £40m funding over the next three years to put the support arrangements in place. The new legal duty will be added to the Children and Families Bill, which is currently going through Parliament.
Prior to the announcement, young people were only supported to live with foster families until their 18th birthday. Campaigners argued, however, that looked-after children should be afforded the same treatment as their peers – many of whom continue to live at home well into their 20s – rather than face being forced to leave care at 18.
Children’s minister Edward Timpson acknowledged it’s challenging for foster families that do look after young people until 21 to do so without financial support. “Now all councils will have to follow their example, and we are giving them £40m towards the cost,” he said.
“This will allow the 10,000 young people leaving stable and secure homes to make the transition from care to independence when they are ready, rather than when their council tells them to,” Timpson said.
Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network, which has also spent years campaigning for the legal change, said the charity is “absolutely thrilled”. It will now campaign for the duty to be introduced in Wales and Scotland as well.
“This change in the law will make a massive difference to the lives of this and future generations of care leavers in England,” Tapsfield said.
Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of The Who Cares? Trust, said the new duty was “absolutely fantastic news”. “Time and again we hear from young people who are extremely anxious about having to leave their carers when they turn 18 and effectively no longer having somewhere they can call home, especially when the average age for young people who aren’t in care to finally leave home is 24-27.”
But she added: “We mustn’t forget that the 9% of young people in care who live in children’s homes – many of whom leave when they are 16 or 17 – need and deserve the same level of support. We hope the government will start to look towards ways of achieving this.”
Cllr David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, agreed the move could help care leavers’ prospects, but warned the funding must come from the government and not local authorities.
“We need to ensure that the money needed does not come out of already hard-pressed council budgets, but is fully funded by central government,” Simmonds said.
The Local Government Association has previously warned against a “one-size-fits-all approach to keeping young people in foster care for longer”, arguing it could exacerbate the pressures on cash-strapped local authorities.
The move is part of the government’s wider package of support for care leavers, he said, including changes to enable 16 and 17-year-olds to remain in care until they are ready to leave and greater financial support for those leaving care at 18.