‘We must do more to support the mental health and wellbeing of care leavers’

More needs to be done for children leaving care who are at risk of mental health problems and homelessness, writes Louise Bazalgette

Photo: Newscast Online/Time To Change

by Louise Bazalgette, development manager, children in care, NSPCC

We know from research that approximately half of children in care have clinical-level mental health problems; a rate that is four to five times higher than in children in the general population.

This presents challenges for carers and professionals – to ensure that they provide the consistent support and services children and young people need to overcome these difficulties.

However, it is arguably an even greater challenge to address the mental health needs of care leavers, who often become ineligible for support from statutory services just at the time they need it most.

Care leavers face complex psychological challenges. While most young people make a gradual transition to independence, supported by their family, care leavers often experience multiple, overlapping changes in their living circumstances all at once.

Isolated and alone

At a time when they are first becoming responsible for their own finances and accommodation, they also often experience a rapid withdrawal of social support due to care placements and support services ending at 18.

After leaving care, many of these young people find themselves socially isolated and alone, particularly if the housing offered is far away from their previous support networks and family connections.

It’s hardly surprising, in this context, that research published in 2006 demonstrated worsening mental health in about two fifths of care leavers in the first 12-15 months after they left care.

In an attempt to remedy this, recent government policy has tried to make Staying Put arrangements more universally available. However, there is a risk that those leaving care who most need these arrangements may be least able to make use of them.

Success and failure of Staying Put

An evaluation of a pilot of Staying Put, which supports young people to stay in foster care until 21, found those who had not developed strong relationships with their carers – often because they had experienced more prior instability and had less time to develop these bonds – were less likely to take up a Staying Put placement.

Also, young people in residential care – who are more likely to have emotional and behavioural problems and to have experienced multiple placement moves – are currently ineligible for Staying Put.

A recent report, published by a coalition of children’s charities and Loughborough University, has set out some suggestions of how Staying Put arrangements could work for young people whose last care placement was in residential care.

In 2014, only 5% of care leavers were still living with their previous foster carers; the rest were in semi-independent accommodation, supported lodgings or living independently. Clearly, Staying Put will not provide an answer for everyone.

We must start to look for a greater range of supporting housing options so we’re reaching the care leavers in need of support. Doing so, and providing a stable base for care leavers, is critical to improving their emotional wellbeing.

Alternative options

Alternative accommodation options should be available to take account of care leavers’ varying circumstances. We need to consider how to support young people approaching 18 who are unable to stay with their carers, but are not yet ready for the responsibility of maintaining their own tenancy or considered at risk due to more complex needs.

This might include clusters of flats with access to 24/7 onsite support, while young people with lower support needs might require regular visits from a support worker to provide emotional support and help to tackle any arising issues.

We can already see examples of how this might work; Young Futures has developed a range of housing services for care leavers that include tailored packages of support and access to drama therapy.

Flexible approaches

Another innovative model is North Yorkshire’s No Wrong Door service, which seeks to provide continuity in key working relationships for young people who are moving toward independence.

These flexible and tailored approaches to supporting care leavers, as well as recognising the critical importance of maintaining relationships and emotional support, need to be made more widely available.

Such innovative solutions may require greater upfront investment by local authorities. But unless greater flexibility can support vulnerable care leavers to make a successful transition to independence, these young people will continue to be at risk of a range of poor outcomes, including social isolation, poor mental health and homelessness.

This piece is based on chapter three from the NSPCC’s book, ‘Promoting the wellbeing of children in care’, launched last month.

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