‘When a young person leaves care, we forget the trauma that brought them there’

Chloe Cockett explains some of the problems facing care leavers as they move on from the care system, and what can be done to improve their circumstances

Photo: Lordn/Fotolia

by Chloë Cockett

The BBC published an article recently suggesting that care leavers are more likely to die in early adulthood than young people who aren’t care experienced.

The article highlighted something that must be addressed, but I wanted to put some context around the issues raised so that the information within the piece can help us to create better futures for care experienced young people.

Behind the headlines, I believe that young people in care, and young care leavers, face three major obstacles when it comes to a positive adulthood: a lack of support and the loneliness that goes with it; poor relationships with workers, carers, and their peers; and a lack of support overcoming pre-care trauma that they may have faced.

A history of poor relationships can be hugely damaging to young people who find themselves newly independent and without familial support to turn to. The Care Inquiry said in 2013 said that relationships were the golden thread that should run through care, and it was right. Relationships build us up, they create our support networks, and they ensure that we have someone to turn to as we celebrate our greatest achievements, and to commiserate over our deepest sorrows.


Many young people who leave care are lonely, and that is why organisations such as the Topé Project are invaluable in providing a community for them. However, projects like this are the exception and not the rule. Many care leavers don’t have someone to notice when things aren’t right, they have no one to pick up the phone to, and they lack that individual who will provide them the unconditional support and guidance that is needed to overcome the challenges that they may face.

Too often, by the time that a young person is due to leave care, we have forgotten the trauma and upheaval that brought them in to care in the first place. At best a child was removed from their family by the state and placed in a house, which hopefully became a home, with a family who met their needs. But for some they will live with carers they don’t get to know, and have a succession of workers they’ve never met before.

Either way, all of a sudden it’s ten years down the line and no one except the young person themselves can recall why they went into care, and you find them sitting alone in a flat wondering how best to build their life.

There is a presumption by many who don’t work within the care system that by the time you leave you should be fixed, better, able to go forward, and that everything from now on is on your head, it is your choice, and you’re an adult so you’ll have to deal with it.

Staying Put

When it comes to care leavers it is too often forgotten that there is no right or wrong time to face your problems and overcome them, and that this too can take time. That is why Become supported the introduction of Staying Put, and it is why we are pleased that the Government will be conducting Staying Close pilots – because we believe that some young care leavers need support within a family environment that doesn’t end when they get to 18.

The Care Leaver Covenant is also an opportunity to go some way towards addressing these issues. It is a chance for care leavers to know that wider society is there for them, and that it understands its responsibilities.

We need to not only inspire care leavers, but we need to gain back the trust of care leavers who, time and again, hear that they’re more likely to end up dead or in prison than they are to end up in Downing Street.

Everything in this piece points back to making sure the mental health support provided to children and young people in care, and care leavers, meets their individual needs. A light touch approach may paper over the cracks until a young person has gone beyond the age where they are the responsibility of a local authority – but would that be good enough for your own child? Is it good enough for any child?

As the rate of children coming into care increases year on year, so does the number of young people leaving the care system. The right support currently isn’t in place for care leavers as standard, and I worry that over the coming years we will continue to condemn more and more care leavers to a life less than they deserve – unless the support improves, increases, and is delivered consistently with the care leaver at its heart.

Policy and Research Manager at Become

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6 Responses to ‘When a young person leaves care, we forget the trauma that brought them there’

  1. john February 27, 2017 at 10:27 am #

    An excellent summary of some of the basics we work with. Young people exiting the care system are at huge risk of homelessness as they seek to make their way in life still burdened and isolated by the issues left unresolved. Once homeless they are very vulnerable to poor outcomes but there is very little in the way of a safety net. It is almost like the system pushes them over the edge of a cliff.

  2. Londonboy February 28, 2017 at 10:05 am #

    Thank you Chloe. You captured in your article the sense that professionals move on to the next child in crisis and process kicks in to rescue the next child and move rescued children through the system and out of it in a very mechanistic way.

    There is a lot of focus on how we keep children out of care (because they are very expensive to support and all the evidence is that the Care system is not consistently good at supporting them). This focus is really welcome and essential because the Care ‘net’ seems to be dragging a considerable number of unsupported neuro-disabled children into it, that it was never ‘designed’ for – health checks are rudimentary and training of carers looking after children with complex health conditions often inadequate. Social workers simply are not equipped by training to support these children and decision making around them is often poor and resources badly targeted.

    It is so important that this focus on keeping children out of care dos’ent mean that we fail to recognise and address the life skills deficits, and emotional and support needs of the amazing, vulnerable care experienced children/young people when the reach 18 so thank you again.

  3. Simon February 28, 2017 at 10:10 pm #

    How about councils really taking to heart their role as corporate parents and encouraging individuals in their own ranks to support care leavers? It could help workers to see the human face of the individuals they are all responsible for and foster a more compassionate approach. Not just children and young people’s services staff but across the whole council from cleaning staff to environmental health officers, Social Workers to Business Support Staff.

    • Londonboy March 1, 2017 at 2:10 pm #

      I’ve often thought that all LAs should actively create apprenticeships for Care Leavers. This gets harder as more and more functions are out-sourced as not everyone wants/is suited to a desk job of whatever kind. This could be taken into consideration when awarding say landscaping/building repair contracts or whatever – the contract could include a requirement to run an apprenticeship scheme for locals and interview/take x number of care-leavers.

      LAs should be creatively ‘fighting for’ these kids in the same way as any natural parent would. It is not good enough to say ‘we are required to do x, have done x, you are 18 now so goodbye and goodluck (you’ll need it) ‘

  4. Bryanie February 28, 2017 at 11:37 pm #

    As a care leaver myself i feel you have captured the heart of why so manny care leavers lime myself end up feeling more alone in this world than they ever did in care. More needs to be in place for older care leavers im 24 and at times feel if there was somewair i could talk to people feeling like me in the same posisihon id be alot happyer

  5. CareLeaver/Studentsocialworker March 1, 2017 at 8:39 am #

    This is a fantastic article bringing to light an issue that is far to often overlooked. Why are care leavers so often ore-judged to be failures or not capable of succeeding at the same pace as their peers? As a young person when I was surrounded by social workers who pitied me and reinforced my beliefs that I would never amount to anything… I proved them right by going completely of the rails! Then when I had a leaving care worker who focused on building me up and empowering me (as all social workers should) I recognised my ability to succeed in the face of adversity and I am now studying for an MA in social work!

    Social workers attitudes made all the difference and we are all aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy so why are social workers still limiting the options of care leavers? Yes it would take more time and resources to ensure every care leaver fulfills their potentials but it would also make sure that more care leavers achieve social mobility and their future families will be less likely to come into contact with social care as a right of passage!

    Everybody suffers with mental health at some point in their lives and they are supported to be healthy again so why when a care leaver has mental health difficulties are they seen as long-term and not capable of achieving positive mental health in their futures…problems need to be tackled head on and social workers need not to avoid discussing mental health and assisting care leavers in developing the skills they need to cope with the adversity they have been exposed to throughout their development to adulthood.

    The sky is our limit until someone puts a concrete roof over us and tells us we will never make it.