by Dr Claire Baker
Official government statistics on care leavers tend to focus on areas such as education, employment and accommodation but do we actually know how young people leaving care feel about their lives? Are they happy and safe? Do they feel positive about the future? Do they feel they have been prepared and supported to move successfully into adulthood?
Objective measures of wellbeing are important but they only tell us half the story. Understanding the deeply personal human experience at the centre of a young person’s journey through the care system and beyond is essential if we are to provide high-quality services that respond to their needs and aspirations.
To get a sense of how care leavers are feeling beyond the statistics, the Bright Spots Programme, a partnership between Coram Voice and Professor Julie Selwyn, carried out the first survey of its kind measuring the subjective wellbeing of care leavers aged 16-25: Your Life Beyond Care.
The study has developed a new set of care leaver wellbeing indicators around what young people say is important to them: feeling settled, having trusted relationships and good worker support are all included along with others things that do not always feature in service design such as access to the internet, having fun and a really good friend as well as knowing there is someone who believes in you.
In 2017-2018 we worked with young people to create the survey and piloted the work, in doing so we heard from over 400 care leavers from six different local authorities across England. Many of the young people we surveyed wrote about the relationships they had with the people who mattered to them and, reassuringly, 85% of care leavers said they had a really good friend and 92% reported that they had someone who listened to them.
Many care leavers also reported positive relationships with their leaving care worker, with 96% telling us that they could easily get in touch with them [all of the time or sometimes], and 96% reporting that they trusted their worker [all of the time or sometimes].
However, despite having some positive relationships in their lives, many care leavers shared that they felt lonely. We already know that loneliness is increasingly a problem for young people but our report shows that care leavers can be particularly vulnerable, with one in five saying they feel lonely all or most of the time compared to 1 in 10 young people in the general population.
One young person said: “It’s mostly an alone feeling like I can’t go anywhere or do anything because of the way I look and having nobody.”
Struggling financially can sometimes be a contributing factor to these feelings of isolation, with 19% of care leavers reporting that they found it difficult to cope financially (compared to only 7% of their peers in the general population ) and many commented that a lack of money stopped them from having fun and was a hindrance to being able to go out with friends.
A lack of access to technology can also exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation, with 20% of care leavers not having access to internet at home (compared to 9% of young people in the general population).
Likewise, not living in a place where they feel settled or having the chance to live close to friends and family, can contribute to care leavers lacking a sense of belonging and security. Only 50% of care leavers in our survey always felt settled where they lived, a marked drop from the 77% of 11-18-year olds we surveyed who are still in care and who reported feeling settled.
The government collects data on suitability of accommodation for care leavers, recognising the importance of a safe and settled home. Yet, how care leavers feel about where they live does not seem to tally with these official figures.
A third of care leavers do not feel their accommodation is right for them, yet official government statistics suggest 84% are in suitable accommodation.
When what we are hearing from young care leavers doesn’t always match the objective metrics it is clear that we need to continue to work hard to see the world from their perspective. Local authorities need to understand the subtleties of care leavers’ experiences to glean greater insights into their subjective realities.
The only way to achieve this is to ask care leavers themselves; the Bright Spots programme can help local authorities to systematically look at how their care leavers are doing and whether the services they provide match what their care leavers want and need in order to have a good life.
The Your Life Beyond Care survey is one of the few ways that care leavers can give honest feedback on their experiences, share how they feel their lives are going and what could, from their perspective, be improved in the system. This is absolutely crucial to working out how we, as adults and as corporate parents, can meet the deeper needs of care leavers, so as to provide them with the best possible foundation for moving into adult life and ensure they are given the opportunity to achieve their goals.
Dr Claire Baker is Head of the Bright Spots Programme at Coram Voice, she specialises in research focused on the experiences and outcomes for young people in and leaving care. The survey is currently live.