by Linda Briheim-Crookall
Sometimes it is the things that do not happen that tell as much of a story as the things that do. In a report released last week, Coram Voice found that, during the Covid pandemic, care leavers’ wellbeing did not decline as might have been expected and, in some areas, improved slightly.
While there is no single explanation for this, our work with care leavers suggests that the additional support made available at this time made a difference to young people’s lives.
This is a follow up to our ‘What Makes Life Good?’ report published in 2020, which analysed 1,800 care leavers’ views on their wellbeing, collected between 2017 and 2019 through our ‘Your Life Beyond Care’ survey. The survey was developed with care leavers as part of our ‘Bright Spots’ programme to capture what they felt made their lives good. It explored how young people felt about their relationships, where they lived, their finances, feelings and much more.
In our new report, we compare previous findings to responses from just under 2,500 care leavers who responded to the survey in the first year of the pandemic (2020-2021).
Our pre-pandemic analysis showed that care leavers did worse than young people in the general population on a range of measures. Care leavers were more likely to experience high anxiety, low life satisfaction loneliness and financial difficulties and were less likely to have friends and trusted supportive people in their lives.
In 2020-21, these higher levels of low wellbeing persisted but did not appear worsened by the pandemic. Levels of stress, anxiety, loneliness and life satisfaction all remained stable, and we saw a slight improvement in the proportion reporting that they were coping financially and had digital access.
Our own work and research from the University of Bedfordshire have shown that many local authorities put in place additional support for care leavers during this period. There were also national initiatives that supported care leavers financially and practically, including the uplift to universal credit and free laptops and internet access. There was national guidance that emphasised the importance of focusing on wellbeing and reports of more frequent contact with young people to check in and ensure they were all right.
While our research focused on how young people feel, not on the services that work with them, our findings could indicate that this increased focus on care leavers’ wellbeing may have prevented it from declining wellbeing and accounted for some of the slight improvements we saw. Care leavers’ own hard-won personal resilience may also explain the improvements.
One care leaver told us:
The support given to me recently from social services has been phenomenal, as due to Covid I lost my job and have been struggling to pay my bills ever since… I have little to no work and can’t claim universal credit, so without the help of social services I really don’t know what I would do.”
Critical support from personal advisers
As in our previous report, one of the positive findings from our work is the proportion of care leavers who report a positive relationship with their leaving care personal advisers (PAs). Four out of five young people trusted their workers all or most of the time. Our pre-pandemic analysis showed that care leavers were more likely to have had the same worker and report that they trusted their worker than children in care. During the pandemic, half of the care leavers surveyed reported that their PA provided them with emotional support.
“He has been really supportive throughout the Covid situation and was actually the first professional I saw face to face when I really needed support, which I was really grateful for,” one care leaver said.
This report shows that challenging times do not inevitably lead to a decline in wellbeing for care leavers. Investment in support can start to chip away at the gap between care leavers and their peers. It is now important that the gains made during the pandemic are not lost.
While the pandemic has highlighted the strengths of local authorities and practitioners in responding to the needs of care leavers in challenging times, the report also shows that there is still more to be done to improve wellbeing. We highlight, for instance, the need to continue to build services that foster the stability of leaving care workers and give them the time and support needed to develop trusting relationships with all the young people they support.
With the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care reporting this spring, there is an opportunity for the government to think about how they invest in care leavers. Our report suggests that helping care leavers to avoid financial and digital poverty as well as ensuring their leaving care workers provide regular emotional support should all be part of a systematic drive to make care leavers’ lives better.
Put another way, we need a society where the state steps up to be the best parent it can be, giving children in care and care leavers the same opportunities as other young people by supporting them emotionally, practically and financially.
Linda Briheim-Crookall is head of policy and practice at Coram Voice