Young people are allowed to remain in foster care until 21, but those in homes are often forced to leave before they are ready.
Until she was 18, Laura* lived in a residential children’s home with a counsellor on hand to provide emotional and behavioural support. “I was a total pain to the staff, but they didn’t give up,” she says. “My therapist kept on trying to help me no matter what I said. It was starting to sink in: I was even in full time school.”
But she says the abrupt withdrawal of this support destroyed her. “When I left it fell apart. I think I went nuts. I couldn’t look after myself. I didn’t want to look after myself.”
In the UK, young people in care homes are forced to leave when they turn 18, whether they are ready or not. This is despite the fact that since 2014, children in foster care have been allowed to ‘stay put’ until they reach 21.
If Jeremy Corbyn had won the election in June, Labour would have extended the right to ‘stay put’ to 18 year olds who want to remain in children’s homes for an extra three years. But as it stands children’s social care has been buried by the Tories, amid political turmoil; Theresa May’s two-year agenda, outlined in the queen’s speech, signals no changes – despite the fact that local services are reaching crisis point.
Young people in residential care are among the most vulnerable in society. Many have suffered incredible trauma and abuse. Often, they are in homes because foster carers have been unable to cope with their complex needs. The Children’s Commissioner recently referred to them as ‘pinball kids’ because of the number of placements many have had.
Care leavers are more vulnerable to offending behavior and are disproportionally represented in the prison population, in the mental health system and within homelessness statistics. People who have grown up in care are far more likely to die in early adulthood.
In many cases, leaving care leads to loneliness and isolation. This is exacerbated by inappropriate housing, poor support, poor social and emotional development and poor practical skills.
At 17, Daniel* was told he would have to leave the children’s home he had lived in for six years. His family were incapable of providing him with support and he had few friends outside of care. “I was worried about the loneliness; I was used to staff around me 24/7,” he says.
Daniel refused to move into his new flat. Instead, he went to stay on the sofa of another care leaver. He dropped out of college and spent his savings on drugs and alcohol. Prior to leaving the children’s home, he had not got drunk or high for more than two years. “I’d have given anything to stay” he says.
For young people to succeed when leaving care, they need longer to prepare and more support. At the moment, children’s homes are having to focus on independent living skills in preparation for a stark transition out of care, when the focus should still be on achieving emotional and behavioural stability.
We need policies that work; policies that give young people options. The right to ‘stay put’ is part of the solution.
Daniel has settled down and is doing a lot better now. But Laura is still struggling.
“I’ve got more problems than most people, sometimes I can’t even think straight, yet I felt I was left to it at 18,” she says. “I was not this perfect kid in care but I feel like I am much worse now. I was on track… I felt like I could have got better quicker if I could have stayed longer.”
*names have been changed
Stephanie Gee is an independent social worker.
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