Mark Winterburn is a researcher at the Centre for Social Justice and author of Finding Their Feet: equipping care leavers to reach their potential.
Government has few duties more important than those towards children in care. By taking a child into care, the state is making the greatest claim of all: that it can be a better parent to them than their mother or father could.
But outcomes for those raised in the care system remain poor. A quarter of our prison population has been in care. At least 38 per cent of young care leavers are not in education, employment or training. And, as our FOI responses reveal, not only do 22 per cent of female care leavers become teenage parents, but hundreds of their children are subsequently taken into care every year.
Whilst young people who have been taken into care often face enormous challenges, these outcomes are not inevitable. As our new report, Finding their Feet, reveals today, our care system is not setting up children with the bright futures they deserve. Too often children going into care face ongoing instability. 71 per cent are separated from their siblings. Over 7500 (about 11 per cent) have more than three placements in a year.
And many go missing – some, as our report shows, for worrying long periods: last year there were 250 cases of highly vulnerable young people missing for more than a month. After the scandals and cover-ups in Rotherham in which 1400 children were sexually exploited by organised gangs of men over many years, these figures are a wake-up call to government at all levels.
This Government has taken some crucial steps to improve stability for children in care, reforming the adoption system and allowing care leavers to stay with their foster parents until they are 21, rather than having to leave at 18. This gives older children in care the chance to better learn life skills and remain supported by their carers as they embark on adult life. But this initiative, important though it is, will not help some of the most vulnerable children in care whose foster placements have broken down or who are in residential children’s homes.
These young people must rely on a troubled system where a local authority employee known as a ‘personal adviser’ steps in as a mentor, sometimes just before the young person leaves care on their 16th birthday.
We heard from care leavers who had never been appointed a personal adviser, or who had not seen them in years. Others find that these unqualified employees blend into the stream of professionals who come in and out of their lives. One care leaver we spoke to had so many personal advisers that they had started calling them all ‘Sally’.
Local authorities must build networks of support around all young people before they leave care. The CSJ has seen how practitioners in the USA do just that. In a model known as ‘Family finding and Engagement’, professionals work to identify at least 40 adults that have a connection to the young person – including teachers, youth workers, and former carers. Of these, there are almost always some reliable individuals able to make unconditional commitments, becoming someone a young person can turn to for help and support. The practice is now being introduced in Canada and Australia: the UK needs to catch up.
Next, we have to tackle the endemic level of unemployment among those who have left care. Due to Government funding, the small minority of care leavers who go on to higher education now receive excellent support, including a bursary of at least £2,000. But others are automatically enrolled on the benefits system before they leave care, sometimes with little expectation that they will do any better.
Most concerning is the situation regarding apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are an excellent route into employment for young people not going to university, and employment is an essential means of providing care leavers with the stability they need. But although apprentices can earn as little as £3 an hour, our research shows that only a third of local authorities are providing specific additional financial support to help care leavers take on an apprenticeship. Without this support, care leavers struggle to exist on such a sum of money and we have heard how very few take them up. We are calling for the Department for Education to provide the first £2,000 of an apprenticeship bursary for care leavers, giving them the same level of support as those who take up university places.
While some local authorities do champion the welfare of those leaving care, there is not enough transparency on where the successes and failures are. To solve this, we are proposing that the Government builds on the success of adoption scorecards, and introduces ‘corporate parenting scorecards’. These would see local authorities ranked on a number of measures, including how many care leavers become teenage parents, how many experience long-term unemployment (of six months or more), and a number of subjective measures such as loneliness. Councils will be better able to drive improvement and poor performers will have nowhere to hide.
There are few parts of British life where the cycle of disadvantage is more evident than in the care system. As the CSJ has shown, of all those care leavers aged between 16 and 21 who have had a child, 1 in 10 has had that child taken into care in the past year. By doing more to help these young people get work, build relationships and find stable accommodation, we can do even more to prevent the problems of this generation being passed on to the next.