JimKenThere is a long and proud tradition of specialist organisations that have championed the interests of care leavers, and there have been some improvements in the support arrangements available for them. But they remain an often neglected and highly vulnerable group. CareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy considers whether reports from right-of-centre – and influential – think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, will succeed in pushing care leavers higher up the policy agenda:

Those groups with an interest in care leavers have been enormously energetic in their activities and have seen considerable success in getting successive governments to do more to consider and address the needs of young people who have been in care.

But I think everyone would accept that more remains to be done, and that unless the focus is maintained on the needs of care leavers, they can easily slip to the back of the queue in terms of service priority, or fall into the gaps between agency responsibilities. It’s also arguable that for all the problems care leavers face, they don’t always feature as prominently as they should in the public’s concerns.

So that makes the new report from right-of-centre – and influential – think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), potentially important. Their report, ‘Survival of the Fittest?’, provides an analysis of current problems, partly seen through the eyes of care leavers themselves and points to several areas where improvements are required. A further report is promised that will make more specific recommendations about how to tackle these issues.

The publication of the current report raises a number of questions:
• Will the fact that it comes from an accepted source of influence on the coalition government mean that it has more chance of pushing care leavers higher up the policy agenda?
• Do the areas of concern it identifies accord with the assessments of key priorities made by the more specialist organisations?
• Will the promised ideas for addressing identified problems be palatable to the field?
• And to what extent will the CSJ work on these issues, with other established groups, in the future?

With all of those questions in mind, the CSJ report generally reads like a document with the interests of care leavers at its heart and which opens some new and challenging issues for further discussion – and possible action.

Childhoods punctuated by instability & trauma
In doing so, it doesn’t seem to shy entirely away from concerns that will be uncomfortable for government – although that doesn’t mean that proposed solutions when developed won’t have some stings in their collective tails.

It’s nonetheless surprising to read a report from such a source which, for example, admits that “current labour market conditions, such as unreliable hours due to zero hour contracts and low pay for entry level jobs, mean that most 18–25 year olds rely financially, at least to some extent, on either their parents or the benefit system for support.”
So, briefly what does the report say?

It notes that every year in England almost 10,000 young people leave care, and after childhoods punctuated by instability and trauma they generally leave home earlier and with less support than their peers.

It reminds us that care leavers go on to face extreme difficulties in adulthood with estimates suggesting:
• 20% of young homeless people were previously in care
• 24% of the adult prison population have been in care
• 70% of sex workers have been in care
• Care leavers are roughly twice as likely not to be in education training or employment at 19
• Only 6% of care leavers are in higher education at 19, compared to 30% of young people nationally.

The report points to recent progress in England, with the government’s announcement that care leavers will be able to remain in foster care placements until 21. But it notes that this additional support does not apply to those whose last placement is not in foster care. Here it points to the Scottish government’s recent decision to extend additional support to all care leavers – from whatever type of final placement.

Unacceptably poor outcomes
The report argues that in England the majority of spending and support has been focussed on better-off care leavers, predominantly those with a stable foster care placement and who are able to remain in education. It suggests that care leavers who have not been targets of support – who have had the most unstable time while in care and who do not generally remain in education – are slipping through the cracks and experiencing unacceptably poor outcomes.

The areas where the need for improvement is identified include:
• Finding a way to support the 62% of care leavers who are not able to stay in their care placement past 18
• Ending the presumption that leaving care means entering the benefit system and finding a more flexible and aspirational way for supporting care leavers in their attempts to enter employment
• Moving away from the idea that on-going support is best aimed at those in education and distributing help and on-going support to all care leavers
• Identifying ‘early warning signs’ of care leavers who are most likely to have extreme outcomes and targeting support to help them through the process of leaving care
• Addressing the extreme loneliness and isolation felt by care leavers, by finding ways to foster enduring and supportive relationships, with birth families, siblings, former carers and children’s services, that last long after 21

I guess first among these concerns is the need to focus attention on those struggling, who haven’t had the benefit of foster care, and/or who can’t access education or employment. That’s a laudable intention, but it seems to me to demand additional resources. The wording of the report leaves it far too open that providing more support to those in greatest need might be at the expense of those who are enjoying slightly more success.

And the discussion around the ‘presumption that leaving care means entering the benefit system’ has worrying echoes of other approaches to welfare reform. These tend to target the benefit end of the equation first rather than the end that would produce the more flexible and aspirational way for supporting care leavers in their attempts to enter employment.

So some good and generally sympathetic analysis of the real problems faced by care leavers, and with fresh thinking on some of the softer skills that they may need to be helped to develop. There’s also a welcome, strong plea for more focus on those in greatest need – but a danger of that being at the expense of those who have (often only just) made it onto slightly safer ground.

Further reading: CareKnowledge’s first Knowledge Map includes links to the main organisations, more traditionally concerned with care leavers, including: A National Voice; the Care Leavers’ Association; the National Care Advisory Service; the Care Leavers’ Foundation; and Voice.