“This one piece of legislation can be transformational for our care system. We believe if it is enacted and implemented properly, it will reduce the long-term negative outcomes for lots of children and young people [who are] care experienced.”
Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network, is talking about Staying Put, the policy that places a duty on local authorities to support children in foster placements past their 18th birthday to the age of 21.
Staying Put means local authorities have a responsibility to recognise these young people, and offer ongoing financial support to help the placement succeed and give the opportunity to remain to families who otherwise could not afford it. Brought in by the coalition government in 2014 it was, arguably, the most popular reform to fostering and care leavers’ policy made during the last government.
– The spirit of the policy is well intentioned, and something everyone regards as the right thing to do
– More than 1,500 care leavers are believed to have taken advantage of the policy
– Backed by £40m of government money over the next three years
– The rates foster carers are paid by local authorities after placement changes to a Staying Put arrangement
– That the money allocated is not sufficient
– Local authorities still not having Staying Put policies in place
– That it isn’t available to young people in residential care
– It isn’t available to every child, because that would make it unaffordable
There were concerns – the decision not to extend the same right to children in residential care has been a controversial one, which many have spoken up against – but overall the move was popular. The government backed local authorities with £40 million over three years to implement the policy, and figures released this month show that 1,560 care leavers last year stayed with their families for three months after their 18th birthday.
But, despite the policy’s popularity, in the year following Staying Put’s launch there have been further concerns over funding for councils and for carers, how local authorities will implement Staying Put, how this change effects the dynamic within families, and that recurring question of why the policy hasn’t been extended to residential care.
Under Staying Put arrangements some foster carers’ rates have fallen from £400 to £120 a week for the child in their care, which is particularly significant for those who foster as a full-time career.
“There’s a real implication of ‘can foster carers afford to keep young people?’,” Williams explains, “We’re seeing some local authorities not fully understanding that actually those foster carers not receiving the same level of funding means that has a direct impact on their ability to continue to foster.”
Sab Jagpal, practice support team lead on Staying Put for The Fostering Network, says councils have also voiced concerns about the £40 million earmarked for helping with Staying Put: “I think services have been very critical that that money hasn’t been ringfenced specifically for Staying Put. There’s no national standard or expectation around what that Staying Put allowance will look like.”
Some of the funding was “under-costed”, according to David Graham, national director of the Care Leavers’ Association. “This is one of those policies where you have to say not every foster child in foster care will be able to do it otherwise it would become unaffordable,” he says.
“We know from real life that not every young person is going to want to do that, which is fair enough, but if it becomes a really positive thing then you would want a lot more young people to be having it, in which case it is going to cost a lot more,” Graham adds.
Alison O’Sullivan, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, shares this concern, saying that local authorities are seeing “as we implement Staying Put for foster carers, the money that the government has allocated is not sufficient to meet the costs”.
’Problems in supporting Staying Put arrangements extend wider than just pay for foster carers.
“If you were a reasonable parent,” Williams explains, “and you have an 18-year-old who has started work, you may not charge them the full going rate in terms of rent and support costs. So reasonable parents might charge a small amount for an 18-year-old to remain living at home whereas, as part of the funding arrangements, the young person if they are working seems to be paying a large element towards their costs.”
It can be perceived, in this circumstance, that the young person who stays with foster carers and gets into work is being punished for the kind of success the policy is designed for.
Away from funding, there are wider implementation issues. Jagpal admits she has “seen sight of only a few revised policies to date”.
Duties not met
Chloe Cockett, policy and research advisor for The Who Cares? Trust, adds it is concerning that, a year after the legislation came into force, she is hearing about local authorities not fully meeting their duties.
For example, she says they are “putting conditions on young people being able to stay put, [or] having to be in education or training, or having to have been in their placement for a certain length of time. We have also heard of placements not being planned in advance, and young people being told that they can’t stay put at the last minute, which can obviously be traumatic for the young person.”
Concerns were expressed that the turnaround for the policy was too quick and that local authorities did not have enough time to prepare.
‘Basically a lodger’
Graham maintains that while the national policy is good and well-intentioned, it still hasn’t completely stopped the feeling of foster children reaching a “cliff-edge” when they turn 18.
“You stop being a looked-after child … although you’ve got a relationship, you are basically just a lodger. So legally they [foster carers] stop having that responsibility for you, we have heard that it changes the dynamic in the relationship,” he says.
Williams agrees: “It’s [a question of] how do we move from a system where foster carers have rights and control, [and] the young person is fully supported with a review structure and system, that when they reach 18 those supports also go. At 18 that young person is no longer in the looked after system, they no longer have reviews. With our own children a move to independence is a transition, it’s not an event, whereas too often I think Staying Put is seen as an event.”
This concern is echoed by Cockett: “Local authorities and former foster carers need to be ensuring that care leavers who are staying put must be well supported to be able to live independently once their Staying Put placement ends.”
In the Staying Put pilots “the key issue that wasn’t addressed was funding”, Williams says, and he believes there needs to be a process for fostered children who decide to leave home when they turn 18 but have an option to return later if this doesn’t work out for them.
Despite these concerns, no-one can, or wants to, discredit the intentions of the policy, and people have welcomed figures on the numbers of young people using it. Williams believes the policy will see long-term benefits for young people, and the state, through a reduction in mental health issues, criminality, drug and alcohol and misuse and other negative outcomes associated with care experienced people.
What’s next is how the policy grows, and how the concerns are addressed.
O’Sullivan says the policy and the process of implementing it has been “a bit clunky”. But she says the bigger question now is whether Staying Put in its current guise is sufficient. “[It’s] only for a relatively limited number of care leavers who will have that opportunity, and it raises the question of fairness and the extent to which that similar opportunity should be available to all children in care.”
A piece of paper
She also makes the case for extending the care leaving age for all children, and how long leaving care support lasts, arguing it could go up to 25 or 26 years old.
“It wouldn’t be the largest scale, most expensive thing that government chose to do this parliament if they chose to do that. I think they could make the difference to the lives of tens of thousands of young people who would have a better chance of becoming full citizens and contributing to society as adults for many years to come,” she says.
For Graham, there is a hope that during this parliament the government will extend the policy to residential care, “I think even they accept it is discriminatory, there are possibly legal and legislative things that need to be changed first,” he says.
As for Staying Put in foster care, Graham says: “The policy is good, but the policy is a piece of paper. It’s the people who, at the end of the day, make it work.”
How Staying Put has impacted the life of foster carers and young people will be voiced in a piece published on Community Care tomorrow, as part of our Care Leavers’ Week coverage.