On 27 September three young people and one foster carer from TACT visited the House of Lords to meet with the Earl of Lisotwel and Baroness Hamwee to discuss their experiences of Staying Put. Staying Put is a scheme that allows foster children to stay with their foster carer after the age of 18, with the aim of smoothing the transition from care to adulthood and improving outcomes for care leavers. TACT is supporting an amendment to the Children and Families Bill that would require every local authority to offer a Staying Put scheme.
In comparison to the rising age of young people leaving home – which at 24 is the highest it has ever been – children in care face being forced into independence at 18. Care leavers often find themselves having to embark on landmark stages in their lives, such as their first home or job, at a far earlier age than many of their peers and without the support network and safety net of a family. The first few years after leaving care can be extremely problematic for many young people. The costs to society and to the young person of such an accelerated and compressed rush to independence are devastating: care leavers are disproportionately disadvantaged, including experiencing homelessness, poor education and employment outcomes, mental health problems, early parenting and contact with the criminal justice system. And the impact of knowing you may have to leave home at 18 can impact earlier than this too: imagine trying to cope with the additional stress and uncertainty of moving out of home while studying at college and sitting exams.
The Department for Education ran Staying Put pilots in 11 local authorities from July 2008 to March 2011. The evaluation of the pilots showed that, contrary to the negative media image of children languishing the care system, foster care provides a warm, nurturing family environment and a secure base for adolescents. The government’s own evaluation showed that young people who ‘stayed put’ were twice as likely to be in full time education at 19 years compared to those who didn’t.
TACT responded to the pilots by introducing its own Staying Put policy, and has supported 16 young people to remain living with their foster carer after the age of 18. The three young people who came to the House of Lords shared their own experiences. All three spoke eloquently and passionately about their achievements and plans for their future, and about how being forced to move out at 18 would have disrupted their education, or left them living in unsuitable and unsafe accommodation.
They also spoke about some of the practical problems they encountered, particularly with getting clear answers on financial and benefits issues. The foster carer spoke about the financial impact of the reduced fees Staying Put carers receive, at a time when the young person arguably needs more financial support for education costs. He is using his savings to pay for computer software and study trips that the young person cannot afford to pay for from their student bursary and loans, because part of the funding for Staying Put comes from the benefits the young person is able to claim.
I am incredibly proud of each of the young people who came and told their stories. And I am proud to be part of an organisation that is campaigning for more young people to have the opportunity to access Staying Put schemes.
No reasonable parent would leave their child to fend for themselves at 18, and nor should the state. Neither should the state rely on the goodwill of foster carers who develop caring, family relationships with the children they look after and would not dream of abandoning them to fend for themselves at 18. Foster carers who are willing to continue to support a young person after the age of 18 should be recognised and supported adequately. There is a need for a clear, consistent approach to Staying Put across the country, with better information and support for carers and young people. Thanks to the stories the young people and carer from TACT shared, Parliament will hear this message loud and clear.