A shocking report from the National Audit Office has found that just eight of 151 local councils know where all their care leavers are living, despite a duty to stay in touch with them. Overall, local authorities have no information on 17% of their 19- to 21-year-old care leavers.
The Local Government Association blames inadequate funding and high workloads. There is truth in this, but it is far from the whole picture. What we are witnessing is systemic failure and the abandonment of our responsibility to our most vulnerable children.
Staying Put, which enables care leavers to stay with their foster carers after they turn 18, has been introduced and is a good policy. But it has been shoddily introduced by bureaucrats more intent on protecting their precious departmental budgets than protecting children. How else can the bizarre decision to force post-18 children in foster care to claim housing benefit tbe explained?. How many ministers’ and council leaders’ children have to do this? Ironically, George Osborne has just moved to stop 18- to 21-year-olds from being entitled to housing benefit at all.
This could be fixed by a simple write back from the Department of Work and Pensions to the Department for Education, but that would involve them working together sensibly. Maybe a working together document for government departments is needed?
This situation is putting foster carers off staying put, as is the fact that they lose their status as foster carers once their child turns 18. Why? Do parents stop being parents when their child turns 18? How many of you are reading this with your 20-something still at home? Do you feel less of a parent? It would be easy to amend regulations to allow foster carers to stay registered as such until their young person turns 21, and so enjoy the support and training they receive when the young person is under 18.
We also need to make the three years from 18 to 21 count. Foster carers need specialist training to support the young person with the challenges of securing a higher education place, training, an apprenticeship, a job and a place to live. For some young people, help with the transition to adult services may also be needed. In this an independent mentor to act as part career advisor, part coach for the young person could be vital. My organisation, The Adolescent and Children’s Trust are looking at piloting this.
But to make this work the old adage of corporate parenting must mean something. Corporate bodies do not parent children, adults do. The foster carer or care home staff are the actual parent, the body corporate will never be. However, they can prioritise those in Staying Put. Young people transitioning out of care should get priority for apprenticeships, university and further education places, housing association tenancies, adult mental health services and training schemes. In this way, corporate parenting might finally mean something. It is encouraging to see the Scottish government taking positive steps in this direction.
The situation is dire but it is fixable. We must make sure young people have good permanent placements through their time in care and properly resource the crucial transition years. We also need to ensure that everything suggested above is available to all adopted children and children on special guardianship orders.
If we fail to do this, we will have cost ourselves a fortune in expensive adult services. But more importantly, we will all have failed as parents to our most vulnerable children.