In her recent speech on the shared society, May articulated a cautiously optimistic world view. According to May, the UK is “a country built on the bonds of family, community and citizenship”. The bonds between us may have been pummelled by the winds of individualism, globalisation and self-interest, but they are still there, and May’s government will support, strengthen and encourage them.
For care leavers, it might be difficult to reconcile this vision with their own experiences. Bonds of family may be tenuous at best, and the bonds created by state care seem often to be snapped on a whim, and certainly at an arbitrary marker of adulthood. Care leavers go on to become some of the most isolated and lonely members of our society, with many ending up in prison, out of work or suffering from mental health problems. For many a care leaver, the basic bonds of society are not there, and responsibility for this lies firmly with successive governments, who have done so little to tackle the patchy support available to care leavers – a problem we have known about for years.
If care leavers are to be brought back into the fold as members of the shared society, May’s government needs to re-think two sets of relationships.
Firstly, the relationship between care leavers and the state. To a child in care, the local authority is not just a provider of services – it is a corporate parent. It has a responsibility to protect and champion the interests of that child, just as any other parent would. But no other parent’s response to a child’s age of majority is to hand them over to a set of strangers and say, “Bye – if you have a problem from now on, these people might be able to help”.
Yet this is the reality for care leavers. The age at which they leave care depends on where they’ve been in foster or residential care, and whether they’re in education, but whenever it comes – at 18, 21, or (for a select few) 25 – there is a cliff edge at which their support network shrinks. Compare this to the early adulthood of people who haven’t been in care. Coming up to 30 and looking to buy a home? Move back in with mum and dad for a bit to save for a deposit. Had a baby and can’t afford the childcare you need to work? Ask mum and dad to babysit.
Some local authorities have caught on to this injustice and are extending the support they offer to care leavers as they enter adulthood. For example, some councils have exempted care leavers from council tax until their 25th birthday. But if care leavers are to overcome the multiple disadvantages they face, the support they are offered needs to be more radical and long-lasting. For example, why not introduce a “right to return” for when a former child in care is saving for a property? Why not give care leavers an enhanced entitlement to free childcare? How about a guaranteed interview scheme for care leavers who are job-hunting?
But practical support is only one half of the equation. Like all young people, care leavers need continual emotional support, and for often very practical reasons (i.e. staff turnover) the state is less able to provide this. Therefore, another set of relationships needs to be re-calibrated: relationships between children in care and their families.
When a child is removed from the family home, relationships between the family and the child typically break down. In instances of serious abuse this is the desired outcome, but most children in care are there due to some form of family neglect. Often parents who have been unable to cope with a young child find they can develop a more stable relationship when that child reaches adulthood, or their circumstances change. There are also often extended family networks who – even if they cannot provide care for the child – represent a source of identity and continuity.
It is this continuity which is so vital as a stabilising force when a young person leaves care.
The state has to consider the value of these family relationships and act as a facilitator in maintaining these (where appropriate) all the while a child may be in care. It is likely these relationships will come into their own when that child becomes an adult and finds themselves adrift from the state structures they had been a part of for years. If the state has also cut that young person from their pre-existing family networks, where are they to turn? It leaves many a young care leaver vulnerable to exploitation and dangerous situations.
In a recent article published by Community Care, a mother of a son in foster care describes how she felt like she was competing with the local authority over who could provide more items on her son’s Christmas list. “Perhaps local authorities could work in collaboration with parents around the financial aspects of special occasions like Christmas and birthdays,” she rightly suggests. Better collaboration with parents in many cases could be vital, and not just on birthdays and Christmas.
Care leavers face the same challenges that all young adults face – and more. It is therefore vital that care leavers have access to continual support throughout early adulthood, just as people without experience of care do, if they are to become members of a truly shared society.