Abandoned and alone

MaggieJones2014.jpgMaggie Jones on the Coalition’s depressing legacy for young care leavers

Last year, in one of our famous victories in the House of Lords, the government caved in to an amendment that would allow young people in foster care to ‘stay put’ until the age of 21. A small but significant step that recognised how far the experience of care leavers differs from those in most biological families. It applied however, only to those in foster care whilst those in other forms of care continue to leave at 18 or even younger. Sadly, the overall experience of care leavers remains a shocking legacy of this government.

The failings are apparent well before the children are ready to leave care. Recent cases of sexual abuse of young girls in Rotherham and Oxfordshire, many of whom were in the care system, highlight just one element of neglect. But the failings go wider and deeper. It’s a real indictment of the care system that their young people have such poor educational outcomes. Of the 70,000 in care, only 15% get more than 5 A*-C grades at GCSE. And only 6% of care leavers study for degrees, compared to 33% of their peers.

They also struggle to live independently, and with little support, from a worryingly young age. The House of Commons Education Select Committee published a devastating report last year that found 16 or 17 year olds being placed in bed and breakfast accommodation – sometimes for extended periods of time. Their experience was described as threatening and frightening.

For others, the transfer to independent living takes the form of a hard to let council flat where they are all too often prey to exploitation. The Barnardo’s report On My Own highlights vulnerable young people struggling with the lack of life skills to manage living alone, and facing eviction, sofa surfing or sleeping rough after the breakdown of their accommodation.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that the employment statistics for young care leavers are so depressing. 34% aged 19 or over are not in education, employment or training. Twice the average of their peers. What’s worse are the statistics that show, for example, 70% of sex workers and 24% of the adult prison population having been in care; and that over 20% of care leavers have problematic drug use.

At the heart of the problem has been our inability to respond effectively to the emotional and personal turmoil which many adolescents experience as they grow into adulthood; and which are magnified in young people in care who already struggle with the legacy of family break up. For these children, continuity and support from a trusted adult is crucial but often lacking. Schemes to provide personal advisors or independent advocates are failing to deliver consistently.

So all too often young people transitioning to independent living find themselves abruptly, and irreversibly, alone. Yet we wouldn’t expect our own children to fend for themselves at 16, and we wouldn’t refuse them the right to return home at 21 or even 25 when things go wrong.

The responsibilities for this damning picture are widespread and include national and local government as well as the care providers themselves. The political will, resources and professional skills all need to be improved. Ultimately however, it is clear that we are badly failing in our duty as a corporate parent – with all the consequent financial and social policy implications. There has never been a better example of the advantages of early, effective action saving money and heartache later on. It is a lesson we cannot afford to ignore.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 12th March 2015

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