Pandemic or no pandemic, young people should not ‘age out’ of care

My daughter has just left home. Well, she has, and she hasn’t: despite the mountain of stuff she took with her to university, her room is still full. And despite her much-anticipated independence, she still phones or texts several times a day. I forward her mail, answer her culinary questions, sympathise at 2am when there’s a loud party keeping her awake and grant access to the bank of mum and dad. She may not be living under my roof, but I am her safety net emotionally, financially and practically. Perhaps I always will be.

This is what virtually every parent offers and what virtually every child expects. Except for foster children: when they become adults, they leave without the prospect of this ongoing supportive relationship. Those who have already lost out on a chunk of their development – through the trauma of neglect, abuse and relationship breakdown – lose out again at the other end of their childhood as they face the world alone. Care leavers begin adult life doubly disadvantaged, often with nobody to cheer them on.

In England 32% of children leaving care are young people “ageing out” of the system when their reach their 18th birthday. A third are likely to become homeless within the first two years; a quarter of all homeless people are care-experienced. Only 12% of care leavers are in higher education by the age of 23, compared with 42% among the wider population; 39% of care-leavers aged 19-21 are not in education, employment or training – three times the rate of all young people in this age group. Almost half of males under 21 who have contact with the criminal justice system are care-experienced.

The care system has been producing terrible outcomes for our country’s most vulnerable young people for decades. Sadly, the sector has become immune to the shock of them.

In the 14 years my wife and I have been foster carers, we have seen first-hand the incredible dedication of many social workers, carers and legal, health and educational professionals. Yet despite their best efforts, and the incredible resilience of children in care, there continues to be both a systemic failure and lack of imagination when it comes to addressing better outcomes for care leavers.

Early in lockdown, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, made this extraordinary appeal: “I am asking local authorities to ensure no one has to leave care during this period.” And Vicky Ford, the children’s minister, said “care-leavers are some of the most vulnerable young people in our society”. Both recognised that turning 18 or 21 was not an instant qualification for being able to live independently. Quite rightly, they made the bold move of ensuring that no young person should age out of care doing the pandemic.

But what happens once the threat of Covid-19 has subsided? Those same care leavers may be less likely to become ill from the virus, but sadly they face other, arguably greater and more virulent threats. They are vulnerable to exploitation, destitution and criminalisation. If our country’s most vulnerable citizens can be taken care of during lockdown, it is possible afterwards. Pandemic or no pandemic, there is no need for young people to age out of care.

I recently met Lynn Johnson, adoption and fostering lead at the administration for children and families in the US government, through a transatlantic learning exchange. I was struck by her observation that every time a child ages out of care, she considers it a failure. Adoption in the US is promoted as a viable option for children and young people of any age. I recently met some young Americans who had been adopted in their 20s. In the UK only 1% of adoptions are children over the age of 10. Why would we deny a child the opportunity of finding a for ever family through adoption due to their age?

With innovation in family reunification, adoption, special guardianship and lifelong fostering, every child could have a genuine permanency solution. Of the 12,500 16- to 18-year-old young people who leave care each year in England, a few are helped by excellent programmes such as the Staying Put initiative, the Care Leaver Covenant and the government care leaver internship scheme . But there must be much greater ambition for these young people.

Any young person ready to make the step to leave home needs the safety net of a family they belong to. Perhaps the government’s long-promised care review can embrace its lockdown commitment to young people: no one needs to age out of care.

The Guardian

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