A wise comment from Natasha Finlayson when discussing the implications of the extension of foster care to 21, in The Guardian, set the bottom line. She said it was a ‘no brainer’and that young people in residential care should ‘…have the same rights as those in foster care.’ We agree.
We were advised that the proposed changes being introduced do not alter the care leaving age from 18 for young people wherever they are placed. Indeed, all the changes do is adapt the law to fit good practice in foster care. Some authorities have already introduced arrangements under the ‘Staying Put’ initiative which would give a statutory base and some funding.
Also, that the changes will not result in all young people in foster care remaining there until they were 21. Many wouldn’t want to, some foster carers wouldn’t want them to, and indeed, for some it simply would not be appropriate. The changes will only apply to those fostered young people who are settled in their families and have established strong relationships, and who want to stay on with the agreement of their carers. We consider this excellent practice.
However, the extension to foster excludes the 9% of young people in care that are placed in children’s homes. These young people have a wide range of needs and challenges. What most have in common is that they are vulnerable. This vulnerability is further enhanced by a stigma attached to residential care amongst the public and still sadly amongst some in the social work profession. Some see children’s homes as the ‘last resort’, as a place where children who have ‘failed’ family placements may be sent, or as somewhere the more challenging young people may be placed. Many of the public see children’s homes as places where ‘naughty children’ are sent. Historically, this view was compounded by some local authorities who used children’s homes to accommodate their more challenging young people.
This stigma and misuse of residential care often masks some excellent work taking place. It is a credit to residential care that so many of those children placed in children’s homes under such pressure do grow up to lead fulfilling lives.
This last week we have heard from many young people in residential care who are bewildered, hurt, and angry by this impending amendment to the children and families bill. As well as young people in children’s homes, we have also been amazed at the amount of support from leading academics, social workers, mental health practitioners, foster parents, charities, celebrities, fostering providers and famous authors.
We believe that a young person settled in a children’s home who enjoys strong bonds with staff and is working with them toward agreed objectives should be allowed and supported, to stay in placement until they are 21, as fostered young people will be. Dr Gordon Milson, a clinical psychologist who works with young people, said via Twitter: ‘It has to enter the narrative of care. This can be your home until 21. Must become norm not exception.’ This is not to say all those in children’s homes will want to stay, or providers will want them to stay. It is not to say that it would be in the interests of all young people to stay in children’s homes until they are 21. However, for those for whom it is appropriate, they should have that right as their peers in foster care will have that right. The overall numbers are small compared to foster care, and we do not consider this would be too difficult to implement.
We believe that young people who grow up in families enjoy the company of siblings and peers of a range of ages. Families do not consist of all 16 – 18 year olds. We do not see age as a reason of itself to move a young person from a settled placement.
Many support our aims, but feel the need for new schemes to be tested and new pilots to be carried out to perfect the arrangements. We understand this caution, but don’t believe that young people in placement now who are settled and who will benefit from remaining in placement to 21 should leave and move elsewhere simply pending further research. They have needs now and some will face failure, destitution, homelessness, exploitation and all the other risks young people face on their own now. They should not be placed at risk pending further research.
One concern is that allowing young people to remain in children’s homes after their 18th birthday may cause problems for younger children placed, potentially including safeguarding issues. We struggle to see how a young person who is settled in a children’s home and enjoys positive relationships with staff and peers should suddenly become a safeguarding risk at 18 when they never were before.
It is argued that it is too soon to include changes to the leaving care arrangements for children placed in children’s homes by April 2014. We don’t agree. Those who are settled in placement enjoy positive relationships and who want to stay with the agreement of their placement, should simply be allowed and supported to do so. A commitment to support ALL young people leaving care to the age of 21 could also be given by government in April 2014 whilst the work to establish how this may best be done is ongoing.
We welcome the opportunity to engage in discussion with those who are concerned about the needs of young people leaving care at any time. All we would ask is that they also include young people from children’s homes and young care leavers in those discussions. One of the less pleasant consequences of the statement on 4th December was that it reinforced their feelings of not being listened to.
We ask that the government support all children and young people in care to 21 years of age. We ask all those who share our view to support our campaign for equality and sign the petition: Every Child Leaving Care Matters