Those of us who campaign for aftercare support for all young people leaving care until they are 21 do so because we have seen first-hand the disadvantages that care leavers can face. We have seen how loaded the dice are against care leavers and how easy it is for them to suffer when they leave care.
We know that the overwhelming majority of children are admitted to care through no fault of their own (recent government statistics have shown that about 62% of young people admitted to care were abused or neglected and only 2% were admitted for socially unacceptable behaviour,) yet the number who appear in disadvantage statistics in adulthood is frighteningly high.
For example, recent statistics showed that, of the number of young people now aged 19 years who were looked after when aged 16 years:
• 34% were not in education, employment or training (NEET);
• only 400 of the young people aged 19 years were in higher education; 6% of all former care leavers;
• 29 % of the former care leavers were in education other than higher ; and
• 23% of the former care leavers were in employment
Other statistics in recent years have added to this frightening picture. For example:
• About 23 per cent of the adult prison population have spent some time in care;
• around a quarter of those living on the street have a background in care;
• care leavers are four or five times more likely to commit suicide in adulthood;
• a quarter of care leavers were pregnant or young parents within a year of leaving care;
• in 2011 just 12.8 per cent of children who had been in care for a minimum of one year obtained five good grade GCSEs, including English and Maths. For other children the figure was 57.9 per cent;
• 11% of care leavers in England live in ‘unsuitable accommodation’ upon leaving care; and
• between 45-49 per cent of looked after children aged 5-17 years show signs of psychosocial adversity and psychiatric disorders, which is higher than the most disadvantaged children living in private households. Physical and mental problems increase at the time of leaving care.
The ‘Every Child Leaving Care Matters’ (ECLCM) campaign has often demonstrated its case by sharing this negative and frightening future faced by so many care leavers. However some care leavers argue that it might be more helpful to show a more positive picture of those leaving care. They argue quite reasonably that showing care leavers who have successfully left care and built successful and fulfilling lives would offer positive role models for young people in care and also offer a leaving care template for others to try and emulate. They want to show that good care can and does save lives and helps young people succeed.
Sometimes, these two ways of describing the leaving care experience can appear to be in conflict with one another – one is the right way, the other wrong. Indeed, there are sometimes lively debates between those who favour each way of presenting the care leavers’ case.
There is no conflict between the two approaches. Looking around the care leavers who form most of the ECLCM campaign team, we include a cross section of people who have experienced many of the disadvantages listed above. We have all been government statistics. We have tasted the disadvantage & helplessness, the hopelessness and stigma of being in care. We have been ‘failures’ of the care system.
A closer look shows that we also fit the second model. We include happy and fulfilled individuals, successful professionals, university graduates and opinion shapers. Things have happened in our lives that have helped us to halt the decline to despair and rebuild our lives. In all our cases, this was after we were 18 and had been discharged from care.
A look at our wider care leaver acquaintances show they can be include doctors, lawyers, writers, teachers, academics, poets and artists, successful people in the professions and the arts.
We know that many of these people were also statistics. Like us, many knew homelessness and deprivation and sampled the agony and despair that hitting rock bottom can bring when they left care.
We argue that the care leavers who appear in the disadvantage statistics and the successful care leavers are not two sides of a coin. They are not different groups - they are the SAME people. Their stories show that at critical points in their lives, they received uncritical and unconditional care and support, and were encouraged to use the resilience and inner strength that most people have if only they are encouraged and enabled to use it.
That underpins our campaign. We believe that supporting young people leaving care at a critical point in their lives will give many of them the cushion they need to lean back on, and then the push they need to develop and grow, to become the ‘positive’ examples of care leavers.
There are not two kinds of care leaver, the deserving and undeserving. There are only vulnerable young people who will succeed and graduate happily into adult life if we give them a vital hand.