On 23rd January, shortly after the adjournment debate in the House of Commons introduced by Craig Whittaker MP, ECLCM received a reply from Mr Timpson to their letter in December seeking to meet with him.
Mr Timpson raised a number of interesting reasons why he considered that young people leaving residential care could not receive equal aftercare support until they are 21, as the government proposes to do for young people leaving foster care. We have addressed most of these already, but given Mr Timpson’s letter, it is probably appropriate to do it again.
Mr Timpson states:
“I completely agree with you, therefore, that young people should not feel pressured to leave care prematurely. They need to be consulted and involved in making plans for their futures and should only be expected to move on from their final care placement once they are ready to take this significant step.”
You need to know Minister that this is not happening in a great many cases across the country. Young people being moved from settled care placements to supported lodgings and other placements when they reach 16+ is common. Even councils who have signed the Care Leavers’ Charter to consult and involve young people are still moving young people before they feel ready. The Care Leavers’ Charter will not work unless it is made statutory.
The Minister adds:
“Research has found that many young people are dissatisfied with the support they receive and, in particular, that there are shortfalls in planning and preparation for leaving care, which leaves their needs unmet.”
As care leavers and people who work with young people in care and care leavers, we would agree with you about this. Too many young people are being compelled to leave care and face the world with little support when they are 16 years old when they are not emotionally or practically able to cope. There is no doubt whatsoever that preparation for leaving care, be that residential care or foster care, needs to be improved and we will support any initiative to do this. We feel that this area for development supports our argument for ongoing support to 21, including remaining in placement where appropriate, for all young people leaving care.
We would go further than Mr Timpson. As we have reported before, national disadvantage statistics related to NEET, homelessness, mental health, custody, etc. show care leavers are disproportionately represented. This is not because care leavers are necessarily predisposed to failure. They are not. It is because they are not supported at a critical time in their life when they were facing crisis.
The Minister has suggested that he will introduce changes “in a heartbeat” when children’s homes are good enough for children to live in. He suggests too many homes are simply not fit for young people to continue to live in without significant changes.
If that were true we would be standing alongside him demanding radical action. However, although there is work to be done, his own watchdog Ofsted in their recent report indicated that 68% of children’s homes were judged to be good or better, and only 8% were judged to be inadequate. This compares very well with the inspection findings of foster care.
Ofsted results suggest there is little problem based solely on the quality of the homes to prevent young people who wish and who would benefit from remaining whilst they gained the emotional and practical skills to become independent, and as the homes improved their own skills in supporting young people into independence.
Mr Timpson identified a practical issue in his letter to ECLCM:
“There would also be practical and legal issues to be worked through if, in the future, there was a duty on councils to fund 'staying put' arrangements for care leavers in homes registered by Ofsted on the basis that they are 'wholly or mainly for children'.”
The ECLCM team acknowledge there are statutory issues that would need to be addressed although we contend that the number of occasions the situation described by the Minister would be few. However, the Minister also pointed out that the problems would not be ‘insurmountable”. We agree and would be happy to support Ofsted to identify and address the issues if we can. We don’t see them as a major obstacle that need cause undue delay in introducing equality.
Mr Timpson added:
“I am aware of the evidence you mention that young people living in children's homes are more likely to make an early transition from care compared to those living in foster care. Many of these young people feel dissatisfied with the support they receive and report being poorly prepared to make their transition to adulthood. My department is, therefore, funding the organisation Catch22 to carry out the two year 'Getting Ready' project in the North West region. This project will identify how to get children's homes to offer high standards of planning and preparation for adulthood and will test out ways of enhancing care leavers' education, training and employment prospects.”
ECLCM have consistently argued that there is much to be done to prepare young people to cope when they leave care. Some of us have had to do it – our experience is first hand. The Minister proposes to have a pilot scheme which is not set up yet but which will run for two years before reviewing and reporting its findings.
It could be many years before the findings of any scheme were acted upon by government – and there is no firm commitment to act on them at all.
ECLCM identify a pressing need for government to take urgent steps now to support young care leavers (from foster care and residential care) who are struggling and facing destitution, poverty and worse as we speak. It can’t wait for years. This needs to happen alongside introducing equal aftercare support for all care leavers to 21. Recent research by the Centre for Social Justice reinforces our concern that urgent action is needed now to support young people leaving care.
Some commentators suggest that Ministers are doing all they can and there is very limited scope to improve the leaving care support arrangements further. They point out that £40 million is already being invested in improved after care support for fostered children.
ECLCM do not accept that. How much is allocated and how it is used is a political decision, not a social work decision within the gift of local councils. We want the same support being given to fostered children for ALL children leaving care. Not to do so is a political decision based on resource allocation, and government ministers are responsible for that. Failure by politicians to take affirmative action will have a negative and potentially disastrous impact on young care leavers in the community. An unpalatable fact for politicians and their advisors, but nevertheless true. Further, to support one group of care leavers and not another based upon placement only is discrimination. That is the bottom line.
Mr Timpson declined to meet representatives from ECLCM. That is a pity, because our offer to assist him to support all young people leaving care was genuine. The offer remains on the table.