Monday, 31 March 2014

What will be the impact of discriminating between care leavers?

The “Every Child Leaving Care Matters” campaign began its life in December last year. Although the campaign team are from very different walks of life, we share one single belief that unites us. We believe that all children in the care of the state should be treated equally, according to their needs. They should be given the same opportunities, the same consideration, the same attention and the same support.

When we heard that the government were proposing to differentiate between children leaving foster care and those leaving other settings, we were puzzled. Our own knowledge and experience told us that the children in foster care and residential care are the same children – indeed many of them are siblings. We know that many families are separated and some are fostered whilst others are placed in residential care. Ideally, this will always be based upon an assessment of their needs. The only difference between the kids in foster care and the kids in children’s homes is simply that – some are in foster care whilst others are in children’s homes.

We have listened carefully to government ministers and their advisors and none have yet given a clear commitment to give children in children’s homes the same support when they are due to leave. We have had vague comment that when children’s homes reach a certain standard government may consider it – even though Ofsted inspections show a large majority of children’s homes are good or better.  (Incidentally, no such quality test was introduced for foster care).

We were told that there were regulatory difficulties and even safeguarding issues.  The regulatory difficulties can be easily overcome if the government wants to do so, and the safeguarding issues are exactly the same as they are now. Even so, still no commitment from government to address these perceived issues.
We were told that the Care Leavers’ Charter will meet the multiple needs of care leavers.  As evidence from councils around the country and our own recent blog demonstrate, this is simply not true.

The bottom line is that children leaving foster care will be supported until they’re 21, and may indeed stay on in placement if it meets their needs. Children leaving residential care won’t.  Ministers have given no firm commitment to address this discriminatory anomaly, only to ‘look at it’ at some time in the future when they consider conditions are right.

They are going to have pilots of course which will look at support arrangements for kids leaving residential care.  The pilots will report back in a few years and the government have not given any commitment to act upon their recommendations, if indeed they are still in power.  Many care leavers will have struggled and some significantly failed by then. Some may even have died.  Still, we are told, these things can’t be rushed.  Young people leaving care have waited since at least 1948 for good support when they leave care.  Many will have to go on waiting.

ECLCM believe that for some children to be given enhanced aftercare support until they are 21 whilst others are excluded based only on placement introduces a blatant discrimination that even we older campaigners and care leavers  never imagined would one day slither into social policy.
Recent ECLCM blogs have looked at what it means to be a care leaver. We have looked at how it feels to be a care leaver, whether to regard the term as a label and fight to eradicate it, or embrace it as a badge and wear it proudly so younger care leavers feel supported facing the stigma and shame so often associated with the term.  Stigma for children from care is a big issue.  As our blogs identified, not only are care leavers discriminated against, they are stigmatised too. 

A number of our blogs, including Ben’s most recent moving contribution, have demonstrated what can happen to care leavers when they are not supported.  Poverty and uncertainty, loneliness and apprehension are daily companions of many young care leavers seeking to cope when they are not given consistent practical and emotional support.  Under such pressures, a combination of anger, despair, poor self-esteem, hopelessness and vulnerability leads so many care leavers to seek the support or solace they so desperately need wherever it is offered.  Not surprisingly, this so easily leads to their being exploited and abused, slipping into misuse of drugs and alcohol, getting involved in crime and anti-social behaviour.

As Ben demonstrated, it is not enough to be provided with a flat and a few bob to furnish it. Many of us older care leavers remember well the pipe dreams Ben described - parties, loads of friends staying, freedom and independence.  However, it is just a pipe dream and too often merely a stop on the road to homelessness and becoming a ‘problem’ for local authorities.

All of our blogs by care leavers like Ben and others in the team show clearly that care leavers can only make a transition to independent living in their own time, when they are emotionally ready and have consistent support and opportunity to do so.  The new government policy towards children leaving care recognises this basic fact for fostered kids.  No such recognition for children leaving children’s homes.

We are told by people we respect that this is regrettable, but if we work with the system, we may achieve this objective, or some of it, a few years down the road. That is unacceptable for many reasons, but two of the main ones are:
  •       That many children leaving children’s homes now and until change is achieved will suffer greatly and may be irreparably damaged whilst they wait for equality;
  •       That the introduction of this discriminatory piece of social policy will add to the already heavy burdens of children leaving children’s homes, making their plight even worse. 

Our blogs by care leavers have illustrated the positive impact on self-esteem, confidence, coping skills, attitude and resilience that giving a child good consistent emotional and practical support can bring.  We would argue that there is another darker side of that coin – that publicly failing to give that support, deliberately excluding children leaving care from support, and even suggesting they are well supported when they are not,  actually risks further damage to care leavers’ self-image and confidence and retards their development and chances of success.

ECLCM has consistently argued that failure to treat all children leaving care in the same way has created a ‘two tier’ care system.  We fear that the lack of support and the uncaring message given to children leaving children’s homes will actually increase the likelihood of their failing to make the transition to the community safely. Please join us and complain loudly to MPs and decision makers.  Many care leavers do very well, but some don’t. With your help, we can make that number of young people who struggle smaller.

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