Friday, 21 November 2014

Are politicians really in touch with what life is like for care leavers?

This week I exchanged opinions on social media with a well-known Member of Parliament with a special interest in looked after children. It’s not important to say which MP because his views appear to be widely held by many national politicians. Like many politicians, the MP was keen to impress upon me what great developments and improvements had been introduced for young people leaving care in recent years, and how much better things now were.

I was reminded by this conversation of those who say that we ought to be more positive and celebrate how well some care leavers have done, how more get to university than did a generation ago, how aftercare has improved, the Care Leavers’ Charter, Children in Care Councils, and so on. I hear what they say, but then I look once more at the statistics which show starkly how care leavers remain over represented in all the disadvantage groups for young people. That being so, how can anyone claim things are better?

In contrast, I also spent time this week with a group of young care leavers. I guess they were aged between 18 and 22. The members of this group had a wide range of care experience; foster care, residential care, supported lodgings, and even custody.  I met with them at a group run by a small charity dedicated to supporting young care leavers.  It was obvious that they relied heavily on the support they received from the dedicated workers from that charity, and I realised how they would struggle if that support wasn’t available... but I digress.

I struggle to celebrate the alleged improvement in the lives of care leavers because I think much of it is illusory, an impression strengthened every time I meet with young care leavers as I did this week. Of course there were great initiatives (often initiated by young people from care and care leavers) that are trumpeted widely by politicians to show how well they have done. 

I think back to the ‘A National Voice’ bin bag campaign some years ago, and lots of local authorities signing up to declare that young people in care would never have to move from home to home with their possessions in plastic bin bags.  The young care leavers I spoke with this week told me that many of them still did not have suitcases, and they had relied on bin bags as so many care leavers did before them. Some were provided with suitcases or ruck sacks by the hard working charity. Little change there then!

Then there was the ‘Care Leavers’ Charter’. Once again, local authorities queued to sign it and declare how well they would support children and young people leaving care. Again, politicians were quick to cite this as a major development for care leavers.  It was obvious talking to the young care leavers I met that the Charter was not being implemented ‘at the sharp end’.  In spite of requests, the government was very clear that they would not make the Charter mandatory or offer increased funding to enable local authorities to implement it. So, we have another initiative that looks great on paper and politicians’ speeches, but is often simply ignored where it matters most – in the lives of care leavers.

The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 was a piece of child care policy that was made law, and should have improved the lives of care leavers immeasurably. Pathway plans, consultation and participation, ongoing support and assistance with education, accommodation etc.  Was this this the support that we care leavers had campaigned for for generations? Sadly no, because it was simply not implemented in full and hidebound by mind boggling restrictions and definitions…. Young people might be eligible, relevant, former relevant … what’s all that about? Surely being a care leaver in need of real support from the corporate parent should be enough?  - But no.

Then we had ‘Staying Put’, loudly celebrated by many as a major breakthrough in child care policy to meet the needs of care leavers. Now care leavers might stay on with their carers until they were 21 and would no longer be compelled to leave home at 16+ and fend for themselves (something  that the children of politicians and decision makers would never be forced to do).

Whilst some celebrated, many including the ‘Every Child Leaving Care Matters’ (ECLCM)  team, realised this initiative excluded 9% of all young people leaving care, including all those in residential children’s homes.  Not only had the needs of care leavers not been met, a completely new element of discrimination had been introduced into service provision.  Discriminatory practice will never be acceptable and ECLCM will continue to oppose it until all care leavers receive the same full ‘Staying Put’ support.

Even so, we were led to believe, young people leaving foster care would now be able to ‘stay put’ until 21 in their foster placements?  Apparently not it seems.  It seems to depend upon where the young person is living and who they are placed with whether they are able to remain with their foster carers until they are 21. They kept quiet about that bit.

I listened to the young care leavers I met this week. One spoke of living in a foster home from being 6 years old, and when they were 16 being told they would need to leave and go into supported lodgings. They were made to move against their will. The young person said that they were exploited and abused in their supported placement, and their foster carer was so horrified they demanded the young person be allowed to return to live with them.  That rang a bell with me - a carer sticking their neck out and representing and supporting a child when the corporate parent failed to do so. But if carers cannot or aren’t prepared to do this – what then? It reinforced the centrality of positive long term caring relationships in good care, and the lottery that is care. That was the same when I left care 47 years ago.

The young people spoke of constantly changing social workers, of not being made to feel  welcome when they had to visit ‘Social Services’, of having decisions made for them rather than with them, and of having information about them shared with teachers and others without their consent. It all sounded depressingly familiar. Two young people who had been in custody whilst still in care spoke of being refused housing support when they came out.  That was supposed to have changed long ago. This all sounded much the same as leaving care has for years.

There appears to be a significant ‘disconnect’ between politicians and decision makers and those at the bottom end of the chain who depend upon the corporate parent. In spite of the rhetoric of some MPs, Life for too many care leavers has not improved greatly from that we experienced generations ago.  Care leavers don’t need surveys, more research or political rhetoric. They want practical help, stability, security,  support,  people who care, a safe place to live, prospects and reasons to hope…Do you still wonder why the ECLCM team campaign?

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