Thursday, 14 May 2015

Staying Put – An ethical question?

So now the General Election is over, and we can reflect upon the impact the result will have upon care leavers.

From the ECLCM point of view, it looks like it will be business as usual at best. The last coalition government gave us ‘Staying Put’ exclusively for young people leaving foster care, thus excluding care leavers from residential care (and providing the raison d'être for the ECLCM campaign). It also perpetuated a system that makes life unbearably hard for many vulnerable care leavers trying to cope with minimal support in the community. It seems to us that a Tory government with the promise of severe welfare cuts is unlikely to make life any better for this massively disadvantaged group.
Many people fidget when we refer to the disadvantage statistics and how care leavers are massively over-represented in almost all of them.  They accuse us of being ‘negative’. That’s unfortunate, but sadly we are likely to see care leavers figuring even more prominently in these statistics in the next five years unless something changes quite quickly.

Yet things don’t change quickly for care leavers. When I left care in 1968, probably less than 1% of care leavers made it to university. Now it’s about 7%. In 47 years, only 6% more care leavers make it to university – a record for Society to be proud of? At that rate of progress, how long will it take before all care leavers receive the option to stay on in their placement until they are 21? 

I was one of the lucky 1% who eventually made it to university. I was one of the few care leavers of my generation who was able to qualify at university, in my case as a social worker, and was fortunate enough to return to university again many years later and graduate again with a first class honours degree. I wonder how many kids from care will be able to get on the government’s new  ‘Frontline’ social work courses  in the next few years, and how many will be able to afford to go anyway? These are serious questions as the new government takes shape.

I remember that on my social work course all those years ago we talked about ethics. Even now, I recall the debate about ‘Kantian’ and Utilitarian’ ethics.  If my memory serves, Kant said that there were two questions that we must ask ourselves whenever we decide to act. Firstly, could we rationally expect everybody else to act as we did?  If not, then he said that we shouldn’t act that way either.  Secondly, he said we must ask ourselves whether our actions respected the individuality of other people rather than simply using them for our own purposes.  If not, then it would be unethical for us to perform that action.

 “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end but always at the same time as an end.” – Immanuel Kant, ‘Groundwork of Metaphysic of Morals’

All people should always be treated individually as a person of value in their own right and not just used or ignored in order to achieve something else. The end can never justify the means.  Child care legislation over the last twenty or so years reflected this ethical perspective, aspiring to tackle discrimination and facilitate equal opportunities.

‘Utilitarian’ philosophers took a diametrically opposed ethical view. They said that every action should be judged by its consequences.  It was ethical, they said, to act in order to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. These philosophers recognised that the action in itself may be unfair or unjust, or some people may suffer, but if it resulted in the majority of people benefiting, then it was ultimately morally acceptable. 

How valid these debates still are! Those charities and organisations who support ‘Staying Put’ as it is currently embodied in statute clearly take the ‘utilitarian’ view. They tell us we must work with government ministers within the system and lobby for change in the longer term.  They argue that ‘Staying Put’ is progress because it could result in most care leavers benefiting more quickly by being allowed to ‘stay put’ in foster care until they are 21 - even though up to 9% of care leavers who don’t live in foster care won’t  be given the same options.  It is an honourable argument, particularly as they argue that they will continue to campaign to gain the same rights for all care leavers over time. We fear that ‘honour’ alone will bring little comfort to those excluded from this option.

Most of the ECLCM team are care leavers who have first-hand experience of what it means to be discharged from care as adolescents, unready, under supported and under resourced to cope in a hostile world. We identify very strongly with the feelings, fears and aspirations that young care leavers have. I guess that makes us ‘Kantians’. We don’t accept that the end justifies the means and that any young person failing, becoming ‘collateral damage’, is a price worth paying in order that the majority get improvements in their life opportunities. To make matters worse, we are hearing around the country that many young people in foster care who should qualify for ‘Staying Put’ are not receiving it. So much for ethics!

Our campaign is called ‘Every Child Leaving Care Matters’ – not just some children, and not some children based on a promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ that may never arrive. We want ALL young people leaving care wherever they are placed to be allowed an option to stay put in their placement until they are 21 if it meets their needs and wishes.  Is that too much to ask?

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