By your leave

What is it like to head out into the harsh world after a life in care? Antonia Charlesworth interviews care leavers and assesses the government’s latest policies

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For some, turning 18 will mean starting university, for others a first car, for many their first legal drink. These things mark a transition into adulthood and a new sense of independence. For a parent, going to sleep when their child is 17 and waking up when they’re 18 makes little difference. They will, most likely, cook their child’s meals, wash their clothes and pick up after them as before. Almost certainly, they will still worry about them every time they walk out of the front door. But what if entering legal adulthood marked the end of all those home comforts? For many children in care, this is a daunting reality.

In 2013-14, over 10,000 young people aged over 16 left care, an increase of almost 50 per cent since 2003-04, according to the National Audit Office. A third of those aged 16 or over who left care did so before their 18th birthday.

Getting a home for themselves is the first problem. There is a severe lack of social housing. Where it is available housing associations require details of unspent convictions. Hanging on to the home is another problem.

“Care leavers have higher criminal records because carers have to report things as crimes when a family member wouldn’t,” says a social worker from a large local authority in the north, who asked not to be named. “A lot of it is criminal damage or assault against staff – some of it isn’t extraordinary behaviour.”

Care leavers often remain vulnerable even once housed, says the social worker. “A lot of them just want to live on their own – they don’t understand and you can’t tell them how difficult it is. How it’s difficult is not because they don’t know when bin day is, or they can’t wash up after themselves – although those things are an issue – but that they get lonely and they get bored.”

“Care leavers are so used to being moved they think little of being evicted.”

This can lead to eviction and ultimately homelessness. “None of their friends have their own places so they all pile round, they want them round, because they’re lonely, and they have parties and their friends get them kicked out. That’s what usually happens.”

Care leavers are allocated a discretionary amount by local authorities to set up home (the government recommends a minimum of £2,000) but factors such as eviction and an inability to stay in one place mean care leavers rarely benefit from it in the long term.

Evictions and benefit sanctions against care leavers are the main cause of grant applications to the Care Leavers Foundation. Janet Rich, its secretary, believes they should be stopped immediately.

“Care leavers are so used to being moved that they actually think very little of being evicted and they very rarely stand up and say: ‘No, stop, you can’t do this to me.’ They just put their belongings in black bin bags, like they’ve done every single time in care, and they move on again.”

Often local authorities will turn to private landlords but they usually require credit checks and for tenants to be over 24. As a result many young people are being placed in unsuitable accommodation.

Official data for 2013-14 showed 78 per cent of care leavers were judged to be living in places that meet their needs but the number is lower in many local authorities. In Doncaster 64 per cent are in suitable accommodation, in Manchester 57 per cent and in Tameside just 48 per cent. Unsuitable accommodation can be shared or unfit housing, and often B&Bs, despite government guidance that they should only be used in emergencies and for a maximum of two days.

David Cameron acknowledged the damage that these conditions can do in his recent Conservative Party conference speech when he said that care leavers are four times more likely to commit suicide than anyone else. “These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents – and what are we setting them up for… the dole, the streets, an early grave? I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right,” he said.

In 2013 the government published its Care Leaver Strategy and introduced its Staying Put policy, which gives over-18s the option of staying in their existing placement until the age of 21. Spearheaded by children and families minister Edward Timpson – who himself grew up alongside foster children – the government is seemingly committed to making the transition an easier one.

A Department of Education spokesperson tells Big Issue North: “We have introduced a comprehensive series of reforms to achieve this – including changing the law so young people can live with their foster family after they turn 18 and giving every care leaver a personal adviser to help them to find work, training or education.”

In reality, however, many 17 year olds in care are not placed with foster families, as the spokesperson suggests, but in children’s homes, where having a legal adult live is problematic. And in summer the National Audit Office published findings that the system for supporting young people leaving care to live successful independent lives – although a step in the right direction – is not working effectively.

In part, that is because proper support needs to be put in place for people in care long before they leave it, according to both the social worker and Rich, who says: “The government is a million miles from helping care leavers achieve because the system is broken. It fails them very badly so by the time they leave care they’ve become very accustomed and familiar with being let down and having to move on.”

The social worker adds that deep cuts to frontline services undermine the government’s investment in care leavers – £44 million over three years to help local authorities implement Staying Put.

“There’s less staff, fewer managers, higher workloads. It’s challenging to provide the service care leavers deserve and need when working in an environment of austerity.

“The government is putting money into care leavers, which is brilliant and commendable but completely shortsighted because we’ve got a whole new generation of looked-after children who aren’t getting the service that our current care leavers received, so what state are they going to be in when they grow up?”

Darren, 44, Liverpool

Big Issue North service user engagement co-ordinator 

I was in care between the ages of nine and 15. I was placed in children’s homes and between moving to different ones and moving back home intermittently I moved about seven or eight times. At 15 I left care and went back home until I was 16. Then I stayed with various family members and in hostels.

I was quite difficult to control as a child and my mum couldn’t cope with me. I had a care order put on me when I was nine but when I left care the care order was revoked so I didn’t have any support as a care leaver. Today if you’ve been in care the local authority still has a duty of care but I don’t think it happened in those days.

I became street homeless at 18 and though I stayed in different places over the years, I was homeless until I was 29. I had to change my lifestyle because I was taking a lot of drugs and I ended up contracting endocarditis – a potentially fatal heart infection – and I had open-heart surgery. At the same time I had kidney failure so I was not well and if I’d have carried on the way I was living I would have died.

So I had to get on my feet. I had a good support worker at homeless charity the Whitechqapel Centre and I got in touch with drugs services to address the issues. I got involved with a scheme that helped people with drug or alcohol issues get into work and I got a placement at Big Issue North.

I had sold the magazine before but at that point I was actually banned from selling magazines. I was not a perfect vendor. I wasn’t a bully or aggressive but I wouldn’t stick to the pitches or I’d sell old mags. But I took the placement and after about four months a job came up and luckily I got it and the rest is history, as they say.

I am not one for statistics but when I see the people around who were in the care system with me they’re usually into heroin and crack cocaine. The care system did fail me because they didn’t care. Even at the age of 32 when I’d got myself together I couldn’t stay in one place because I was so used to moving from one place to the next.

I had a flat and it was nice but I still had the urge to move because I didn’t think you could stay in one place longer than six months. It sounds stupid now, but I didn’t know you could stay still.

Leanne, 19, Halifax

Women’s centre volunteer and new mum

I live in my own housing association house now and I’ve been here for four months. I lived in a children’s home from being 15. Before that I lived with my mum but my family broke down. I met my real dad but he had other children in his house so he couldn’t have me there.

I lived with my nan for a while and then I spent a year sofa-surfing with family and friends but I started being aggressive because I’d been passed from pillar to post. I went into care and I thought it was amazing at first. I felt like I’d had no attention at my mum’s because my stepdad had a daughter with her and I felt pushed out, but suddenly everyone was interested in me.

I was pretty much cut off from the care system on my eighteenth birthday.

It became too much and I started acting out, drinking and going crazy. I had an argument with one of the girls that lived in the care home so they told me that they had to get rid of me. I was given the option of supported lodgings [effectively foster care for the over-16s] but my family had broken down so I didn’t want to live with some else’s – it’s a bit like kicking you while you’re down.

When I was 16 I went into semi-independent living, I enjoyed it but money was hard. I was only getting £15 a week after food and bills and that was if my flat was clean enough on a Monday when they checked. I was there for a year and then I got my own place just before my eighteenth birthday.

I’ve moved three times since, I think because I’ve been unsettled most of my life, so when my six month tenancy is about to end I get itchy and need to move. Now I’ve had a baby – she’s 11 weeks – so I need to stay in one place. I do need to move from this house though because it’s got damp.

Since I got pregnant I’ve been really close with my mum and it’s been lovely. But my dad wants nothing to do with me. In the future I would like to get a nice house and stay there and I’d like to get into education to get a job and be able to provide for my daughter so she has everything she wants – not spoilt but more than I had.

I want to go into health and social care. The Youth Offending Team and women’s centre, where I volunteer now, helped me through a lot and I’d like to do the same for people before they go too far down the wrong road. Other than the Pathways Team I was pretty much cut off from the care system on my eighteenth birthday. They don’t really ring you and ask if you want a chat or anything and you don’t think to ring them because they might think something’s wrong. The only time I see them is the Christmas meal and every now and again.

Charlotte*, 30


My experience of leaving care was not a particularly positive experience but that is no reflection on social services – they were amazing. I was in care from the age of 10 due to my mother and father being unable to look after me.

The family I stayed with were not foster carers initially but due to the lack of foster carers in my home town, social services persuaded them to become foster carers.

I left care at 16 as relationships broke down in the house between the family – the foster mother had some mental health issues she was working through due to stress from her own children. I went into a council flat, which was amazing. I got to choose my own carpets, couches, everything really. I don’t know if I was emotionally ready for it but I didn’t really have a choice.

Contact with my foster family after that was non-existent. I didn’t receive one phone call from my foster parents to see how I was getting on. It was very disappointing and, looking back, quite cold really.

There were the obvious challenges everyone faces when living alone but lots of perks too – I lived across the road from my place of study so it gave me time to really focus on my academia. I studied at college for two years, then on to uni for three years, then on to a school for a year to train to be a teacher. I am currently a teacher living internationally and living my dream of travelling, meeting people, learning new cultures and ways of life.

I have a passion to learn and love writing, so being in education was always such a good deal for me – I enjoyed being set essays and loved preparing for exams.

The after-care team were nothing less than amazing. The help and support they have shown me over the years has been crucial in my development and I am forever grateful.

In terms of my experience in foster care, I’d have to say that it wasn’t pleasant and I think upon reflection the recruitment process for foster carers should be reconsidered as my foster carers did not provide the emotional support a vulnerable child needs when they are in their most fragile state. Some of the experiences in my past haunt me still to this day and although I’m grateful for many things, I do believe that my success was in no way down to my placement in foster care.

*name changed to protect identity

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