Young People: Leaving the care system
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Published: Tue, 16 May 2017
Literature reviewed for this study has included articles from academic journals and textbooks, government policy, guidance and briefings and other guidance produced by non-statutory organisations such as the National Care Advisory Service. Key themes within the literature reviewed have included the experiences of young people in care that contribute to their leaving care experiences, the effectiveness of services aimed at care leavers, social work practice with care leavers and the views of young people themselves on how prepared they feel when leaving the care system.
Studies about young people leaving care point to the different life experiences that many care leavers have in contrast to their peers and argue that these have an impact on how prepared young people are to leave care. Whilst in the care system they face disadvantage plus a greater risk of social exclusion and poor outcomes such as low educational achievement and homelessness, unemployment and mental health problems (Stein et al 2000, Courtney et al 2000). Particular groups of care leavers can also face specific types of discrimination and disadvantage. Black and ethnic minority care leavers face identity problems due to a lack of contact with family and community (Barn et al 2005), young disabled people in care may encounter problems with poor planning in relation to their housing in the transition period from care (Priestly et al 2003) and young women in care are at greater risk of teenage pregnancy and the associated risks of poor outcomes (DfES 2006). Jones (2002) noted significant qualitative differences between young parents who have family support and those living away from home.
The life history of looked after children also plays a part in their preparation to leave care. Many looked after children can have complex needs that are related to their earlier childhood experiences. These experiences can impact on how they settle into their looked after placements and the level of educational achievement that they reach at school. Their educational achievements will affect how they manage in life after care. Looked after children often have a number of social, emotional or behavioural difficulties such as challenging behaviour, low self-esteem and poor concentration skills, which again can affect their transitions into adulthood (Soan and Lee 2010).
Everson-Hock et al (2009) attempted to analyse the effectiveness of transition to adulthood support services (TSS’s) to leaving care and their impact on outcomes including education, employment, substance misuse, criminal and offending behaviour, parenthood, housing and homelessness and health (Everson-Hock et al, 2009). The study, based largely on US quantitative studies found that young people leaving care were more likely to complete compulsory education if they received TSS’s; that there was moderate evidence that TSS’s improved employment prospects and; moderate evidence that TSS’s lessened the likelihood of negative impacts from substance misuse, offending behaviour, homelessness or early parenthood (Everson-Hock et al 2009). Whilst accepting that US based studies could not simply be transferred to UK experiences, the study conclude that “TSS’s do have a beneficial effect on the adult outcomes of looked after young people, in particular for education, employment, parenthood and housing” (Everson-Hock et al 2009, p52).
A study in Scotland identified planning transition to adulthood as important and noted that leaving care at an early age can be a concern. Moving from residential care to supported carers and then allowing young people to move in a planned manner that allows them a say in when they leave care is also important (Kendrick 2008). This study also identified failures by local authorities to make adequate preparations. Many care leavers did not receive a programme of preparation, particularly those in foster homes or being cared for at home. It was also identified that 60% of the young people surveyed had not received a formal leaving care review (Kendrick 2008). Evidence elsewhere also suggests that care leavers are often hurried out of care with the Director of the Office for Children’s Rights commenting “a common theme among those young people consulted was in their having remarkably short periods of notice to leave, together with their sheer lack of preparation to do so”(Morgan and Lindsay 2006).
Stein found that since the 1990’s there has been more of a focus on outcome studies (Stein, 2006). Nonetheless, the wide variation in both research and the collection of statistical outcome data by the government has been highlighted by international leaving care work (Stein, 2006). Likewise Simon and Own (2006 citied in ibid) stated that the information base for those in care and leaving care has immensely enhanced since 1998. However, they have also found three existing weaknesses. Firstly, the dates mainly have short follow up times. Secondly they focus only a small parameter of young people’s lives. And finally, they are mainly available for England.
Stein differentiates that the transition itself, is crucial to getting young people ready for the ‘risk’ of society, by giving them the time for independence, discovering, thinking, risk taking and character exploration (Stein, 2006). He says that coming across danger is possible through chance, so in order to identify valuable and harmful effects, by the revelation to these problematic situations, it allows for opportunities emerge for both problem-resolving skills and emotional coping skills are provided (Newman and Blackburn, 2002, cited in Stein ibid). Stein’s study analysis significantly shows that care leavers as a group are more likely to be socially excluded and that there are still huge gaps in research knowledge, particularly nothing in terms of using experimental and quasi-experimental methods (Stein, 2006). Therefore, there is a high demand for the usage of cohort experiments in giving a refined understanding of risk and protective elements over time. Furthermore, he openly shows that there is also a high demand to develop connections between empirical and theoretical work, this is because most of the studies do not involve research from theory in regards to context, theoretical investigation and theory making.
In view of the concerns and increasing awareness of the poor outcomes of young people leaving the care system, the Government produced a consultation paper (Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care 2007). Care Matters (2006) detailed a number of government initiatives to assist the transition into adulthood for care leavers. Included in the proposals were a pilot scheme to allow young people to live with foster families until they were 21; establishment of a capital investment fund to improve supported housing options; top-ups of Child Trust funds for young people in care and national bursaries for young people in care that go onto higher education. One of the key principles of Care Matters echoed research elsewhere into transition – that young people should enter adult life when they are ready rather than when a local authority social worker decides that they should do so. Most young people are supported by their families until their early twenties yet those in care often lack that sense of security – they should expect no less from a corporate parent in terms of help in the transition to adulthood than their peers who live with parents (Care Matters 2006).
Rainer (2007:2) states ‘The DfES Green Paper Care Matters, and the Next Steps document, set out a range of extremely promising proposals to improve services to young people as they move through and out of the care system. However, there is evidence that when it comes to housing support care leavers are not yet consistently receiving the service they are entitled to under current legislation’. His reports analysed the scale of the issues and highlights the terrible conditions in which some care leavers are expected to set up their first home. Similarly, Broad (2005 cited in Stein, 2006) found that for young parents, young accompanied asylum and refugee seekers and young people remanded, their services were mainly described as staying the same since the introduction of the Children Leaving Care Act 2000.
The DH (Department of Health, 2003) found that some young people are drawn to the concept of independence and will have a strong drive to leave, however that urge is driven by various factors, these including a placement breakdown, the limited placements available, issues with challenging behaviour management, traditional expectations and tight transitions. DH (ibid) realises that inconsistent planning for adulthood is common for young care leavers, furthermore, the specific needs have not been consistently given to certain groups like ethnic minorities or single parent. However, having said that, some young people do have positive experiences whereas some experience hardships, this sometimes even included high risk of homelessness. Stein (2006) debated that a holistic approach needs to be considered when preparation is made for leaving care, that it each element needs equal amount of importance, practical skills are equal to emotional wellbeing as well being equal to interpersonal skills.
Support with accommodation is also identified as an important issue for care leavers and they should have access to appropriate housing options. For many leaving residential care or foster placements, issues such as coping with finances, shopping and self-care were challenging and practical support in developing life skills is something that will help better prepare care leavers for adulthood (Kendrick 2008). The National Care Advisory Service (NCAS) also stresses that suitable and stable accommodation for young people preparing to leave care will enable them to develop their skills and options in other areas such as education, employment and social networking (NCAS 2009). NCAS identified the importance of pathway planning and highlighted an example of good practice in Barnsley where pathway assessments have a specific section relating to accommodation which considers things such as a young person’s current arrangements; their practical knowledge; awareness of tenancy rights and responsibility to be a good neighbour; budgeting skills and the care leavers’ ability to access housing advice (NCAS 2009).
Care matters (2006) highlighted the negative consequences of frequent changes in foster care. In 2005/6, of 23,000 children under 16 looked after for more than 2.5 years; 65% had been living in the same placement for at least two years or were placed for adoption. While this is 1% higher than the previous year, unless the rate increases dramatically the government is unlikely to achieve their target of 80% by 2008 and currently 12% of children in care still experience 3 or more placements (Care matters, 2006). ‘Care Matters’ made a number of proposals about commissioning; increasing choice and training and support for foster carers and residential workers. While these are all positive steps they will not necessarily address the issues of shortfall in foster carers and the poor status of residential work as a positive option for staff. (Barnardos,2007,p4) ref:bernardos.org.uk
Lack of stability was also highlighted as a barrier to social bonding and support, emotional well-being, and educational success. The social worker would be responsible for the budget of each child. Care plans need to be revised. In interview with children in care, “one placement” was top on their list of what they desired (Morgan, 2007).
Employment, Education and Training
The educational under achievement of children in care up to year 11 is well researched and documented, but despite the long standing recognition of this issue there appears to have been no substantial improvement in recent years. ‘Care Matters’ recognises the importance of stability in education, particularly in years 10 and 11, but does not go far enough in outlining a school’s responsibilities to ensure looked after children are not denied access to their education through temporary or permanent exclusion. Given looked after children are disproportionately more likely to have their education disrupted through exclusion we are concerned about the degree of discretion in individual schools as to the interpretation of ‘last resort’. (Barnardos,2007,p7). While 56 percent of all children attained 5 good GCSEs of A to C in 2005, only 11 percent of children in care attained these levels (DfES, 2006); this level was 12 percent in 2006 (DfES, 2007).
A study of care leavers in the UK found that only 23 per cent were in full-time or part-time education (Everson-Hock 2009). The age that young people leave care can be a factor that leaves them ill-prepared for independent living. Many do so between the ages of 16 and 17, at a time when they also manage the move from education into training, work or unemployment. Their peers go through this transition most often whilst living at home with family support and the advantages of a stable home environment (Jones 2002).
The importance of attempting to achieve positive educational outcomes is stressed by a number of commentators as crucial in effective preparation for leaving care. Newman and Blackburn (2002) and Sinclair et al (2005) emphasise that having positive experiences at school and reaching an adequate level of educational achievement is strongly associated with resilience in young people in care and in getting them ready for adult life.
From a wider perspective, it makes sense for local and central government to invest in the future of care leavers and in England there is evidence in recent years of a change in philosophy so that supporting children and young people that are at risk of poor outcome is desirable so that that can maximise their potential in future (Stein 2008). Providing education and training focussed on future employment is crucial to this.
Health services have an important role in supporting young people leaving care. Low levels of care leavers report seeing health professionals and high number report engaging in unhealthy behaviours such as smoking (Everson-Hock 2009). As part of effective partnership working, Directors of Children’s Services should ensure that health services, particularly mental health services are on hand to work with social workers and accommodation providers to assist care leavers (NCAS 2009). Young people with mental health needs especially might need help in locating suitable places to live. A further important health issue is for social workers to help young people to understand the importance of healthy living and have access to suitable cooking facilities (NCAS 2009).
Unfortunately, young care leavers are at a disadvantage here. For many 16-17 year olds, parents take on responsibility for arranging medical consultations, promoting a balanced diet, identifying ill health and discussing the dangers of smoking and drinking – local authorities as a corporate parent often take a less proactive role in this area (McLeod and Bywaters 2000). Added to the poor housing and deprivation that many care leavers experience and a consistent picture often emerges of malnutrition, infections, mental illness, drug use and susceptibility to physical attack (McLeod and Bywaters).
Being a young parent can have a great impact on people as they leave care. The prevalence of teenage pregnancy among looked after girls in England is around three times higher than that their peers under 18 in England (DfES 2006) and a study carried out by the Teenage Pregnancy Unit (2001) found that a quarter of looked after young people had a child by the age of 16 and nearly half had a baby within 24 months of leaving care. These young people in general are exposed to a number of risk factors associated with teenage pregnancies, including educational failure, socio-economic deprivation and involvement in youth offending (Kirton 2009), all of which have a negative impact on their preparation for independent living after care.
Quantitative research into young mothers leaving care was completed by Maxwell et al (2011). The studied acknowledged that the likelihood of pregnancy increases significantly in care leavers and used interviews and diaries kept by young mothers to try and identify how they were prepared to leave care as a parent. The study identified that young women wanted to provide a better childhood than they had experienced to their own baby and found motherhood as something that helped build a positive image (Maxwell et al 2011). Again, the research highlighted that the earlier lives of care leavers and the subsequent low esteem that they have can be a significant hurdle in preparing for life outside of the care system
Care matters (2006) propose that local authorities provide free access to sports and clubs, as well as opportunities for personal development and volunteering. The Healthy Care Programme supports this pledge, stating, “This supports the National Healthy Care Standard entitlement for looked after children to have opportunities to develop personal and social skills, talents and abilities and to spend time in freely chosen play, cultural and leisure activities” (DfES, 2006b, p. 3). More than 50 percent of the children who responded to the Green Paper reported having problems gaining access to such activities. (DfES, 2007).156 children in care rated the government’s ideas for what councils should promise to them. “A right to do leisure and sports activities” and “a chance to do a volunteering activity” were fifth and sixth on their list, respectively (Morgan, 2007, p. 33).
Biehal et al (1995) also studied the impact of different leaving care services on the young people involved. This study found that specialist leaving care services were most likely to have an impact on those who came into care from the most disadvantaged starting point. Biehal et al found that many young people were unprepared to leave care, but that this could be affected by their earlier family relationships and housing experiences. Like other studies, it was identified that the best leaving care services should include making a contribution to improving accommodation options and helping young care leavers with life skills such as budgeting, negotiating and self-care (Biehal et al 1995).
Stein (2008) examined how to promote the resilience of young people in care and better preparation for adulthood, suggesting that this could be better achieved through provision of stability in care, a holistic preparation for transition and the provision of comprehensive services throughout their time in care which promoted a positive sense of identity. Stein also developed a theory that carer leaves fall into three distinct groups which can be shaped by their level of preparation to leave care – young people “moving on”, “survivors” and “victims” (Stein 2008).
Qualitative research into the views of young people on their preparations to leave care was undertaken by Morgan and Lindsay (2006). This identified that the assistance they were given in preparing to leave care varied greatly. Some identified good practice such as young people preparing to leave care gradually by spending a couple of days a week living independently in their new accommodation, and the rest of the week back in care. Support to learn practical skills such as cooking, doing laundry and housework was also seen as important but support in helping them learn these skills varied.
Morgan and Lindsay also identified that practical help received from local authorities when leaving care was often lacking. Only 52% received support for education and accommodation, 53% were offered continued support from social services and only 33% offered practical help with training or benefits and grants (Morgan and Lindsay 2006).
There is evidence that many young people feel largely unprepared for leaving care. Morgan and Lindsay’s study identified extremely short notice periods given to young people for leaving care, or young people being forced to leave care at a time when they did not feel ready to do so. In some of the worst examples, young people were given only 24 hours to leave a placement, they had no plan for the future, they had no ‘home-keeping’ skills and little choices as to where they would move onto (Morgan and Lindsay 2006). Many saw a leaving care worker as important but some saw their leaving care worker as unhelpful and unsympathetic.
Young people were able to identify what they wanted from leaving care workers – often simple things such as to be there to support but not to interfere, and to offer support in finding adequate accommodation. Again, a key point is that provision of effective leaving care support appears to vary greatly – Morgan and Lindsay summarise “the overall impression conveyed was distinctly that of a lottery, with some young people enjoying excellent preparation and support, whilst others received little or no help at all” (Morgan and Lindsay 2006, p22).
Mentoring groups or peer mentors – i.e. former care leavers – to assist care leavers have also been identified as useful in preparing young people to live independently (Clayden and Stein 2005). Young people leaving care can need support from different sources at different times and a range of support networks can be useful in helping them overcome the disadvantages that they face.
The key findings from the literature review have been firstly
â€¢The accelerated process and young age of care leavers as opposed to other peers is a result of push factor such as placement breakdown, limitations in the supply of placements, problems in managing challenging behaviour, traditional expectations and personal choice.
â€¢ Limited housing resources and the unsuitable allocation and condition of various accommodation provisions.
â€¢ LA as a corporate parent take a less proactive role compared to the parents of young people who are not in care in regards to their health which continue patterns of instability were particularly vulnerable to ‘poor’ housing outcomes and were more likely to experience post care instability and homelessness.
â€¢ Young people who have left care are over-represented amongst young homeless people, including those who are sleeping rough.
â€¢ Entering the care system can prove to be highly problematic by disrupting a young person’s education progress due to placements complexities and the personal negative experiences of young people pre and post entering care.
â€¢ The lack of practical experiences and skills present during the transitions to independence presented as one of the main difficulties in conjunction with the issues of budgeting and housing as a main factor effecting a successful and stable transition.
â€¢ The research reviewed emphasised that young people would prefer and benefit from gaining support and experience in undertaking practical tasks prior to leaving care.
It is important to note that that the provision of leaving care services across the UK varies and young people in different areas will have different experiences and levels of support.
Most commentators agree that the experiences of young people both before they come into care and whilst in care can have an impact years later when they are preparing to leave care and that effective leaving care services are important in preparing care leavers for independent living. Support with accommodation emerges as one of the most effective ways to prepare young people to leave care along with provision of help and information on basic life skills such as budgeting, organisation and self-care.
There is certainly room for further research in this area, particularly based on the experiences of UK care leavers – at this point there is relatively little qualitative research into how young people feel about their preparations to leave care. The period before people leave care allows is an important period where carers and statutory organisations can make a positive impact on their lives – fully understanding the impact of TSS’s can be a valuable tool in delivering better outcomes.
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