‘Leaving Care’ by Mike Stein and Kate Carey

Mike Stein and Kate Carey (1986) Leaving care Oxford: Blackwell 0 631 14875 2

This study arose from national developments outlined in Chapter 1 but was also influenced by the presence of key members of the National Association of Young People in Care in West Yorkshire.

The young people in this study had mostly been admitted to care in the sixties and seventies when not just the numbers but the proportion of children admitted to care had been on the increase, but by the time they left care the tide had changed. The hostels for young people set up under the Children Act 1948 had effectively been abolished by the Children Act 1980 in favour of a wider range of community support and, on the face of it, Wakefield Social Services Department had responded positively to this with a housing liaison scheme.

But many had also been admitted to care before most of the research published in the 1970s was to challenge conventional notions of how children in care should be treated and so this study not only gives a first-hand account of how even a sympathetic implementation of the Children Act 1980 might not meet the young people’s needs but also of how their previous care had failed the majority of them.

Key Points

  • Children in care rarely grow up with one set of people.
  • Children admitted when young know little about their families.
  • Few had lived in an unbroken family home.
  • Most experienced a stigma about being ‘in care’ which was absent if they were ‘at home on trial’ or in ‘foster care’.
  • Few participated in formal organisations or had hobbies.
  • Most had issues of identity which might be addressed by starting new families.
  • ‘Independent living’ leads to loneliness which is difficult to address without the money to explore other options for accommodation or leisure.
  • Few had any motivation to pursue education and thus were restricted in their employment options.
  • Apart from those who had remained with their long-term foster carers, most young people reduced their initial contact with families and/or became part of new families.
  • A minority were ‘in trouble’ and some were involved in supporting those ‘in trouble’.
  • Only a third thought that care had been helpful to them, though others acknowledged that it was better than the alternatives.
  • Since only 0.5% of 16-19 year olds do not live in a family, independent living puts already vulnerable young people into a non-normative living situation.
  • Those in care for family reasons only got good care in the good foster homes.
  • Those in care for non-school attendance and those in care for offending did not get any benefits from being in care.


In Chapter 1 Introduction, the authors describe how an article in the Shelter magazine in March 1980 led to the establishment of Homebase. Three years earlier the publication of Who cares? Young people in care speak out (Page and Clark, 1977) had led to the establishment of the National Association of Young People in Care and two years later the publication of Gaskin (MacVeigh, 1982) had identified a cycle of dependency on services when led to institutionalisation.

The Leaving Care Research Project was funded by the ESRC to follow up 16-18 year olds leaving the care Wakefield Social Services Department in 1982 over a two and half year period. 79 young people had left care after spending at least one year in care, of whom a representative group of 45 agreed to participate.

Three quarters had left care at 18, the remainder at 16 or 17; 55.5% were male and those admitted at 14 comprised the largest group with those admitted at 15 the next largest. Three quarters had been in care for more than three years, a half for more than five and 3% for over 10. Over three quarters had had three or more placements, 40% five or more placements and 5% 10 or more placements. Most had been in foster care and residential care.

Just under a half had been in an observation and assessment centre, mostly for less than a year, or a children’s home, most for more than five years. A number had been home on trial for periods between six months and two years and 18% had been in foster care for more than five years.

40% left care from a foster home, 31% from home on trial, 13% from children’s homes and 11% from a flat/bed-sit/lodgings.

The research team carried out four interviews over the two and a half years and 34 young people participated in the final interview.

In Chapter 2 Leaving care – themes from the literature, the authors survey the literature which reveals that children in care are mostly the children of the poor, they need to be able to maintain relationships with their parents and to be with adults who offer warm, relaxing and tolerant relationships (Hitchman, 1960; Arden, 1977) and that the transitional stages to adulthood are compressed for children in care (Godek, 1976).

They also note the problems of the low expectations of social workers and foster parents, the loneliness, the poor school attainments which offer poor prospects for employment and the dilemmas of stable relationships against promiscuity, or offending for boys.

In Chapter 3 The past, the authors outline the young people’s pasts. It was rare to find a young person who had grown up with one set of people; those who had been admitted as infants were mostly in care for neglect and some had gone home and been readmitted to care later. The older ones tended to know why they were in care but those admitted young rarely did and rarely bothered to find out; they often did not know why they had been moved in care.

There was a sharp distinction between those who expected reunification with their family and those who didn’t. Many had experienced separation from siblings and some rejection of their parents by foster parents. However, those in long-term foster care, especially with relatives, did not regard themselves as being ‘in care;’ in fact, people reacted different if they said they were in ‘foster care’ rather than ‘in care.’

They liked the old assessment centre, being given responsibility and egalitarian approaches but they disliked inconsistency and inflexibility and the restrictions in residential care as well as the association with ‘care.’ They did not see ‘home on trial’ as ‘care.’

They liked full inclusion in foster homes, though some had less good experiences, and they valued the instrumental contributions of social workers but they were mostly not involved in decision-making about themselves.

Truancy was a major reason for teenage admissions. The young people often had low attainments, none stayed on at school after 16 and only the remedial unit of the assessment centre was viewed positively. Because of movements in care they often had changes in syllabus; some did CSEs and three young women went on nursery and community care courses at the FE College.

Only about a quarter had held a paid job between leaving school at sixteen and leaving care at eighteen; they were mostly on social security and the YOP (Youth Opportunities Programme) where they only received £25 for a full week’s work whereas part-time employees could earn much more. Few of the jobs offered opportunities for advancement.

They had been in a range of trouble from scrapes to offending, the latter mostly involving a small group of them.

In Chapter 4 The period of transition, the authors describe the transition from care, noting that, apart from one foster child, they all lacked independent living skills. A third remained at home or in foster home; a third expected to move into their own accommodation and a third were in temporary accommodation (those already in penal institutions were not interviewed until after their release).

Some planned to leave the family home or already ‘lived’ as much with friends/relatives as at home; some of those in foster homes were planning to stay long term but were keen on getting a job; those in professional foster care expected to move on.

There was a housing-social services department liaison scheme to place young people on the housing list and provide rent guarantees and this meant were was generally a smooth transition from care at 18 though two who were already mothers had their own houses. At this stage most were still in familiar environments.

Most had not lived in an unbroken family home and there were normally family tensions though some relationships had improved through absence. Most would turn to their mothers for advice but also other family/foster family members or occasionally to social workers or the head of a children’s home.

Most had a regular groups of friends and a third had a serious boy/girl-friend but very few had contacts with formal organisations or hobbies, partly because of their lack of money.

In Chapter 5 Looking to the future, the authors found that most of those in work intended to move on; more of the young women were in work because there were more low paid jobs for women. A couple were awaiting court appearances for offences while in care. There were two mothers and two fathers but only two planned to live with their partner after the birth of their child. The mothers who had become pregnant in care had not been given the pill.

Some were reluctant to leave care and a few looked forward to it; they had a wide range of personal goals from the possible to the unattainable, including working in residential care.

In Chapter 6 Evaluation of care, the authors describe the young people’s evaluations of care. No one thought it had been totally bad; some remembered happy times in children’s homes; some saw it as building confidence and relationships; some did not feel they had been ‘in care;’ there was often gratitude towards foster parents.

Some said care had made them worse and some that the system as a whole was bad, in particular the lack of freedom, lack of opportunities, ill-treatment and being separated from families. This last had raised issues of identity with some wanting to trace natural parents, a desire to acquire ‘personal property’ and the creation of an identity as parents sometimes compensating for a loss of identity in care.

Introducing the next part, the authors note that the second interview took place 6-9 months after the young people had left care, the thirds 12-18 months after they had left care and the fourth 2-2½ years after they had left care.

In Chapter 7 Accommodation and coping, the authors report that by the second interview half were in independent accommodation, one third at home (normally with extended family) and one sixth in a foster home, lodgings or hostel. A fifth had had no moves and a third one move; the remainder had had up to nine moves in one case. The key problem was loneliness in the single person flats offered by the housing department.

By the third interview half were in settled accommodation but a half were still dissatisfied and wanting to move with the key issue continuing to be loneliness. The housing department had been extremely flexible over arrangements; there had only been one eviction for non-payment of rent and very few ever slept rough. The young women were twice as likely to be in their own accommodation as the men but the proportion living alone nearly halved; only the young men were still living in a family home and the situations of those in foster homes were stable; three were in custody.

Interestingly, they were more likely to have increased skills in DIY than in cooking; they all had difficulties trying to manage a household budget with no previous experience, particularly in the light of the fluctuations between pay and benefit and those in receipt of benefit having their rent paid directly.

In Chapter 8 Education, employment and income, the authors describe how two young people had completed FE courses but one had failed the exam and all had failed the additional GCEs; the nursing student who failed got agency work and the one who passed was told she would have to wait a year, had a baby and gave up the idea. One later enrolled on a residential care course but had difficulties because of depression about her own situation. Though those in institutions tended to be exposed to education, most were not motivated to continue.

Few of the young people were in proper full-time jobs; at the third interview, including the mothers, over half were unemployed; at the final interview that proportion had risen to over 80%. Some had never had a job at all. Though the YOP and the Community Programme offered mostly ‘male’ jobs, employers tended to prefer taking people on a programme to employing them and the young women were more likely to get jobs.

In practice, even the pay in mining was poor and those in work were rarely better off; they had very little surplus cash, not least because of the need to buy clothes and to pay travelling expenses to work, but they took it for the interest rather than for the reward.

In Chapter 9 Family, friends and leisure, the authors consider the young people’s families. At the start of the project two thirds had had some natural family/extended family/foster family contact; at the end a quarter did with one third in new families: there were ten parents with twelve children and three more expected soon.

Four young people had stayed with foster parents and one with relatives. Some, especially the young women, recovered natural family relationships, but others kept their distance, while some had resigned themselves to never knowing their families. Even those that did have family contact often found their siblings were strangers to them.

The young people often had problems with their partners, which could lead to changes of partner and loss of relationships with their children; three were single mothers and one had found a lesbian partner in preference to either of the two previous fathers; five were still with their partners and one had become a stepfather. However, over the period of the project, there had been a tendency for the young people to move from casual to more serious relationships.

Their friends were mostly not from care and their leisure time was mostly seeing friends because of their lack of money. It was rare for them to be part of a formal organisation and they could only go on holiday with assistance from others.

In Chapter 10 Dealing with agencies, the authors report that, at the time of the final interview, 30% were still in contact with someone from care, usually based on individual preference rather than policy.

There were mixed comments on social workers and their comments on children’s homes were affected by the policy of discouraging residential homes from following up and supporting those who had left, supposedly to encourage independence, and by the fact that some children’s homes had closed.

Two mothers had social workers, one because of depression and the other after she had been burgled while expecting her second child.

They had lots of contact with the housing department, the DHSS and the Job Centre but those involved in legal disputes had felt unsupported by their solicitors.

One third had been in trouble by the final interview; those on probation gave varied responses to the experience. Seven had been prosecuted, mostly for theft and burglary, and had received a variety of sanctions; the only woman in trouble was missing, wanted for breach of probation. They tended to distance themselves from responsibility and position themselves as victims. Two were supporting partners in trouble.

In Chapter 11 Self and situation, the authors report the young people’s views of themselves. About half felt ‘all right’ but those who felt worse were all living alone; less than a third thought that things had changed for the good and only nine at the final interview were generally content with no outstanding problems. Most had little sense of self-development or personal progress.

In Chapter 12 Looking back again, the authors report on the young people’s considered views at the final interview.

A third thought that care had helped them and just under half that it was a good thing because, for example, it was better than the alternatives. There was praise for happy children’s homes and foster homes and they valued particular individuals but they criticised the disruption, the frequent changes of social worker and residential staff, being kept in ignorance and not being trusted to attend whole review, ill-treatment, broken promises, lack of ‘warmth,’ ‘freedom’ or a ‘family atmosphere’ and restrictions.
They disliked fieldworkers who visited infrequently or simply supported the residential staff.

The young people recommended:

• more preparation for leaving care,
• better skills training,
• more money for foster parents,
• more involvement from social workers,
• more involvement by children,
• checks for compatibility between child and carers.

None of them want their own children to be in care.

In Chapter 13 Leaving care: policy and practice, the authors call for greater continuity with fewer changes of placement and more sustained relationships, including with family and siblings, so that care become more like ‘alternative relationships.’ They also call for open records and open decision-making and for efforts to address the stigma of care.

They question the philosophy of training for independence because only 0.5% of 16-19 year olds live alone; 99.5% live with a family. Given the already exceptional experience as a child in care, this makes them even more vulnerable. The well-intentioned provision of single person accommodation had created loneliness; it would be better to extend social services support into their twenties.

Citing Young people in the 80s (Department of Education and Science, 1983), they argue that training for independence is insensitive to young people’s psychosocial needs and ignores the need for interpersonal and relationship skills. They note the recent establishment of the Bradford Social Services Department After Care Support Team and suggest a greater role for housing associations in developing permanent housing.

They stress the importance of identifying what needs young people in care have which other young people have and in what areas they are disadvantaged in order to create compensatory provision and set out their own programme for achieving this.

In Chapter 14 The legal framework, they note that most people are unaware of the Children Act 1980 legal framework for supporting young people which is compounded by the problem of local authority discretion. They review the Short Report (House of Commons Social Services Committee, 1984) and the Review of Child Care Law (Department of Health and Security, 1985) to identify the options for government and consider the problems arising from recent changes in the Supplementary Benefits Regulations.

In Chapter 15 The purpose of care, they observe that their sample had mostly been in long-term care; seven were in compulsory care because of family failures but most did not get good care except in foster care. About a third were in care for educational reasons but they did not get a good education; 18% were in care for offences but did not stop offending. Overall, it is a very depressing picture.


This study highlights the key problems in English child care and why its outcomes are so poor compared with many other countries.

40% had had five or more placements, mostly in less than ten years, whereas Wiener and Wiener (1990) were to show that, after five placements in fourteen years, the likelihood of a positive outcome would decline.

There had been no effort to maintain family contact or even to provide children with any information about their families; many did not know why decisions had been and, at best, they would be invited into the last ten minutes of their review – something which, it has to be said, was considered very innovative in the nineteen-seventies.

The young people support the inclusive fostering noted as successful by Trasler (1960) and Tizard (1977) and decry the petty restrictions of much residential care. It is interesting to compare their experiences in relation to birth control and personal decision-making with those of the residents of the Oxford girls’ hostel over a decade earlier (Critchley and Fann, 1971a, b).

It is unfortunate that the only residential home about which the young people spoke positively was the former assessment centre; by implication none of them experienced positive long-term residential care of the sort which Millham et al. (1975) had found could impact on the outcomes of care and many of them lacked the family support and positive peer group relationships which might have sustained them when they left care, not least because multiple changes of school would not just involve a change of syllabus but making a whole new set of peer group relationships. Since few children change school as often as children in care, it is hardly surprising that children who have been in care in Britain for any length of time have been identified as among the most disadvantaged (Fogelman, 1976).

This study is one of a small number, mostly from the 1980s, where the voices of children in care are heard. What they say may be uncomfortable but it does not contradict other research into positive outcomes of care which stresses the need for stable relationships in children and young people’s lives.


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Critchley, A and Fann, B (1971a) Group work with adolescent girls Child in Care 11 (5), 17-23
Critchley, A and Fann, B (1971b) Group work with adolescent girls. Child in Care 11 (6), 11-14
Department of Education and Science (1983) Young people in the 80s: a survey London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
Department of Health and Social Security (1985) Review of child care law: report to ministers of an interdepartmental working party London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
Fogelman, K (1976) Britain’s sixteen year olds: preliminary findings from the third follow-up study of the National Child Development Study (1958 Cohort) London: National Children’s Bureau
Godek, S (1976) Leaving care: a case-study approach to the difficulties children face in leaving residential care Barkingside: Barnardo’s
Hitchman, J (1960) The King of the Barbareens London: Putnam
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Millham, S, Bullock, R and Cherrett, P (1975) After grace, teeth: a comparative study of residential experience of boys in approved schools London: Human Context See also Children Webmag March 2010.
Page, R and Clark, G A (Eds) (1977) Who cares? Young people in care speak out London: National Children’s Bureau See also Children Webmag December 2008.
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Trasler, G (1960) In place of parents: a study of foster care London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Wiener, A and Wiener, E (1990) Expanding the options in child placement Lanham MD: University Press of America See also Children Webmag January 2010.

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