Save for the biblical parable of the prodigal son, who would reasonably expect and accept a parent to treat their two children so differently as to insist that for no good reason one must leave home at or before their eighteenth birthday whilst the other is made welcome to stay until they at least achieve an age at which a reasonable level of maturity can be expected?
When in December 2013 the government announced its plan for the forthcoming Children Act, which was subsequently enacted in March 2014, they included a most welcome announcement that children placed in foster care would be enabled to ‘stay put’ in their placement, if they so choose, up to the age of twenty-one. Notwithstanding subsequent concerns about the reality of this to which I will return later, there was clearly something missing. What of the 9% of all children in care who are placed residentially?
For those who know anything about child care in England, or as turns out much of the rest of the developed countries around the world, it is clear that children do not find their way into residential care easily. Most will have previously experienced one, or five or perhaps thirty five previous placements. Many will have been moved around the country as their ‘care career’ develops. Those who did not have attachment and trauma issues dating back to their initial admission to care – if anyone really does believe this to be true – certainly will have after multiple placement failures. Given the number of moves experienced by this cohort of children there is very little chance that they will have received any or certainly a continuity of therapeutic intervention. A very high proportion of this group will be considered to be ‘high risk’ children and young people. High risk of harming themselves, high risk of being sexually or otherwise exploited, high risk of being drawn into what is now commonly referred to as ‘Guns and Gangs’ activity. High risk of having developed or compounded an existing mental health condition that may well determine the rest of their lives which are, of course, all too often prematurely ended.
Speaking generally those children who live in residential care will be among the most complex or challenging or distressed or disturbed children in care. Why? Those in the profession would not ask this question. Children are rarely if ever placed directly into residential care – even though there may be very strong professional arguments for doing so in a limited number of cases. Residential care is far too often the placement of last resort not the placement of choice based on need. Children placed in residential care will commonly have experienced five, or ten, or twenty or perhaps more ‘failed’ placements before they are placed residentially. Consequently they are more likely to have more complex needs than they did at which they entered the ‘care system.’ Yet, it seems, our government thinks that this is the cohort of children leaving care most able to manage independently at eighteen. This is clearly absurd and in fact it might be marginally better if the government had simply acknowledged that they are excluded from staying put because they would be, proportionately, more expensive to offer a staying put option.
I have been fortunate (?) over the last two years to have sat in a room accompanied in some cases by those who might consider themselves among the ‘great and the good’ in child care circles. I have listened to arguments espousing why staying put could not be offered to those in residential care. I am, frankly, yet to hear one that isn’t fatuous.
“O(f)STED wouldn’t allow it.” This is self-evidently nonsense. There are very many examples of the much maligned inspectorate approving such arrangements – yes, there must be a strong and well-argued case. It must be demonstrably in the best interests of the young person; there must be considered and well-presented risk assessments and at any time there must not be a majority of young adults living in a children’s home. Would anyone take issue with any of these? Would any children’s home not do this in the interest of all of the children living there?
“It would present a safeguarding issue.” Ridiculous. If it didn’t present a safeguarding issue on the eve of a child’s eighteenth birthday why would it on the following morning? If a child is to stay put in a foster home with other children would the same argument be applied? Seemingly not. I ask this of those would oppose staying put for children in residential care “If you have an argument against then please put it but do not patronise the professionals and children concerned. By all means argue that there may need to be additional considerations to take into account, please do set sensible conditions that may be required but do not insult the collective intelligence of those who work in, manage and inspect residential care.”
In December 2013 those who were soon to come together to form the Every Child Leaving Care Matters Campaign included some who, on hearing the announcement, still thought or at least hoped that perhaps it was a mistake or careless omission of some sort. Perhaps even an anomaly, as many have since erroneously described the decision made by government in the drafting of and subsequent implementation of the Children and Families Act which made no reference whatsoever to children in residential care having the same option as those in foster care to ‘stay put’. Mistake or not a small group of initially five individuals barely, or not at all, known to each other previously manged to identify a shared sense of impending outrage and to contact each other via phone or social media. Incredulity mixed with anger and indignation might reasonably have summed up the mood over the course of the next few days as first it became clear that it was neither a mistake nor an oversight. We almost waited for the reaction from those charities and organisations established to advocate for care leavers to explode into action but what we heard was a deafening silence. As we began to mobilise our non-existent resources we expected to be overtaken by others with far more experience and access to expertise in challenging government. Within a few days we started the Campaign in social media. A small group of four care experienced individuals and one other of various ages, professionals in social care, some with some campaigning experience whilst most had none. Unfunded, not politically affiliated, volunteers who stole the rather meaningless soundbite ‘Every Child Matters’ and in our own naivety perhaps tried to breathe life into it. The individual membership of the then Core Group which has now rather grandly been relabelled a Board, is unimportant. Three of those founder members remain and the two who don’t continue to be vocal and loyal supporters. The campaign remains unfunded, unaffiliated and operated entirely on a voluntary basis. We answer exclusively to each other and to our membership.
What does the ECLCM campaign seek? It is quite simple really and that may be our strength. We simply want the option that has (in principle, again more later) been offered to children in foster care to be extended to those in residential care. Have we other opinions in relation to child care in general and residential care in particular? Of course we have, we are a very opinionated (and as it happens moderately well qualified and experienced) company but what we say in the name of ECLCM stays fairly rigidly on and in related to task. To be fair, over the course of the last two years we have shifted ever so slightly insofar as you will see much of what we put out referring to a demand for ‘all children in care being offered the option to stay put in appropriately funded placements’. To deal with this matter without further ado it has become clear and is a matter of several independently conducted studies that the reality is that the take up rate for staying put in foster care is only approximately twenty five per cent of cases and that the primary reason is lack of available funding for the placements. Those, who like me were at the APPG on Looked After Children on 9th December 2015 will not forget quickly the moving and eloquent testimony of a young care leaver who explained that after twelve years in his foster home he was forced to leave on his eighteenth birthday because his foster carer could not afford for him to stay. He is not alone in this experience. Indeed the committee room, full as it was that evening with a majority of children and adults from the fostering world, appeared to speak as one in demanding the option for all children to be allowed to stay put and adequately financed in their placements up to the age of twenty-one.
The campaign has undoubtedly gained both momentum and supporters during a frenetic two years when we have seen the number of signatories to our petition grow steadily to the point which, at the time of writing (11.01.15.) almost ten thousand, two hundred people have signed their support. We have submitted evidence to and presented at the Education Select Committee ‘Into independence, not out of care: 16 plus care options’. Indeed that committee agreed with our position only to be ignored by government making us wonder why such committees are created in the first place. We have submitted to the Laming Enquiry and await with interest the conclusions that this may arrive at on why it is that so many care leavers end up in adult prisons – privately I suspect that we and many of the readers of this article already know. We have had a day (but not yet our day) in parliament when we conducted, thanks to the generosity of Craig Whittaker, a Conservative MP, a debate in which all those present appeared at least to support the concept of extending staying put as an option to all care leavers – those who may doubt this may choose to watch the video of the debate which was neither commissioned nor filmed by us.
We have limited resources – our commitment, determination, intellect and sheer bloody-mindedness at times, certainly not money or endless time. We quickly became used to many of the mainstream charities and organisation being at best neutral and at worst disparaging and critical of our existence. Frankly we had no position to lose and no reputation to defend merely our single issue to present relentlessly and that is what we have done. We have welcomed the early support and encouragement that we received from many such as Children England, the ICHA and NAFP. We have been delighted to see others such as Barnardo’s come to share our view and others such as the Care Leavers Association seek a formal affiliation with us; all of these are unequivocally good but make little difference to our determination and direction of travel. Initially, at least, we were perhaps a little politically naïve and hoped that the support of M.P.’s such as Craig, Bill Esterson and George Hawarth would in the lead up to a General Election encourage others to join in but whilst we successfully lobbied all the political parties save one to include an option for all children in care to stay put in their manifestos or public declarations it was that party which was successful. Clearly direct approaches and appeals to Westminster were not going to work in isolation, though we have received and are grateful for the additional and considerable encouragement from Sarah Champion M.P. and Emma Lewell-Buck M.P. together with Shadow Children’s Minister, Sharon Hodgson M.P. Consequently we have, over the last few months, shifted the focus of our attention whilst still maintaining an increasing output in social media. We have begun to work more closely with Local Authorities. Whist once again our size and lack of resource has been a limiting factor we are exceptionally proud to have entered partnerships with three such so far in passing a motion (always unanimously at full council meetings) with words to the effect:
 This basic ‘template’ has been marginally modified in each case to match local circumstances
“This Council calls on the Government to amend the Children and Families Act 2014 to enable all children in care to stay under the care of the local authority until 21 years of age. Currently cared-for children who are with foster carers can “stay put” until the age of 21 but children in residential care must leave by the age of 18 and sometimes leave at 16 or 17. These vulnerable children and young people in our residential care homes can have complex needs, and compared to those fortunate enough to have been placed in foster care are being discriminated against by Government. As Corporate parents we have a moral obligation to ensure that all children have the best services and support that we as a local authority can give. Staying put in residential care until the age of 21 should be acted on urgently and funded by Government.”
Warrington and Sefton MBC’s and Bradford CC have now all passed this motion and many others are in the process of following. One of the three aforementioned Authorities has already written to all of its social care employees asking them to support the campaign (and their council) by signing the ECLCM petition and the other two will have done so by the time this article is read. We appreciate that funding is a key issue in gaining Local Authority support firstly because in times of seemingly ever tightening austerity they simply don’t have the funds and secondly we are aware that whilst measures such as the Care Leavers Charter look wonderful in principle the practical implementation has been, at best, inconsistent. Central Government must fully fund and ring-fence staying put or it will not happen – as has already been demonstrated for children in foster care. We need all the help that we can receive in meeting other Local Authorities – none with whom we have met thus far have disagreed with us or refused to take the motion to full Council but we are a very small group of people who cannot even devote full-time hours to the campaign let alone meeting with councils. We are always open to offers of support. Unfortunately, perhaps we are limited by virtue of the fact that we are North West based, by chance not design, and we would be delighted to identify others from around the country who have commitment and a few spare hours a week to help us walk through the many more open doors that we can only believe will exist around the country.
Sir Marin Narey’s Children’s residential care review may prove significant in the discussion around staying put. He was generous enough to meet with two members of our board at the outset of his work and has requested a further meeting with us on 27th January, which we shall of course attend. Naturally we have made a submission to his review in the name of the campaign as well as others submitted personally. Whilst some may consider, though not happily Sir Martin, that staying put is not entirely relevant to a more general review we regard it as central. All of those who have worked with children in care will be more than familiar with the tendency for some children to take what little control of their lives they have by seeking to bring to an end a placement that they are told will be ending in the near future. Children in residential care (and perhaps foster care until existing staying put options become real in all cases) who know that their placements must end by the time of their eighteenth birthday will often do all that they can to disengage thereby taking a degree of control some considerable time before hand. I do not begin to equate this to self-harm but the principle of being out of control of so much of one’s life is a common theme.
Our profession is blessed by having many learned academics teaching and researching in social work, social policy, psychology, therapeutic techniques in working with children and many other related fields. Unsolicited, many of the glitterati from academia have chosen to sign up to the campaign on Twitter. We have recently written to them all asking if they would be prepared to add their names to an open letter we have prepared to send to the press and graciously most have agreed to do so. At the time of writing we are in the process of deciding how we should do this, to whom we should offer the letter and when. The text, however is not a secret, and is shown below:
As academics, we wish to share our concern at the impact of changes to the support given to young people leaving care introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014. The Act introduced the opportunity for children in foster care to ‘Stay Put’ in their final placement beyond the age of 18 if it is their wish, agreed by the carers and considered to be meeting their needs. We welcome this but are concerned that the Act has imposed limitations upon this provision that we consider unacceptable.
The ‘Staying Put’ option is limited to young people in foster care. As such, it excludes 9% of young people in care who are placed in residential care and other settings. Moreover, the ‘Staying Put’ option is not funded by central government and as a result, some authorities are not providing it. Recent data suggest that only 25% of the young people entitled to ‘stay put’ are doing so.
The ‘Every Child Leaving Care Matters’ (ECLCM) campaign, formed in December 2013 in response to this provision, has called this discriminatory legislation. We support the aims of the ECLCM campaign and want to see part 5 Welfare of Children (98) of the Children and Families Act 2014 extended to include all care leavers up to at least the age of 21, irrespective of their placement.
There is a wealth of academic research into of the lives of children in care and their outcomes, and we recognise that such outcomes for children and young people need to be improved and, currently fall well below what we would want for all our children. Moreover, the majority of the most troubled and vulnerable children and young people tend to be those placed in children’s homes and other residential settings and are often those for whom a family setting is not suitable. The Children and Families Act 2014, aimed to offer vulnerable children in care the opportunity to continue to live in homes where they were settled and feel safe but in practice it excludes the most vulnerable from doing so, based only on final placement and not assessed need.
In our view, it is unacceptable and ill-judged to exclude young people as young as 16 years old who are leaving residential care from the ‘Staying Put’ option. To expect this group to be able to cope and successfully make the transition to adulthood is inhumane and flies in the face of the wealth of evidence on their struggles and outcomes post care. The evidence on the disproportionate number of care leavers in the prison and secure hospitals population alongside the numbers who are unemployed and homeless has been repeatedly highlighted, including by the government’s own Education Select Committee in their report ‘Into independence, not out of care: 16 plus care options’.
We call on the government to review and overturn the exclusion of children in residential care and other settings from the option to ‘Stay Put’ as a matter of urgency (2).
In our small group of volunteers we have something over two centuries of experience of the care system either as a child or professional or in some cases both. This does not mean we know it all – we know that we don’t. We do, however, have an awareness of it. I suggest that many in our society do not. Tracey Beaker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins are perhaps as close as many people get to knowing anything about children being cared for by substitute carers. In our campaign we believe that many if not most in our society would rather not know or think too much about children in care. Not because we are a heartless society as such it’s just easier not to consider the often very unpalatable things that happen to children and better to pay a profession or series of professions to ‘care for the problem’ with the added advantage that if something goes horribly wrong then there is a ready-made individual or group to hold responsible. In the ECLCM campaign we genuinely believe that if we could find a way of helping the English (remember Scotland and Wales are way ahead of England in seeking to support care leavers beyond the age of eighteen) population to better understand that children in care really are ‘just like other children’. These ‘other children’ generally ‘sponge’ off their parents until they are well into their twenties or perhaps thirties; frequently live at home until they are twenty six or twenty seven and really aren’t ready to live independently at sixteen or seventeen. If we can help more of the population to understand this then we will have a chance of making the government ‘do the right thing’.
Those reading this will be more than familiar with the rather static data in relation to outcomes for care leavers over the course of the last four decades and as such it had deliberately been excluded. Unless and until we do a better job for our children in care and care leavers then changes in the data are likely to be at best marginal. Personally, I believe that as a whole we have a much more skilled, informed and trained workforce that we had in residential and foster care forty years ago when I joined the profession, that of course is a subjective opinion but if it has any merit then how many professions can we say have learned so much more and achieved so little as a result?
If anyone would like to help the ECLCM campaign or simply learn more about it then please do contact us via:
Twitter – @rescareto21
Website (It’s still being developed) ECLCM.org
(Member of the ECLCM Board)
(2) As Professor Mike Stein, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy Research Unit points out this (official) figure is a little misleading “A very similar percentage of young people, aged 16-18 and over, leave care from residential and foster care placements. For the year ending 2014 just under a third (32%) of young people left from all types of residential placements: children’s homes, secure units, hostels (21%), ‘other residential settings’ (9%) and residential schools (2%), representing a slight increase in the use of residential placements (2%) from 2010 – whereas just over a third (37%) of young people left from foster placements, down 2 per cent from 2010.”