Childhood is short. It is the foundation of our self-esteem, and sets the tone for most of our adult life. Children and young people need to feel loved, secure and safe, and that there are people in their lives who will never give up on them.
When the state takes on the role of parent, as it does for looked after children, children should still receive the nurture and security that their families are not able to offer, no matter how complex their lives are.
For the most vulnerable young people leaving care in Wales something is going wrong. Despite the collective positive efforts of the Welsh government, local government and many others, good intentions have not led to good results.
One third of young people experience homelessness at some point between 6 and 24 months after leaving care. Almost half of young care leavers have a long-term mental illness. Welsh Government figures show local authorities have no contact with 7% of the young people who left care in Wales last year. We simply don’t know where these vulnerable young people are.
How can this be the case? How can the “corporate parent” not know where or how their child is? Likewise, why would a young person not wish to be in touch? Action for Children – Gweithredu dros Blant’s latest research report, Too much, too young, asked why this is happening? How can young people who have been in care end up homeless? Why are good intentions not bearing fruit?
Many care leaving services are doing a good job and elements of support are particularly valued by young people. However our research found there is gap between what young people say they need and the support available to them. For example young people consistently spoke of their need to have one consistent person who they can talk to and can help them through day-to-day challenges when they happen. However, most leaving care support services operate between 9am and 5pm on weekdays and is not designed to provide this type of flexible support over the long-term.
Factors we found made a difference were either personal, such as managing emotions, or relationship based, having some you can trust to talk to or being able to build a relationship with your birth family. We need to re-focus on addressing the reasons why young people entered care in the first place if we are going to support them to leave care and thrive.
There is an urgent need to focus on the individual needs and experiences of young people. By supporting children and young people to overcome emotional trauma and make sense of the reasons they are in care, we can increase the chances of them settling and feeling safe. We know that a stable journey through care increases the chance of stability in adulthood: we need to act earlier to prevent crisis for these young people.
The situation is urgent. Costs are escalating and pressure on local services continues. Every year that passes, some of the most vulnerable young people who leave care disappear from the radar, only reappearing when things have reached crisis point.
This is a shared responsibility. The legal, policy and practice framework for supporting young people leaving care reaches across bodies, departments and individuals and is supposed to bring everyone involved in these young people’s lives together.
In Wales we have a real opportunity to re-think how the care system supports children and young people to thrive. The Housing (Wales) Act and the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act both passed this year have a strong focus on early action and prevention, and both make special provision for supporting young people leaving care. As standalone pieces of legislation, these laws stand to make a valuable contribution but will not overcomes the persistent challenges young people already face as they fall between gaps in separate systems.
A clearer, coherent vision for “corporate parenting” across organisational divides is needed. We believe the Welsh government should review the role of the “corporate parent” in children and young people’s lives. The result should be a single framework which brings together the contributions from all parts of the state, and focuses on meeting children and young people’s needs as early as possible. This means unmasking the bodies and individuals behind this title, and being absolutely clear what nurture and security means before, during and after care.