Rhea Stevens says the care leaving age should be raised to give young people the opportunity to develop their independence
For young people in foster care, the approach to their 18th birthday can mean facing up to losing their home and family support. With good reason it’s known as the ‘cliff-edge of care’.
Foster carers John and Bethan know at first-hand the devastating impact leaving care without the right support can have on young people. John used to be a foster carer for Nick, who came to live with his family when he was 15. John describes how Nick’s learning difficulties and years of chronic neglect have left him with underdeveloped social skills and difficulty making friends:
“When he left our home just before his 18th birthday, he had a lot to look forward to. He had a place on a sports studies course, and wanted to become a sports coach. Nick moved into a room in a house with other young people, and a support worker who was there 24 hours a day. He thought it was going to be great, but within a matter of weeks things began to unravel.
“Nick got into a few scrapes in college and it really knocked his confidence. He didn’t feel he could confide in his support workers, and he didn’t come to us because he thought he was supposed to manage on his own. Things festered, and now he’s withdrawn completely. He wants to give up college. He just hasn’t been able to cope.”
Without stable, consistent support it can be very difficult for young people in care, particularly those with additional needs, to overcome the difficulties that such a drastic change in circumstances presents. The care leaving age should be raised to 25, to narrow the gap between care leavers and non-care leavers and give children in care much needed opportunities to develop independence over time.
Bethan agrees. She was Gwen’s 16th foster carer in seven years. Previous placements had broken down because of Gwen’s challenging behaviour and violent outbursts. Over time Bethan was able to manage Gwen’s needs and create a stable, safe home in which she thrived. As she explains:
“I can pinpoint the change in Gwen to the day, when it all changed for the worse. She was 16, and it was the day she was visited by her social worker to talk about what her plans were for when she turned 18 and had to leave foster care – her home. She was in no way ready to make these choices, and they frightened her. After that day Gwen lost hope. She didn’t continue in college after her GCSE’s, she didn’t find a job, and she didn’t have the chance to fulfill her potential. It could have been so different if she had had a little more time with us.”
There are increasing numbers of young people like Nick and Gwen facing the same fears and uncertain future.
Local authorities in Wales respond to these issues in different ways. Some support care leavers beyond their 18th birthday and beyond their statutory responsibilities. There are also areas of Wales in which care leavers receive little support.
This inequality motivated Ken Skates AM to use the first Private Members Bill ballot of the Fourth Assembly to propose new legislation which would allow young people to stay with their foster families beyond the age of 18. Crucially, Ken’s solution was shaped by listening to the ideas of young people in care and foster carers, valuing the real-life expertise they can offer those seeking practical policy solutions.
The Welsh Government took forward the ideas and, in partnership with Ken, developed the ‘When I am Ready’ scheme. This non-statutory guidance encourages local authorities to make arrangements for young people to remain with their foster carers beyond 18, if that is what both parties want.
During the public consultation on this scheme young people and foster carers raised serious concerns about the practical details. They had real concerns about the scheme’s ability, in its initial form, to make a sustainable difference.
The scheme is based on sound concepts and intentions, yet the absence of detail in key areas reduced confidence the scheme would become an achievable choice for young people and foster carers.
The scheme was due to be rolled out this month. However, the Welsh Government has listened to these concerns and announced they are committed to taking the time to look at the scheme again, learning from trials in a small number of local authorities before rolling it out across Wales.
On this occasion it absolutely has been right to slow down the pace of change. We cannot miss another opportunity to improve support for children in care and their future chances. The stories and statistics are clear: They have been let down enough. As John, Nick’s former foster carer said to me, “I’m glad they care enough to try and get this right”.
If this scheme is to deliver real change, it’s essential we engage and learn from the experts – young people and foster carers. We have an important opportunity to make sure the solutions survive contact with the real world, we can’t waste it.