Time to bust some myths
I have been a Specialist Advocate at Coram Voice for 10 years now. Over the years I have come across some myths about what support Care Leavers can and cannot get. They are common misunderstandings that Care Leavers have – because that is what they have been told. I would very much like to bust these myths because statutory guidance outlines a very good support package and Care Leaver’s should not be missing out!
Myth 1: Support to all Care Leavers stops at age 25
When Care Leavers are given the wrong information this has an impact on their plans and ambitions. Support for Qualifying children ends at age 25 but support for Former Relevant Children, ie, those who were in care for a long time, does not. So the support very much depends on which leaving care status a young person has. The Leaving Care Act can be confusing but the Children Act Guidance clearly states that support can go beyond the 25th birthday (par. 3.54 of Vol 3, if you want to go and check). The support outlined in a Care Leaver’s Pathway Plan continues for as long as they follow their plan for education. This seems to be a little known fact. Comprehensive support that is tailored to a young person’s needs, including what they need to continue their education can make all the difference. And it often does.
Myth 2: To get support to return to education before their 25th birthday Care Leavers must be already in education or enrolled on a course
Young people are often told that they cannot be helped until they are on a course, that it has to be a certain type of course, that they need an acceptance letter or that the course has to be full time. The barriers that young people face are very discouraging yet there is no reason for young people to be denied support. The Guidance acknowledges that young people who have been in care may need more time so Care Leavers can get support to return to education any time between the ages of 18 and 25. The Guidance is very helpful and it states that Personal Advisors can help young people find the best course for them. And the programme of study can be a basic skills course to help them compete in job market (including vocational training, apprenticeships and basic literacy and numeracy courses) (par. 3.49 of the Vol. 3). One of the aims of the Children (Leaving Care) Act was to improve Care Leavers’ outcomes relating to education so it recognises that a young person may need to start with the basics and take it from there.
Myth 3: A Local Authority’s financial policy determines how much money a Care Leaver gets
Some policies can be really generous. Which is really good. But sometimes Local Authority policies set out just a minimum level of support a Care Leaver would get. These can be blanket policies that will not take into account the individual needs of young people. The Local Authority’s financial policy is a great document for Care Leavers to know what support the Local Authority will give them, but their needs, which should be set out in their Pathway Plan, determine what financial, and other, support they would be entitled to. Guidance usefully sets out a list of things that should be prioritised including, but not limited to, educational costs, clothing, social activities, therapy and identity documents (para 8.9).
Myth 4: Young people cannot enter care after age 16
We are still seeing some 16 and 17 year olds being told that they are too old to come into care when they ask their Local Authority for help. There is nothing in the Children Act that says young people have to enter care before their 16th birthday. Reading the Act can lead to some confusion as it mentions several age milestones. Basically, the Act says that for a young person to get support as a Care Leaver they have to be in care for some time after their 16th birthday. The level of support that a young person, who has been in care on or after their 16th birthday, will receive will depends on how much time they have been in care since their 14th birthday. This can be confusing but the bottom line is that a young person has to be in care, even if it is just for a day, on or after their 16th birthday to count for leaving care purposes.
Myth 5: Being in care means living with foster carers or in a children’s home
There are many different types of accommodation (such as semi-independent placements or supported housing) that Care Leavers can live in which suits their needs. Being in care is not just about being in foster care or in a children’s home. Being in care or a “looked after child” is more about the full support package that the Local Authority provides to the young person when acting as the parent. The Local Authority would look at the young person’s needs holistically and then put support in place. This is pertinent when considering when a young person leaves care. For example, if a young person does not stay in the placement that Children’s Services found for him or her this does not mean that the young person is discharging him or herself from care. Most likely it means that the young person is not happy with where they are living or about something else that the Local Authority should look at, as any good parent would.
You might have spotted the common thread running through my myth-busting explanations - it always comes back to the reasoning behind the Children (Leaving Care) Act. Very importantly, it is also about listening to the young people and not making assumptions that the young person in front of you will need the same as the young person you just saw, when it comes to becoming independent.
I have seen when extensive support packages have helped Care Leavers turn their lives around but also what can happen when they are not provided with the support they need. Independent advocacy services can be of great help, not just for young people to get the support they are entitled to, but also by helping Local Authorities identify trends, issues and gaps in provision faced by their young people. By listening to the wishes and feelings of young people, regularly reviewing young people’s well-being and how supported they feel, Local Authorities can avoid some of the difficulties Care Leavers face and help them achieve better outcomes.
Sara Gomes, Coram Voice 16+ Specialist Advocate