Children and young people enter the care system for numerous reasons, some of which include a parent’s inability to cope or because of problems in the family. Most of these children will return to their family after a brief stay, however, many will be expected to leave care and begin living independently between the age of 16 and 18 (Stein and Wade, 2000).
Past research (for example Barnardo’s, 1989; First Key, 1991; Porter, 1984; Randall, 1988/89 and Stein and Carey, 1986) has brought to light the extensive problems facing these young people leaving care, including low educational achievement, isolation, poverty, movement and disruption, homelessness and unemployment. In addition there appears to be an over emphasis on these young people’s ability to manage alone in their late teens with limited support from social services (Marsh and Peel, 1999).
The extent of problems facing young people leaving care is acknowledged, however, it would be difficult to construct a comprehensive discussion of them all given the size constraints of this paper. This essay will begin by outlining the amount of children leaving care. It will then consider that young people will experience problems with identity as a consequence of placement instability and poor continuity of relationships with family and personal networks which can result in negative post-care outcomes.
How these issues can be successfully resolved will then be addressed by looking at how effective existing support services available to care leavers are. Each year somewhere between 7000 and 8000 young people leave care between the ages of sixteen and eighteen and move into independent living compared with less than one in ten of their non care leaving counterparts (DoH, 2003 and Stein and Wade, 2000). They “make an accelerated transition” into independence and “have to shoulder adult responsibilities” (Biehal, et al. , 1995, p. 1) at a much younger age than the majority of young people within the general population. In 1998 the amount of care leavers who leave care at sixteen rose from 33 percent to 46 percent, whereas, within the general population young people are supported by their family until the age of eighteen with the average leaving home age being twenty two (DfES, 2003).
Biehal and colleagues (1995) found that just over half of their cohort of young people left care and went into intermediate housing, such as friends or lodgings, which was thought to be helpful in preparing them for independent living (Frost, et al. 1999). However, 20 percent made the immediate transition to independent housing by the age of nineteen, a much higher percentage than that of the general populous, 0. 5 percent at the time of the study (OPCS in Biehal, et al. , 1995). Having reached the age of sixteen or seventeen it is often assumed that the time has come to move on, however, placement breakdown is the most common reason for leaving care (Frost, et al. , 1999 and Stein and Wade, 2000).
Stein (1990) found that care leavers experienced six to twelve placement moves before the age of sixteen which is consistent with the findings of Biehal et al (1995) who also found that there was a high level of movement for young people during their time in care. Less than one in ten stayed in the same placement, just less than one third moved four to nine times and a small proportion of the group experienced in excess of ten moves before they left care (Biehal, et al. , 1995).
Where placement changes are planned and young people are informed and involved, the care experience can be a positive one leading to good outcomes (Frost, et al. , 1999). However, the experience of multiple placements, coupled with a rapid transition into independence means that young people will be emotionally and practically under-prepared to cope with the issues associated with living alone for the first time (Frost, et al. , 1999). A high degree of movement and disruption in care in turn increases the likelihood that movement and disruption will continue in these young peoples early housing careers (Biehal, et al. 1995). These interruptions and changes mean that young people often have to start again and forge new relationships with peers, teachers, social workers and other carers (Biehal, et al. , 1995) and ties with family, friends and neighbourhoods are likely to be weakened (Stein and Wade, 2000 and Vernon, 2000).
Although it is not always possible, helping young people to maintain links with family helps them to feel a sense of belonging (Bullock, et al. , 1993), over 75 percent of the Moving On group who experienced positive outcomes on leaving care had some links with family. This support is elcomed in terms of practical help and friendly support (Bullock, et al. , 1993) but is also crucial for young people’s understanding of their self identity and culture (Marsh and Peel, 1999). Even if these connections are not strong the “symbolic function” (Biehal, et al. , 1995, p. 110) of the family can help them to develop a positive sense of identity. A poor sense of identity can be exacerbated by a lack of coherent information about their life histories (Frost, et al. , 1999 and Stein and Wade, 2000).
The importance of understanding personal history and culture cannot be underestimated (Biehal, et al. 1995 and Porter, 1984) but where links with the family are weak there is the likelihood that an understanding of their life history is poor (Marsh and Peel, 1999). Biehal et al (1995) highlight that “young people often lacked a detailed knowledge of their past, a Children and young people enter the care system for numerous reasons, some of which include a parent’s inability to cope or because of problems in the family. Most of these children will return to their family after a brief stay, however, many will be expected to leave care and begin living independently between the age of 16 and 18 (Stein and Wade, 2000).
Past research (for example Barnardo’s, 1989; First Key, 1991; Porter, 1984; Randall, 1988/89 and Stein and Carey, 1986) has brought to light the extensive problems facing these young people leaving care, including low educational achievement, isolation, poverty, movement and disruption, homelessness and unemployment. In addition there appears to be an over emphasis on these young people’s ability to manage alone in their late teens with limited support from social services (Marsh and Peel, 1999). convincing narrative of who they were and why events had taken the course they had” (1995, p. ).
This need for continuity means that many young people try and establish some understanding of family history from care workers or official accounts (Biehal, et al. , 1995): “We used to do (life story books) bit by bit to see how much we could remember and try to fit it all together, which used to help a bit, but not much” (Young woman in Biehal, et al. , 1995, p. 108) However, the case for some children is that the distressing and complicated nature of their previous existence is such that their life history can not be “easily transformed into a single linear narrative” (Biehal, et al. 1995, p. 108).
For black young people and those of mixed heritage, these difficulties seem to be particularly augmented especially when links to family and culture have been lost. This confusion may be further increased as a result of growing up in a predominantly white care environment (Stein and Wade, 2000). Moving On identifies that even for young people for whom a family history has been established, making sense of familial rejection has further implications for their sense of identity. Preoccupation with past events often leads to an inability to move successfully forward.
Low self esteem, anger and lack of confidence resulting from feelings of rejection, lead to young people being unable to make positive changes in their future life course (Biehal, et al. , 1995). Rejection from the family means that some young people think others will also automatically reject them (Frost, et al. , 1999), this coupled with the additional stigma of being from care can further add to low self-esteem (Biehal, et al. , 1995). There is evidence that a high level of after care support is instrumental in helping young people overcome these problems (Biehal, et al. 1995 and Cheung and Heath, 1994). However, Moving On identifies that the stigma of having been in care can lead to young people turning down help upon leaving care so as to avoid being set apart from others (Biehal, et al. , 1995). For these young people the care experience appears to compound their problems upon leaving care (Stein and Wade, 2000). Stein and Carey (1986) suggest that if young people are afforded greater participation in the decision making around their placements and what happens in their lives they experience better outcomes.
Those who experience more placement stability and security compared to their pre-care life, and for whom emotional attachments are more secure or who have positive family links, confidence and self esteem are increased (Biehal et al 1995). Moving On indicates that young peoples’ identities are a fluid characteristic. In the eighteen month to two year period after their transition from care, despite initial difficulties, positive development around self identity begin to emerge. Self efficiency and an ability to manage new responsibilities alone create a positive change in the sense of self.
Other factors such as work impacted positively on self esteem as young people felt that it offered them a clearly defined identity within society which had previously been lacking. Having a strong sense of identity is recognised as an important element which allows young people to be successful in other areas of their life. If they receive adequate and appropriate support in achieving this throughout their time in care, young people are more likely to experience a smooth transition into independence (Biehal, et al. , 1995).
It seems evident that all young people will struggle to cope with adversity during their transitions into autonomous living without some kind of after care support (DoH, 2003). However, despite this seemingly obvious issue, research has shown that support from carers and social workers seems to diminish significantly upon leaving care (Fry, 1992 and Garnett, 1992). Garnett (1992) highlights that little attention is paid to the planning of young peoples’ discharge from care and that insufficient notice has been taken of the potential for support from family and extended family at the point of leaving care (Biehal, et al. 1995 and Marsh and Peel, 1999). These interruptions and changes mean that young people often have to start again and forge new relationships with peers, teachers, social workers and other carers (Biehal, et al. , 1995) and ties with family, friends and neighbourhoods are likely to be weakened (Stein and Wade, 2000 and Vernon, 2000). Leaving care schemes have been effective in assisting young people in terms of accommodation and life skills such as budgeting and self care skills (Biehal, et al. , 1995). However, positive outcomes for education and employment have met with less success (DoH, 2003).
These problems have been associated with preparation for children leaving care occurring in the latter phase of their time in care (Social Services Committee, 1984). The Children Act 1989 responded to this by suggesting that the local authority responsible for the young person leaving care had a “duty to assist and befriend him with a view to promoting his welfare when he ceases to be looked after by them” (Children Act 1989, section 24 cited in Marsh and Peel, 1999, p. 4). The Children Act (1989) provides the framework for leaving care services, but disparities in the range and quality of these ervices across authorities is evident in research (Biehal, et al. , 1995 and Broad, 1998). This fragmentation in policy leads to inconsistent support both in and after care being offered to young people (Broad, 1994). There is also evidence that even where an after care support policy is in place, few young people know about it (Broad, 1998). The few who had formal leaving care plans were badly monitored leading to restricted information on after care progress and restricted any further chance of planning and evaluation (DoH, 1997). New Government legislation has been introduced to combat these leaving care problems.
Some of the main provisions of the new Children (leaving care) Act (2000) are to improve preparation for leaving care, delay the transition to independence and plan for and consistently support young people (Stein, 2002). This is achieved by the implementation of individual pathway plans which assess young peoples’ needs and offer specific support in response to these needs (Stein, 2002). Personal advisors offer a supportive role to the young person and help them to participate in putting together pathway plans and involve them in assessment and review taking into account their constantly changing requirements (Allard, 2002 and DoH, 2001).
The Children (leaving care) Act also identifies that preparation for transition out of care should begin at the point of entry in to the care system (DoH, 2001). Stein (1990) recognized that schemes which required young people transferring to them in the latter stages of their time in care compounded the problems associated with movement and disruption. Having an holistic “through care approach” (Stein and Wade, 2000, p. 22) supports transitions out of care and a consistent, well planned approach to preparation alongside stable placements is favorable.
Personal advisors assist with rebuilding and maintaining relationships and close links with family (where possible) to build positive self esteem through knowledge of personal and family histories, culture and community (DoH, 2001). As Stein points out “success in social networks, personal relationships and in positive self image although assisted by schemes was also closely connected with young people having positive, supportive relationships with family members or former foster carers” (2002, p. 32). A lack of family and after care support is indicative of poor post-care outcomes (Biehal, et al. 1995 and Cheung and Heath, 1994). The Children (leaving care) Act is still relatively new and it is too early to know exactly what the impact of it will be (Allard, 2002).
However, it appears from research that it has met with success according to young care leavers with regards to the usefulness of pathway plans and the support of personal advisors for support (West Midlands Childcare Consortium, in Allard, et al. , 2005). There also appears to be an improvement of the outcomes for young people leaving care in terms of education, training, employment and health (Board, 2003 and Hai and Williams, 2004 cited in Allard, et al. 2005) However, Stein (in Allard, et al. , 2005) recognizes three groups of care leavers (see Appendix A for a detailed description of these groups) indicating that a hierarchy of need (Stein, in Allard, et al. , 2005) exists for these young people in relation to their disparate pre-care and in-care experiences (Allard, et al. , 2005). Considering the uneven starting platforms of these young people, there are some concerns about how accurately post-care outcomes are measured under the new Act (Allard, et al. , 2005).
Compared to young people in the general population, those leaving care have to face major challenges in their lives posed by a “compressed and accelerated transition into adulthood” (Stein and Wade, 2000, p. 11) usually as a result of placement breakdown. Because of this young people struggle to make sense of feelings of rejection and isolation and lack a sense of identity because of a weakened links with family and friends or a lack of information about their family history. The lack of continuity and a sense of belonging may cause “status ambiguity” (Biehal, et al. , 1995, p. 13) in that young people feel they are disconnected from family and carers and have an undefined social identity. This confusion can lead to difficulty in moving on in other areas their lives and add to the pressures of living independently. These problems can be overcome with the help of holistic support services which begin at the time of entry into the care system and continue after the young person has left care. Well constructed pathway planning based on stable placements, on going care, continuity and a sense of belonging as well as an understanding of past histories, offer a solid base for leaving.
The chance of a positive transition into adulthood is further increased if good relationships with family, friends and former carers are maintained and young people are encouraged to participate in the decision making process. The Children (leaving care) Act, to date, shows an increase in positive outcomes for care leavers, however, it is still in its infancy. Care leavers are not a homogenous group, positive outcomes on leaving care cannot be divorced from the quality of young peoples’ pre-care and in-care experiences (Stein and Wade 2000).
Considering that young people come from different starting points there is some ambiguity around the accuracy of measuring these outcomes. Despite this, what is clear is that quality of support and after-care preparation will directly impact on how well young people make the transition into independence.
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