Young people leaving care are right to fear homelessness - 30% of homeless people have been in the care system. For the majority who do stay housed, there's the challenge of balancing college or work with the need to be completely self-reliant.
'At eighteen that’s it – that’s really it. And they’re still kids. You don’t think you are – you have no perception of yourself as that, but the choices you make and the way that you’re doing things – you’re an evolved child, but you’re still a child.'
Oliver Ashton, care leaver, reflecting on leaving his foster home after a history of petty crime.
'What happens to those care leavers who don’t get the support I received from my carers? The ones who haven’t saved for their future, who don’t have the skills to cope? They are the ones I’m most concerned about.'
Milly, who moved from a stable foster home to a filthy flat on leaving care.
The rules for teenagers leaving care and becoming responsible adults are themselves in transition. As social worker Teresa McAlorum says ‘a few years ago it was you’re sixteen – goodbye’. This is still the case for some: 27% of 16 year olds are given council accommodation, benefits and are left to get on with it.
Without family support the margin for error is very small: an unexpected water bill, a wild night on the town and a young person can find themselves facing eviction for insolvency. Milly's story illustrates that even a mature young person with strong support can find moving traumatic. Once an older teenager has made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’, the ‘corporate parent’ no longer has any responsibility for them.
After 18, unless a care leaver has a child themselves, they are not considered ‘vulnerable’ enough for priority housing. Hence, many teenagers leaving care are scared of ending up with no home, vulnerable to falling into drugs or sex work.
Incoming legislation means that children can’t be moved from supported to unsupported living without proper scrutiny. So a 16 year old in foster care who wishes to stay cannot be ejected from the system. Their 'pathway plan' is also supposed to ensure that they have the skills – everything from washing up to budget management – to cope with living independently before they move out.
Teenagers who have been living in foster care have some chance of forging bonds with the caring family and staying on. This is seen as less likely in residential homes, although the government is planning some research to see if some would like to stay beyond 16.
The Right2BCared4 pilot scheme is particularly aimed at making sure young people don’t feel forced out of children’s homes if they don’t want to leave.
Some children return to their birth parents at 16. For some, this is a good outcome – they have the maturity to deal with the problems that led them to be taken into care in the first place. Many will ‘vote with their feet’ and spontaneously return home. Others who spoke to The Who Cares? Trust for our research on reunification saw returning to their parents as inevitable, but not always well planned.
Legislation usually works on a yes/no principle, outlining what should or shouldn’t happen. For many care leavers a more natural supported transition is what works the best. Many young people who leave home will return to their parents for Sunday lunch, the loan of fifty quid, or a bit of advice. Leaving care, a young person should look back to see a door to support still left ajar – not slammed shut, leaving them alone in the wilds of adult life.