Giving young people the right to stay with foster carers until they are 21 years old is a major step forward
by Natasha Finlayson
My Twitter feed – which includes a large number of people who work in the care system and care leavers – exploded into joyous incredulity this week at the news that the government had agreed to introduce an amendment to the children and families bill that will give young people in England the right to stay with their foster carers until they are 21 years old, if that is what both they and their carers want.
While for some the joy was unalloyed, others had questions that ranged from the curious to the cynical.
Would the £40m from central government over three years cover all the costs or would councils have to make cuts from other vital services to fulfil this new legal duty?
Some queried what this meant for children in the other nations of the UK, and I'm delighted to hear that the Fostering Network is launching campaigns for fostered children in Wales and Scotland to have the same rights as their counterparts in England.
Many – particularly those who had been chucked unceremoniously out of children's homes before they were ready to live on their own – asked angrily why the extension to 21 applies only to young people in foster care; it looked to them as though the government was saying that all young people in care are equal, but some are more equal than others.
And how many young people actually want to stay on, given the wide variations in young people's experiences of foster care? The young care leavers we engage with at the Who Cares? Trust typify the range – some talk warmly of carers with whom they have a deeply loving relationship, who have made every sacrifice to make the child feel secure and valued; others have had carers who offered little more than the child's own parents.
Many have experienced foster care that is perfectly … adequate. Which is of course not good enough – if the state is going to take such draconian action as to remove a child from its parents then it is surely a moral imperative that the substitute parenting the state puts in place is far, far better than that from which the child was taken. Not just a place of shelter, but a place to heal, grow and flourish in.
But today is not the day for complaining that the quality of foster care should be more consistent (that can wait for tomorrow); it is a day for celebrating the fact that a major step forwards has been taken in the long battle to achieve greater parity for children in care with their peers.
The very well-worn argument that if it's not good enough for your own child then it's not good enough for children in care was never more true – like all good parents, I cannot conceive of shutting the door on my own children when they reach a certain birthday. Knowing there is somewhere you can always call home (somewhere where they have to take you in, as the saying goes) is an essential building block of emotional security and identity. We all need to belong somewhere and to someone.
If foster children stay longer with their carers we'll need to recruit more foster families for younger children and it won't be easy. Yes, extending foster care to the age of 21 will cost money – but there are few things I would rather my council spent money on, even if it means my bins overflow. And yes, it's a no-brainer that children in children's homes – often those who have had the least stable childhoods – should have the same rights as those in foster care.
So let's celebrate today and start the campaign for "staying put" in residential care tomorrow – who's with me?
Natasha Finlayson is chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust
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