We wouldn’t make our own child leave home before they were ready – so why do we discriminate against children in care?
I’ve been a children’s rights worker for seven years, working with young people on their wishes and feelings about their care and support. But when they turn 18 this becomes a limited area: wishes and feelings are often made redundant when faced with the realities of leaving care.
The Staying Put policy was introduced in 2014 to allow young people in foster care to stay until the age of 21. But mention introducing this to children’s homes to anyone in social care, and they immediately talk about logistics. How would it work? When would they leave? What if they came back drunk? What if … what if … How could an 18-year-old ever live with children; surely it’s never happened before?
The issue is not about what the right thing is for the young person, but about the limitations and needs of the system. But Scotland has made it happen (pdf); they’ve decided it’s the right thing to do, therefore they will do it.
Although there are legal differences when a young person turns 18, it does not mean they suddenly need supporting in vastly different ways. They are the same person who is already living in the children’s home.
If a young person wants to stay in the home after turning 18, it is for a reason. They are making the choice to ask to stay; they know what is best for them at this stage in their lives. They will still have reviews, still talk to staff and social workers, still work on moving into their own place. But it will be when they, the staff and their social worker feel it is right thing to do, and in the right way for them.
In my years as a children’s rights worker I have supported many young people who can’t wait to leave the children’s home, can’t wait to no longer have a social worker, and dream of the day for all it represents.
Asking to stay is a big change; it means they are feeling supported, they feel settled, and they are deciding what’s best for them.
As with a lot of care system procedures there is a contradiction. Many young people will never have spent any time living on their own, but when they reach 18 they will suddenly be in a new place by themselves. Is this good parenting? Would we not want a gradual increase in independence and responsibility, as for our own children? This may not be achieved just in time for their 18th birthday and we shouldn’t expect young people suddenly to cut ties with those who have supported them. We want young people to build relationships, to manage them and to grow.
So young people need the option of staying put in children’s homes. Can we find a way of making it work – yes! How will it work – let’s find out, let’s talk about it. Let’s involve young people and ask them what they think and what they need. We don’t give up on our children own because something is difficult; that’s what makes us good parents. Being told it is impossible by children’s services managers – whose own child might still be at home at 25 – is a double standard too far.
Recently, I have worked with young people who wanted to stay in their children’s home past 18. What a fantastic response to the care they are receiving, what great self-knowledge. Their worries weren’t around practical matters of washing or shopping, but around their emotional needs. They knew they needed someone there to talk to. We’ve helped them develop this self-knowledge; we should not totally discount their feelings at 18.
Young people in the UK are staying at home much longer these days, especially with increased financial pressure. So why do we expect those who have experienced neglect or abuse to be ready to leave at 18? Who’s there on their first day at work? Who’s there to talk to when they’re making sense of becoming an adult and all it involves?
Let’s stop discriminating against these young people. It is a poor state of affairs if their 18th birthday represents the date they were legally discriminated against. Welcome to the world, now off you go.
• For more information on the Every Child Leaving Care Matters campaign, click here.
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