The new Staying Put duty – the requirement for local authorities to support arrangements where young people continue to live with their foster carer up to the age of 21 – has been lauded as the most significant reform for children in care for a generation.
The principles of Staying Put certainly deserve that plaudit. The scheme offers young people a more natural transition to adulthood and independence. It provides the kind of support that any reasonable parent would provide for their children, and rightly so. When the state makes a conscious decision to intervene in the life of a child it has an obligation to do everything possible to help them into successful adulthood.
For too long, young people leaving care faced an abrupt transition to independence that has been described as instant adulthood. The consequences are clear in the outcomes for care leavers. There is a lot of evidence that young people leaving care are more likely to be Neet (not in education, employment or training), to become young parents, to experience homelessness and mental health problems, and to have contact with the criminal justice system.
The age at which children leave care, the speed of transition and maintaining secure attachments all help to give young people a better chance of good adult outcomes. Staying Put helps to ensure that young people experience a transition to adulthood similar to their peers, within a supportive family environment. The achievement of children's minister Edward Timpson MP and Department for Education civil servants in securing this new duty should not be underestimated; in particular the requirement that the support local authorities provide to Staying Put arrangements must also be financial. In a rare coup in these difficult financial times, £40m of central government funding has been allocated to support local authorities in meeting their new duties.
However, there are a number of significant challenges to implementing these reforms. It is simply not clear whether this £40m, spread over three years and every local authority in England, will be enough to ensure that authorities can properly support every arrangement.
The costs to local authorities will depend on the number of young people who choose to stay put, how long they stay for and the level of financial support offered to the carer. Local authorities must pay carers an allowance to cover the costs of the young person continuing to live with them. But unlike foster care, there are no national standards about the minimum allowance that carers should receive, and they are unlikely to receive any fee element in recognition of the expertise they bring to supporting the young adult in moving to independence.
The good practice guidance launched on Tuesday notes that this loss of income is one of the biggest obstacles to foster carers being able to offer Staying Put, and encourages local authorities to ensure no young person misses out just because their carer cannot afford it.
Unfortunately, we know that unprecedented budget cuts mean councils in many areas will not have enough money to meet their statutory responsibilities, let alone go further than required. Councils have been up front about the pressures to reduce the number of children in care, with some saying they will use early conversations with 17 year-olds about leaving care as one way of achieving this.
As Staying Put rolls out across England, we need to gather robust evidence about the real costs, barriers and obstacles. Without adequate funding based on a comprehensive understanding of the costs there are disincentives to encouraging more young people to take advantage of the scheme.
In the worst case scenario, there is a risk that local authorities may face pressures to move young people out of foster care before they turn 18. We hope that practice will not bear this out, but numbers of young people leaving care at 16 and 17 should be closely monitored as Staying Put comes into effect.
The nature and extent of independent fostering agencies' obligations in relation to Staying Put is also unclear. Local authority commissioning increasingly requires agencies to commit to offering the scheme. This is a positive step, and some local authorities plan to work in partnership with independent agencies throughout the arrangement.
However, many local authorities say they plan to make Staying Put arrangements directly with the carer and young person, without involving the agency that has supported them throughout the fostering placement. Foster carers and young people therefore face losing consistency in the support they have previously received unless independent agencies fund this through their surplus or charitable income – an issue many are grappling with.
Amid so much uncertainty, one thing is clear: local authorities and independent agencies must work constructively together to ensure that every young person who wants to stay put gets the chance, and that carers get the support they need.
Amanda Cumberland is policy and parliamentary adviser at TACT.
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