At 25, Care Leavers are No Longer Entitled to Support from their “Corporate Parents”. What Happens When the Lifeline is Cut?
Isabelle Kirkham was 9 years old when she went into foster care. Growing up, she thought everybody had a social worker – such was the extent of their involvement in her life.
I begin to lose count as she recalls the string of social workers and personal advisors who supported her from ages 9-24.
But despite these ever-changing relationships, she stresses, the presence of a corporate parent was a constant. In the absence of a family safety net, their support was crucial at all stages, but particularly when she started university.
During this time, they provided much-needed practical and financial support, including buying books, a laptop, and acting as a guarantor for a student flat. All things that parents or guardians would ordinarily help with.
What mattered most was the emotional support.
‘As someone with awful mental health at times, that’s what I needed’ she says. ‘Someone to just be like “Hello, how are you doing? Are you doing your dissertation? Because parents of non-care experienced friends have their parents to check in on them and bug them’ she recalls, adding ‘I needed that’.
And during the uncertainty of the pandemic, the 25-year-old activist was able to ask for help.
‘I could reach out and say “I’m really struggling, and I don’t have any money for food. It’s either rent or bills or food. Can you help with food vouchers?’”.
The last time she asked this, she recalls, the answer was yes – but what followed was a cold, formal text to inform her the support would soon cease. All because she was approaching the age of 25.
‘I can’t believe they let me know by text’ she says, ‘and they even misspelt my name’. The message, which Kirkham has shared below in the hope that things will change, read:
Dear Izzy [previous surname],
This is the last thing I’m going to be able to help with financially. I’ve been advised that as you finish university, the support will cease. And I need to close your case. However, I can still support you with advice and guidance basis until you’re 25 if you wish. Let me know if you want me to keep you open until 25. Thank you.
It was the last she ever heard from her corporate parents.
Until fairly recently, adolescence was thought to end at 19 years old, but in recent years, scientists have revised it to 25. It is only at this point that the rational part of the brain, located in the prefrontal cortex, fully develops.
It is an age representing new beginnings, as young people cross the threshold into adulthood. But for care leavers, it represents an ending. After this point, the local authority ceases to have a legal duty to support them
Care leavers between 18-24 have access to a ‘personal advisor’ – sometimes, but not always a social worker, who can check in with them every 6 months.
It is their role to support them to activate their ‘pathway plan’ which covers what they hope to achieve across things like finance, employment and health. Yet, the quality of the local offer for care leavers differs across the country.
Terry Galloway, care leaver, set up the Care Leaver Offer in an attempt to even the playing field.
It allows users to compare support across the country under six categories, all of which must be included in any local offer, under the Children and Social Care Act 2017:
- Health and Well-being
- Relationships, Education and Training
- Participation in Society.
‘I wanted to create systemic change. I’ve lived in over 100 places’, says Galloway, reflecting on why he set up the website.
‘My sister ended up getting murdered by a partner, because, what happens with a lot of kids that leave the care system is that they leave and they’re vulnerable, and they’re looking for love’.
‘They want that connection and they end up getting into gangs and crime, basically just looking for those relationships they didn’t have. My sister was the same’ he says. ‘She ended up getting into a domestic violence situation and killed. Before that, she ended up losing her children’.
Galloway is working tirelessly to prevent other children from experiencing the same outcomes.
‘We need to create a system whereby kids are prepared to get into work and decent housing when they leave, If they get into work, they’re going to start building better relationships in the workplace rather than radiating back toward families who might have caused them to go into care, or criminality’.
But finding work can be fraught with difficulties, he adds, especially when education has been disrupted.
‘A lot of care leavers are at the lower end of the labour market. They’re competing with young people living at home with no bills to pay. So they can’t afford to accept minimum wage. It’s not sustainable’ he says.
The next step for the website, he explains, is to gauge the quality of the support offered ‘by grading everyone and checking that they are doing what they say they’re doing. Because there are a lot who are just blagging it’ he says.
Based on the website, it is easy to directly compare local offers – let us take Wokingham, the most prosperous place to live in the UK according to the UK Prosperity Index, and Blackpool which ranks bottom at 379th. The latter is a place I know well, having spent time in care there as a teenager.
In Wokingham, a care leaver would have access to priority social housing, funding for work and interview clothing, and mobile phone costs to name just some areas. Whereas in the latter, a care leaver would enjoy none of this – and what’s more, they would need to start paying council tax 4 years ahead of their counterparts.
It is not surprising, then, that 29% of Wokingham care leavers will go onto being classified as NEET (Not in Education or Training), compared to a staggering 54% in Blackpool.
It points to a larger issue of regional inequality, whereby areas steeped in social deprivation, such as Blackpool, are more likely to have children end up in care despite having fewer resources. In the case above, Blackpool was home to over 3 times as many care leavers in the year ending March 2021.
Whilst the quality of support offered may be hugely different, one thing does unite care leavers in both areas – the fact that it will stop entirely after 25.
Some local authorities go beyond legislative limits.
Jonny Hayle, a care experienced social worker working at North Yorkshire County Council, helped set up the #AlwaysHere initiative.
Longevity is what they are striving for, he explains, saying ‘Fracturing and ending these relationships based on age, or having young people worrying about losing us on their 25th birthday doesn’t match our ethos’.
He adds ‘It’s important to keep in mind that the challenges care leavers face post 25 can be largely similar to their peers. The main difference is that often, care leavers don’t have the same support networks’.
‘At North Yorkshire CC, We’re always here regardless of your age…we love it when we’ve built a great relationship and our young people contact us to share their good news.
‘We recognise this won’t resolve all difficulties care leavers face in adulthood, but we hope it is a step in the right direction’.
The Always Here approach should be considered around the country, says Linda Briheim-Crookall, Head of Policy and Practice Development at Coram Voice, a non-profit dedicated to empowering vulnerable children and young people.
‘The young people we work with often describe how unprepared and alone they feel when told that they will no longer be supported’ she says. Something which is unsurprising, especially given that for 1 in 10 care leavers, their leaving care personal adviser is their only source of emotional support.
‘From our Bright Spots Programme we know that too many young people feel overwhelmed by the drastic changes in support as they get older. We found that well-being declines sharply when young people leave care – compared with children in care, a higher percentage of care leavers felt unhappy, unsafe and unsettled where they lived’.
Addressing the cliff-edge of care, she adds, must begin by investing in leaving care support, as well as changing legal framework and local practice which leads to the sharp drop of support at key birthdays.
Whilst Isabelle’s support came to an abrupt end, she is actively campaigning for better outcomes for the next generation.
Before she logs off for the evening to celebrate her 25th birthday, in spite of what it represents, I ask what she would change if she became the children’s commissioner tomorrow.
‘I would say that you never leave care – that the support should never end. I don’t think you ever leave care, – I think your care follows you as you grow up’ she says, pausing.
‘Care leavers don’t exist – you’re just care experienced’.
Rebekah Pierre is a freelance journalist and author. A former social worker with lived experience of the care system, she is committed to exposing how social policy fails to meet the needs of those it is designed to serve.