I believe that young people leaving care should be allowed to remain with their foster carers until they are 21 years old, if they want to. Currently, children in care leave on, or before, their 18th birthday. Every year, hundreds of the most vulnerable young people have to leave home at age 17, but the average age for leaving home in the UK is 24.
I pressed an amendment to the Children and Families Bill on June 11 to call for the right to stay with foster carers until 21 to help vulnerable young people to manage their transition to adulthood.
I rise to speak to new clause 4, which stands in the name of my right hon. Friend Paul Goggins, who unfortunately cannot be in the
Chamber because of a prior commitment. He has been a tremendous campaigner, along with the Fostering Network, for allowing young people leaving care to remain with their foster carers until they are at least 21. Currently, children in care leave on or before their 18th birthday, which usually means that children in foster care must leave their foster carer. Every year, hundreds of the most vulnerable young people have to leave home at age 17, but the average age for leaving home in the UK is 24.
The statistics on outcomes for care leavers are not good. One third of those living on the streets have a background in care, and almost a quarter of the adult prison population have spent time in care. Local authorities have a duty in care planning guidance to ensure that young people leave their foster care when they are ready and not before, but in 2011-12 only 320 young people—5%—remained with their foster carers after they reached age 18. Research shows that the longer a young person can stay with a foster family, the more successful they are later.
In 2008, the Labour Government set up a “staying put” pilot to assess the benefits of allowing children to stay in care and with foster carers. The pilot reported in 2012 and found that established family relationships and stability make a positive difference to young people in care as they become adults. That is not a surprising outcome—one of the basic values of our culture is the importance of families in providing a nurturing and secure base for young people to make the transition to independence. Not only that, but foster families can become families for life. My aunt and uncle had long-term foster children. To this day, contact continues, as we would expect in other families.
However, there have been no moves to roll out that scheme. It has been left to councils to decide what provision to fund. The provision is therefore a power a council can choose to exercise rather than a duty to provide a service. In effect, it is a postcode lottery. We have taken the responsibility of parenting those children, having judged that their parents’ care is not good enough. In doing so, we have effectively said that the care system will provide better parenting.
Since 2010, the Government have stressed the importance of treating looked-after children the same as we would treat our own children. Planning for the transition of care leavers to adulthood should be founded on the principle: is this good enough for my own child?
Many young people in care have experienced poor parental care, emotional neglect and abuse, and disruptive care placements. An increasing number of young people are coming into care in their early teens, often with complex needs. The care system is failing these children. They are often the ones who run away or go missing, making them vulnerable to harm, including child sexual exploitation. It is recognised that we need to cut the number of out-of-area placements, with local authorities making placements nearer home. The provision of supported foster placements will need to be considered as an alternative to children’s home placements many miles away, so that we can have more vulnerable children in foster care at 18. Although they are adults at 18, they are still vulnerable adults, which is demonstrated by the
statistics I quoted earlier. What difference have we made as parents if children in our care end up on the streets, in jail or with disabling mental health problems—another generation doomed to mirror the lives of their parents?
Why would we not let them stay with their foster carers for those important extra three years? Cost must of course be a calculation, but it is minimal. Loughborough university calculated that on average it cost only £17,500 per local authority per year. There will be a far bigger public cost in providing services to a future generation of failing parents, or in helping young people through drug and alcohol addiction. The human cost in misery is incalculable, as is the cost to society in the lost opportunities of the contribution that might have been made if vulnerable young people had been better supported into independence.
For many young people, their scarring experiences will make their life a tough one. The statistics speak for themselves: young people leaving care need more support, not less. Our amendment would ensure that they receive that continuing support by being allowed to stay in foster care until they are 21 if they want to. I look forward to a positive response from the Minister.