Care leavers – hitting the target and missing the point

Care leavers – hitting the target and missing the point

Jameel Hadi (University of Salford)

Increasing numbers of children are being taken into care  at the same time as outcomes for those leaving care continue to deteriorate. The recent review by the National Audit Office (NAO, 2015) also confirms that care leavers are achieving poorer educational and employment outcomes, greater instability and are not receiving the consistent support they require. This latest manifestation of concern has resulted in yet another review ‘Keeping children in care out of trouble’, to be chaired by Lord Laming (Prison Reform Trust, 2015), asking the question why, when less than 1% of children are in care do a third of boys and 61% of girls in custody, have care histories?

The publication of ‘Me Survive Out There?’ (Department of Health 1999) that accompanied the launch of the Children (Leaving Care Act) 2000 was intended to bring in a new era of accountability and ensure positive transitions to independence. It introduced three indicators that continue to make up the litmus test as to whether this is being achieved; monitoring the numbers in education or training, placement stability and whether regular contact is maintained between the care leaver and a designated personal advisor.

The plight of society’s most vulnerable youngsters following the strengthening of local authorities’ duties including establishing dedicated leaving care teams and the joining up of services to provide corporate parenting introduced by the Children (Leaving Care Act) 2000 has not led to the promised improvements. Indeed care leavers are said to be experiencing worse outcomes than in 2001(National Audit Office, 2015). This admission of failure is not a surprise, but it should cause us to ponder why each successive attempt to improve outcomes has resulted in predictable failure. This list includes, more legislation and regulation (Children and Young Person’s Act 2008); greater calls for scrutiny (Entitlements Enquiry, 2014); strengthening of duties and provision for care leavers to remain in foster care beyond 18 years old (Staying Put Guidance May 2013) and repeated calls for corporate planning and the joining up of services (Care Leaver Strategy, 2013). This calls to mind the old adage that insanity is when you keep doing the same things over and over again but expect different results! This indeed is the story and lesson from the attempts to improve outcome for care leavers. A case in point is that the recent Ofsted inspection found two thirds of care leaver’s services require improvement or are inadequate but the solution advanced is to incentivise local authorities to improve outcomes through payment by results! (National Audit Office, 2015 DfE)

No one can argue that increasing the accountability and responsibilities of local authorities is not overdue but perhaps the issue is that care leavers are viewed as problems to be fixed rather than individuals with myriad relational and developmental needs.   Therefore these children, 62% of whom entered the care system on grounds of neglect or abuse (DfE, 2015) are simply viewed as ‘objects of concern (HMSO 1988)  and it is the threat and risk they pose as a group that informs responses rather than care for them as individuals. This is illustrated by attempts made to quantify the costs they contribute as a category to unemployment, mental health and youth crime (National Audit Office, 2015). It is also compounded by the fact that, many youngsters leave care between the ages of 16 and 18 yet continue to experience ever more compressed and accelerated transitions (Stein, 2012) at a time when other young people are leaving home later and continuing to experience care from their families and social networks underpinned by reciprocal relationships.. As Lemm Sissay, a former care leaver, observes in his Child of The State talk, ‘care’ is not something you leave!

The absurdity of the pathway planning process that is introduced shortly before a’ looked after child’s’ 16th birthday  was observed by a consultant psychologist in a major North West Local Authorities CAMHS team who pointed out that parents do not routinely hold meetings with their children to discuss when they feel able to leave home! It is little wonder that children and young people in care often view the process of untangling and renegotiating their relationship with ‘corporate parents’ as a series of financial transactions and timescales.

There has been a systematic failure to ignore long standing evidence that supportive and continuing relationships are the bedrock of successful transitions (Biehal, 1995). One of the ways this manifests itself is by a system of incentives and low level rewards for care leavers that seek to target the outcomes against which local authorities are measured including placement stability, contact with personal advisors and continued attendance within education, training or employment. For example, a young person at 16 attending further education or entering employment or training will receive an incentivised payment to secure their attendance, an educational grant and a bus pass. The recent Ofsted evidence suggests though that 40% of care leavers over the age of 19 are unemployed compared to 15% of the total age group. Therefore long term and sustained success eludes this group and snap shot indicators are clearly no guarantee of long-term success.

A case in point is the story of a young woman who was visited as part of research which I undertook to establish the experience of care leavers who had lost touch with a local authority prior to the (Children (Leaving Care Act) 2000 Act). She was being supported by a third sector organisation and said to be making wonderful progress. This claim was made on the strength of her maintaining a tenancy, being in full time employment and in regular contact with her support worker. However, the reality, she explained, was that she could not bear to live alone in the flat but was in fact living with her boyfriend’s family, she purchased a four pack of strong lager and bottle of wine on the way home from work every evening to mask her unhappiness and only visited her flat to meet her support worker and to receive the incentivised payment of £10. Therefore, this troubled young woman who was considered to be a success by all the official indicators, was in reality in meltdown with her apparent stability unravelling! The other stories that emerged from this research spoke of loss and isolation and included many descriptions of children still leaving care on their 16th birthday with a bin bag for their belongings.

The subsequent legislation and continual strengthening of provisions should have made stories such as this a tale from the past but there is still evidence of youngsters moving out of supported accommodation on their 18th birthday. This is because ‘leaving care’ teams are not primarily about providing care and support but disentangling and severing the local authorities’ duties and responsibilities.

Adolescence is a challenging time but also one that provides a window of opportunity. This concentration on outcomes singularly ignores the evidence that it is the quality of relationships and social networks that are decisive in establishing the conditions for successful transitions.

The literature on looked after children and care leavers demonstrates how involvement in positive activities can provide a turning point to establish resilience through the development of self efficacy that leads to an improved sense of social competence. . It explains that if young people are introduced and supported to take part in new activities, they strengthen their own relational networks and begin to think of themselves differently as they become aware of new possibilities (Gilligan, 2009).

An alternative starting point would view every care leaver as a unique individual with their own needs and feelings. This would require a leaving care system that focuses on relationships, providing care leavers with experiences that enable them to develop their own network of trusting relationships and experience a sense of accomplishment and success. In short it is about connecting care leavers to social capital. It is this process, rather than a system based on entitlements and independence, that will lead to the resilience, agency and self-belief required to make positive transitions.

There are examples that provide a vision of what a new approach could look like such as Participle’s Loops programme the starting point for which is the priorities of young people, developing capabilities and connecting them with the wider community rather than a narrow and defensive focus on risk that currently dominates shrinking youth provision. These kinds of approaches allow young people to experience support from each other, to make a difference to their community and begin to take responsibility for their own personal development as part of this process. It is this that provides the glue of connections and belonging that will enable care leavers to contribute and develop in contrast to the stigma and isolation that many targeted services perpetuate. Perhaps crucially it also begins to challenge the way young people feel about themselves that is often the biggest barrier for those with a history of abuse.

Frank Dobson MP when launching the consultation papers ‘Me, Survive Out There?’ (DOH, 1999) posed the question that services should be informed by the question “would this be good enough for my child?” However, unlike care leavers, the majority of children who leave home do not stop being cared for and about.

This is the challenge for a system and approach that is not fit for purpose.


All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked After Children and Care Leavers (2014), The Entitlements Inquiry ‘One Year On’ Report.

Biehal, N., Clayden, J., Stein, M., and Wade, J., (1995) Moving On: young people and leaving care schemes. London: HMSO.

Butler- Sloss, E (1988) Report of the Inquiry into Child Abuse in Cleveland 1987 , London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Department of Health (1999), ‘Me, Survive Out There?’ Crown Copyright.

HM Government (2013), Care Leaver Strategy, Crown Copyright National Audit Office, DfE (2015) Care leavers’ transition to adulthood.

HM Government (2013) “Staying Put”, DfE, DWP and HRMC Guidance Crown CopyrightStein, M. (2012) Young People Leaving Care: Supported Pathways to Adulthood. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Gilligan, R. (2009), Promoting Resilience supporting children and young people who are in care, adopted or in need. London: BAAF.

Prison Reform Trust (2015) Keeping children in care out of trouble: an independent review.


Jameel Hadi is a lecturer in social work at the University of Salford. He has over 20 years experience as a social worker within youth justice, looked after children and leaving care services. He developed Participation Through Sport, a service that promoted relationships and the development of self efficacy, informed and shaped by young people. He carried out research for a major North West Local authority in 2000 which involved visiting former care leavers, many as young as sixteen, who had lost touch with the authority