News of the Prime Minister’s proposed changes to the care system is very welcome, particularly news that the Queen’s Speech will legislate for a care leavers covenant.
The Prime Minister is right to say that too many care leavers are let down by a system which fails to break the cycle of disadvantage that starts in the prevention of needing the care system in the first place, being in care itself and all too often continues in adult life.
There are too many children who are or, adults who have been in care in prison, there are too many vulnerable to sexual exploitation, too many homeless and too many unable to catch up at school and progress on to further and higher education in adult life.
With these facts – and many more – in mind, the PM’s desire to turn this around by installing a duty on the state to support young people who have been in the system into their mid-twenties is the right thing to do. Those of us who are parents don’t wave goodbye to our children at 18, shut the door and never open it again. Why should it be any different for those children who have the state as its parent? Imagine how it would feel for us or our children at age 18 to know that life really is down to you, with no support, no advice and no secure home that you can call on in times when you need extra support. Is it any wonder that too many young people who have doors shut on them after leaving care fall into damaging cycles of crime, drug and alcohol misuse and homelessness?
Of course we must do better. However, is it enough to simply pledge support, valuable and commendable as that is? We do need a new way of thinking about supporting, nurturing and valuing young people who are and have been through the care system. For some this may be adoption but for others this will not be possible. When adoption or long term fostering isn’t the answer, what then? When young people have to leave long term fostering placements, what then? At Nacro we believe part of that answer is in providing stable and supported home environments. Here young people can grow in confidence and become independent with the security that only a stable home can provide. From here young people can have the space to work through the same problems and lessons we all go through when first leaving home. It is in an environment that nurtures trust and ambition that we can set a positive path for young people, reverse the cycle of disadvantage and help them to start positively on the path to be who they want to be.
Of course we know that local authorities don’t wash their hands of young people easily. Many look to provide the type of continued support the PM talks about. Many support the work charities like Nacro do. Yet they must achieve this under the exorbitant task of balancing one of the most difficult financial settlements in modern times. And with that comes irreconcilable choices that local decision-makers have to take. Do they invest in youth work, or housing; older people care or care leavers? None of these vulnerabilities should be pitted against each other, yet increasingly they are. Funding should not be split by local authority departments but defined by the needs of the person.
The challenge for the PM is to drive his ambition into funding and wider policy decisions that put further pressure on services like Nacro’s housing for vulnerable young people. Only then will he build his legacy to transform the lives of the most disadvantaged. Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech gives us an opportunity to legislate for change, this is genuinely laudable. The next challenge is for the Treasury to stand by this and invest in the future.