Can you think back to the kind of person you were at 18? What range of skills did you have? How confident were you? Did you have savings and an understanding of how to budget? Could you cook for yourself? Manage your own flat? Pay bills on time? Keep yourself safe? Did you know your rights and did you have the qualifications and advice to guide you towards a job? Did you have the reassurance of knowing that whatever happened, your parents would be there to support you?
I know that’s a lot of questions……but those are just some of the challenges and worries which face all young people leaving home. At 18, I was naive, could just about toast bread and make a Pot Noodle, had no savings and no idea about the wide world. I did leave home and go off to university, but my mum and dad, I knew, were there to help me, whatever life threw at me. If exam stress, boyfriend issues or the responsibility of managing my own life got too much, I could pick up the phone and well, I didn’t even have to ask. The front door was always open, my room was always ready and waiting and that amazing thing – unconditional love – was there, on tap.
Now, if I try to put myself in the shoes of a child leaving care, and I know that’s impossible, but I am going to try – all those huge responsibilities, expectations and demands are suddenly being placed on my shoulders, but without the same emotional foundation and back up. It’s a terrifying thought. There might not be anybody you can pick up the phone and chat to. Even if you have a good relationship with your former foster carer, they may not be in a position to offer you support, financial aid or a night back at home when you feel like it. It’s hard enough trying to make it out there in the big bad world without the emotional damage which is often part and parcel of being a looked after child.
It’s great that all children in care now have the option to remain in a home environment untl they are 21. That’s a massive step in the right direction. However, I feel this should be extended to the mid twenties. I finally left home properly when I was 23, to move in with my boyfriend. Neither of us have a background of being in care or of having any major emotional upheavals, yet we still struggled.
Many of the children we have fostered have had significant developmental delays, because of trauma, neglect and abuse. I can remember a twelve year old girl who had the most spectacular temper tantrums, just like a two year old, screaming and throwing herself on the floor. I can also picture a ten year old boy who was so emotionally shut down that he could not answer any direct questions, and would just switch off. Then there was the fifteen year old who was out taking drugs, clubbing and posting pornographic pictures of herself online, but who also tucked herself up in bed some nights with warm milk and Winnie the Pooh books.
We cannot expect these young people to take on the challenges of adult life at 16, 18 or 21. OK, some of them are keen to leave care and to strike out on their own. From our experience, that initial enthusiasm quickly wanes when the reality of paying the rent, getting and maintaining a job, and just having to make choices for yourself, kicks in.
If we, as a society, accept that their experiences have shaped children in care in a certain way, then we have to accept that they will need far more support for far longer than their peers who have not been in care. Long term outcomes for Looked After Children in the UK are still bleak. They are at much higher risk of developing mental health issues, misusing drugs and alcohol, leaving school with few qualifications, being homeless or becoming young offenders.
We also have to accept that there is a whole other field of foster care which needs to be developed and invested in – follow on care – which could (should) be on offer to young people up to at least 25. Funding is always an issue, but surely if we weigh up the savings to the national health service, the benefits system and the prison service, it makes sound financial sense.
Many of these children have survived devastating trauma and loss. They are walking miracles. They have huge potential to heal and to become healthy, happy people, but they need more help. Lets hope that help becomes a reality in the very near future.