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Children in care to be given option of staying with foster parents until age of 21

Children and Families Minister will also pledge £40m extra funding for councils over next three years
  • @emilydugan

All children in care in England will be given the opportunity to stay with foster parents until the age of 21, the government will announce today.

Foster parents are currently only given financial support to look after children until they are 18. Under a new law, local authorities will have a legal duty to give families financial help for every young person who wants to stay with their foster parents until their 21st birthday.

Children and Families Minister Edward Timpson will make the announcement today, along with a pledge of £40 million extra funding for councils over the next three years. The measure will be added onto the Children and Families Bill during its third reading.

Mr Timpson, whose own family fostered nearly 90 children, said: “I know from the many foster children I grew up with how crucial it is for them to be given sufficient time to prepare for life after care.

“A growing number of local authorities already offer young people the choice to stay but with little financial support it can be challenging for their foster families. Now all councils will have to follow their example.”

Mr Timpson said the measure was part of a “wider package of support for care leavers,” including greater financial support for young people leaving care at 18. He added: “This will allow the 10,000 young people leaving stable and secure homes to make the transition from care to independence when they are ready, rather than when their council tells them to.”

Children’s rights campaigners welcomed the change, which reflects growing evidence that removing support at 18 can impact on vulnerable young adults’ likelihood of staying in education and finding work.

Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network, said: “We are absolutely thrilled with this change in legal duty for local authorities, backed up with appropriate financial support, that will ensure that young people in England have the opportunity to enter adulthood supported by the foster families that have devoted their lives to caring for them.”

Matt Downie, head of campaigns at Action for Children said: “We have been asking for the care leaving age to be increased for decades – this is a long time coming but a vital change for vulnerable children and young people.

“The trauma that many experience before being taken into care can mean that they are not ready to leave care. Many are forced to live independently as young as 16 and we know that this can be a dangerous and lonely experience.”

Care leavers are over-represented in prisons and experts believe a longer time supported in the family home could give more of them the stability to stay out of trouble. A quarter of adult prisoners spent time in care in their childhood - and more than half of all juvenile offenders have been looked after. 

Those who leave care at 18 could cost the state an estimated £131,000 more per person in benefits and public service support than those who leave later, according to analysis published by Action for Children published today. Young people who stay on in foster care achieve more qualifications and are less likely to be involved in alcohol and substance misuse than those who leave when they reach legal adulthood.

Last year only 330 young people (5 per cent of care leavers) in England were still with their foster carers by the age of 19. Government projections in early 2012 suggested this new measure would initially lead to about 530 extra young people a year staying on in care annually. But the funding announced has allowed for more than ten times that number after local authorities and campaigners expressed concerns that the Department for Education had under-estimated interest. 

The announcement only applies to children in England, as the issue is devolved in Scotland and Wales and they have yet to raise the age of support.

Mr Tapsfield said: “This issue has not been resolved for young people in Wales and Scotland. We will continue to campaign for this change in the law to be replicated. The next stage of this work begins today with the launch of the Chance to Stay campaign in the Senedd, where we hope that the Welsh Government will also be persuaded of the benefits of allowing young people to stay until 21.”

Recent statistics on looked after children showed a 3.1 per cent increase in the number of local authorities choosing to offer arrangements for children to stay on beyond legal adulthood. This has coincided with a 2 per cent reduction in the number of care leavers not in education, employment or training.

Enver Solomon of the National Children’s Bureau said: “These reforms will provide much-needed stability to vulnerable young people, many of whom have had the hardest starts in life. Most importantly it will help put support for foster children on a par with other young adults and allow them to enjoy the emotional support of family relationships as they make the transition to adult independence. It is a real step forward towards a fairer deal for foster children and a considerable contribution to improving their life chances.”