Why making children living in care homes leave when they turn 18 needs to change

For most teenagers, turning 18 is a cause for celebration, but for those living in care homes, it means suddenly having to make their own way in the world

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Jemma Hooper was two years old when she was taken into care. Her parents struggled with addiction and the world she was born into, she says, was one characterised by drugs, chaos and fighting.

By the time she was 17, Jemma was in a children’s home, having already lived in 18 different places. While other kids her age might have looked forward to their 18th as the moment to enjoy their first legal pint, Jemma’s landmark birthday was significant as the date on which she would, for the final time, be thrown out of the place she called home.

There are nearly 70,000 children in care in Britain. The vast majority live with foster families and, owing to a change in law last year, these young people can expect to remain the responsibility of the state until they turn 21, unless they feel ready to move on beforehand.

But for the 6,000 or so young people living in Britain’s children’s homes – who were not affected by new legislation piloted by the previous government and bought into force in 2014 – this is not the case.

Jemma’s removal from residential care came at a time when she was finally beginning to settle, with the help of a brilliant key-worker: “She was ace. There were nothing going wrong when she was around. She listened to what I had to say. She made time for me and we did things together.”

Suddenly having all that pulled from under her was a heavy blow: “For me, it’s like Social Services kicked me out when I needed them the most, when I had nothing and I had no-one.”

The practice of rescinding responsibility for the well-being of young people at an age when many simply aren’t able to cope is the subject of a moving documentary, Kicked Out Kids, which airs Tuesday evening on Channel 4.

Janes Van Vollenstee qualified as a social worker in South Africa before moving to the UK in 1996. Having worked in a local authority until 2012, involved with children in and leaving care, and also child protection, he is now the manager of the Moving On team for the children and families charity Break, which offers transition and mentoring services to young people at this critical juncture. Leaving home is difficult at the best of times, he says: “Now imagine a young person has been in very negative environments, received forms of abuse – with fostering placement breakdowns which have resulted in them moving to a children’s home – it is understandable then that there will be a lot of anxiety and anger, while grappling to understand why they are living differently from their peers...

“For those young people, with everything that has happened in their life, at age of 17 telling them, ‘On your birthday you are going to move on, ready or not...’?”

It is unsurprising, he concludes, that so many are terrified of leaving care and struggle to settle on the outside.

Demornia Cattrill was a baby when he and his twin brother were first taken into care – before being returned to their mother, who remained violent. Years later, when the boys were in Year 9, his brother refused to go home from school one day. Demornia’s response at the time was: “Oh my gosh, it’s happening. Someone’s finally plucked up the courage to say something.”

Though he says it was a relief, he also felt “panicky” because there were also two younger brothers at home, who he now knows went straight into foster care, while the older twins ended up at a children’s home. Now aged 18 and having left full-time care nearly a year ago, Demornia says care was “all right”. “There was a good understanding between staff and kids. You got out what you put in. Even though you could be an arsehole, some of the staff would see that you were still good; finding your feet and that. Obviously there were also a few members of staff who were arseholes, but the staff that cared actually did care a lot.”

He is glad of the opportunities he wouldn’t have got if he’d been living at home. “I got to go to basketball camp on the Isle of Man, twice, and I went on a trip to France.” Mainly, he devoted himself to training in mixed martial arts, first as “something to get my mind off everything”, now with a dream of going pro.

Since leaving care, however – initially to a semi-independent lodging in someone else’s house when he was 17, before moving to full independence – Demornia says he’s been “left in the dark”. “I was almost brought to court because of my council tax. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. One minute everything’s being done for you, the next you’re out of their hands and you’re all on your own. I have a friend in foster care. He’s 20 and has everything provided. What’s that about?”

After finishing college, where he studied catering, Demornia started looking for work.

“I worked in a warehouse from October to January, getting minimum wage. (At 17, it was £3 something an hour; when I hit 18, it went to £5.13.) In January I got laid off. Since then I’ve had no income whatsoever and nobody’s helped me. I managed to stretch my last week’s pay, then got some overtime before I left. Obviously that’s now run out and I’ve got letters saying bills are due.”

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Denornia Cantrill, a young man who was brought up in care and now has his own home (Warren Smith)

The long-term prospects for care-leavers are not good. Of  the adult prison population, 27 per cent have been in care at some time. And almost 40 per cent of prisoners under 21 have been in care as children, as have one third of rough sleepers, and 70 per cent of women working in prostitution.

New figures, published last week, revealed the long-term cost in Britain of “picking up the pieces from damaging social problems affecting young people” – totalling around £17bn a year, according to research by the Early Years Foundation charity. Around £5bn of this came directly, it said, from looking after children in care on a yearly basis – but the long-term expense is perhaps more significant. An estimated further £4bn a year – nearly a quarter of the total cost - is currently spent on benefits for 18-24 year olds not in education, employment or training (NEETs), with a further £900m spent helping young people suffering from mental health issues, or battling drug and alcohol problems. Just the sorts of difficulties young people who leave care unsupported are likely to face, as Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, points out. “Research consistently shows that leaving care before a young person is ready for independence tends to lead to poor outcomes, with mental health – particularly depression – the biggest factor we see, followed by debt,” she says.

In the coming weeks, the Department for Education will consider the recommendations made in a joint report by the NCB, the Who Cares? Trust and other organisations, which suggests models for rolling out so-called Staying Put arrangements across residential homes, while acknowledging that this is not a straightforward prospect. Not least because of child protection issues: if you mix children and young adults, it requires plenty of legislative and practical frameworks. At an estimated £76m, it won’t come cheap. But considering the long-term financial and emotional burden on services and young people, Enver Soloman of the National Children’s Bureau says this is surely a small price to pay: “If you support a young person properly up to the age of 21, it is much less likely they will fall into difficulty and impose a financial burden on other services and state agencies.”

Another problem, Finlayson suggests, is a deep-rooted culture of children’s homes, which are often “seen as a placement of last resort”. “It is really unhelpful that we have these ideas,” she says. “There are examples from other countries, like those in Scandinavia, which show how really good, constructive work can be done, rather than using children’s homes like a holding pen as we do, with workers who are not well-trained or properly qualified.”

Break’s Van Vollenstee believes the greatest challenge is building a system that allows social workers to invest time in relationship-building rather than constantly filling in forms and assessments. “At the point when they leave care, many young people are still processing what happened to them prior to coming into care, adjusting and learning to be accountable for their actions.” What they really need is continuity and support; people in their lives who will take a parental role in the absence of any other guiding figure. In reality, though, support workers – who are only obliged to see young people once every two months after they’ve turned 18 – often only have time for phone calls or sign-posting to other organisations that offer practical help.

“You can teach young people how to budget or to cook, but no-one can prepare them for what it’s like to be home alone at 9 or 10 at night with no-one to talk to. That is what we hear time and time again – the loneliness – and that’s when they often get tempted to move in with negative circles to reduce the loneliness.”

On leaving care, Jemma moved in with her aunt, her late father’s sister, last year, but that didn’t work out. “There were lots of complications. We didn’t get to know each other well enough. I was there for three or four months, then from there into temporary accommodation, then to another place which was like your own flat but there were staff who came in during the day, which made me feel well uncomfortable – I had more privacy in a kids’ home.” After getting kicked out of there, she ended up in a B&B in Huddersfield, a two-hour walk from her friends in Halifax. Now she is in Halifax in social housing.

On the phone, Jemma is bubbly and upbeat, but over the years, she has tried to take her life several times. “I don’t know; it’s like an issue of not being able to control it sometimes,” she says. “Even though I can speak so openly about things, sometimes I don’t tell the things I need to tell. Sometimes I’ll think I don’t even know who I am. When you’ve been through so many families you aren’t going to know who you are by the end of it.”

In practice, the age of leaving care is often younger than 18, with 31 per cent of the 9,990 care-leavers in 2013 aged just 16 or 17. Moving on at this age to live semi-independently is something that is encouraged by local authorities on the basis that the young person ‘transitions’ at a time when they will still have their rent paid and are entitled to ongoing support.

But some feel that local authorities are often too keen to get young people off their books. Pressures are such that staff often feel they have to prioritise younger charges, Van Vollenstee says, and the older children feel that – and don’t understand why – their needs are no longer of importance: “When a young person leaves care, what they need is someone to say, ‘Let’s talk about what is happening in your life. I’m here, let’s have a coffee and talk.’

“They need to know this is life and it’s full of challenges, that it can be stressful and you need to learn to be resilient and receptive.”

That’s where organisations like his step in, to offer the message: we won’t drop you.

Demornia was just 17 when he moved out of residential care, into semi-independent lodgings. Now that he is no longer entitled to the £55 a week he got when he was living semi-independently, he says his support workers are no longer guardians so much as an advisory service. In that case, he wonders: “Why are you here? If you’re not going to help me in any way, you might as well fuck off.”

Now he is back in college every day on a military preparation course and hopes to join the Marines. “I want to prove to everybody who says I’m just going to be a drug dealer or in prison – I want to prove them wrong and show that just ’cause I had a shit upbringing doesn’t mean I can’t change it.”

‘Kicked Out Kids’ will be broadcast on  17 February at 11.05pm on Channel 4

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