Former children in care 'suffer more illnesses': Survey warns of 'lost generation' facing poverty and deteriorating health

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YOUNG people who leave care or who are rejected by their families develop disproportionate levels of physical and mental illness, a new study says.

One in two of 120 'vulnerable' 16- to 26-year-olds interviewed for a National Children's Home survey had visited the doctor in the previous month, compared with the national average of one in five.

Many reported going hungry with one in three saying they had had one or no meals in the previous 24 hours. Nearly half of the women going without food had babies or were pregnant and the diet of nearly all those interviewed was nutritionally very poor.

The overwhelming majority, living alone with no family support, said they were depressed, worried or anxious, with the greatest sources of concern money and health. According to the report, A Lost Generation?, their average weekly income of pounds 34 was the cause of deteriorating health.

'Britain is clearly failing tens of thousands of its most needy young people,' Tom White, chief executive of the NCH, said yesterday.

'The years between childhood and adulthood are supposedly the happiest years of your life. In stark contrast these teenagers . . . are trapped in a lifestyle of poverty and deep despair.

'Current political debates on single parents and youth crime are too quick to lay the blame on 'irresponsible' young people but the findings of this survey clearly identify the root causes; inadequate income levels for young people living on their own and a lack of government investment in support services.'

The pre-budget survey should warn the Government that any cuts to benefits would force more young people onto the streets, he said.

The study claims two out of three of those interviewed were in debt. Eight out of ten said they would take casual work to supplement benefits and one in two said they might resort to shoplifting and theft.

Mr White pointed out that 38 per cent of the prison population had come through the care system.

More than two-thirds of those interviewed said they smoked to 'escape' their problems, while one in three said they drank and one in six took illicit drugs.

Helen Dent, NCH director of policy, said: 'The picture created is one of great unhappiness. I ask myself what kind of society forces young people to chose between clothes and food. The answer must be a society that forces young people to live on pounds 34 a week - pounds 10 less than their adult counterparts.'

The NCH argued that the Government should restore income support to all young people seeking employment or training and raise the level of benefits for those under 25 to the adult rate.

A Lost Generation?; NCH, 85 Highbury Park, London N5 1UD; pounds 7.50