Leaving Care

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What are the issues facing young people leaving care? How might these issues be successfully resolved?

Children and young people enter the care system for numerous reasons, some of which include a parent’s inability to cope or because of problems in the family. Most of these children will return to their family after a brief stay, however, many will be expected to leave care and begin living independently between the age of 16 and 18 (Stein and Wade, 2000). Past research (for example Barnardo’s, 1989; First Key, 1991; Porter, 1984; Randall, 1988/89 and Stein and Carey, 1986) has brought to light the extensive problems facing these young people leaving care, including low educational achievement, isolation, poverty, movement and disruption, homelessness and unemployment. In addition there appears to be an over emphasis on these young people’s ability to manage alone in their late teens with limited support from social services (Marsh and Peel, 1999). The extent of problems facing young people leaving care is acknowledged, however, it would be difficult to construct a comprehensive discussion of them all given the size constraints of this paper. This essay will begin by outlining the amount of children leaving care. It will then consider that young people will experience problems with identity as a consequence of placement instability and poor continuity of relationships with family and personal networks which can result in negative post-care outcomes. How these issues can be successfully resolved will then be addressed by looking at how effective existing support services available to care leavers are.

Each year somewhere between 7000 and 8000 young people leave care between the ages of sixteen and eighteen and move into independent living compared with less than one in ten of their non care leaving counterparts (DoH, 2003 and Stein and Wade, 2000). They “make an accelerated transition” into independence and “have to shoulder adult responsibilities” (Biehal, et al., 1995, p. 31) at a much younger age than the majority of young people within the general population. In 1998 the amount of care leavers who leave care at sixteen rose from 33 percent to 46 percent, whereas, within the general population young people are supported by their family until the age of eighteen with the average leaving home age being twenty two (DfES, 2003). Biehal and colleagues (1995) found that just over half of their cohort of young people left care and went into intermediate housing, such as friends or lodgings, which was thought to be helpful in preparing them for independent living (Frost, et al., 1999). However, 20 percent made the immediate transition to independent housing by the age of nineteen, a much higher percentage than that of the general populous, 0.5 percent at the time of the study (OPCS in Biehal, et al., 1995).

Having reached the age of sixteen or seventeen it is often assumed that the time has come to move on, however, placement breakdown is the most common reason for leaving care (Frost, et al., 1999 and Stein and Wade, 2000). Stein (1990) found that care leavers experienced six to twelve placement moves before the age of sixteen which is consistent with the findings of Biehal et al (1995) who also found that there was a high level of movement for young people during their time in care. Less than one in ten stayed in the same placement, just less than one third moved four to nine times and a small proportion of the group experienced in excess of ten moves before they left care (Biehal, et al., 1995). Where placement changes are planned and young people are informed and involved, the care experience can be a positive one leading to good outcomes (Frost, et al., 1999). However, the experience of multiple placements, coupled with a rapid transition into independence means that young people will be emotionally and practically under-prepared to cope with the issues associated with living alone for the first time (Frost, et...
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