Katharine Sacks-Jones, Chief Executive of Become, the charity for children in care and young care leavers spoke to the IG Central and Local Government Hub about how to provide more support and build a better future for care leavers.
The pandemic has been an incredibly difficult time for young care leavers, with many facing this unprecedented crisis alone and in desperate need of help. At Become, we have seen a 75% increase in calls to our Care Advice Line since lockdown began. Young people are telling us that they feel isolated, with many concerned about their mental health, financial hardship, and the prospect of homelessness. These issues will continue to get worse unless the Government listens and makes sure that we build back better for care leavers as lockdown eases.
Greater recognition of the multiple challenges facing care leavers
Care leavers have consistently told us throughout the pandemic that feeling lonely, anxious, and scared are nothing new, but that the crisis has made their situations worse. A group of care leavers from our Advisory Group and I recently met the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, so they could share their experiences of the crisis with him. They told him that they felt like a forgotten group and about how they are left to deal with the crisis alone whilst they watch families reunite.
These young people have already faced trauma in their lives and have been through a care system that needs an urgent review. We hope the Government is now listening and that its promised “broad and bold” Care Review will bring about the radical reform that is needed to transform the lives of young people with care experience. We expect young people’s voices to be at the heart of this.
Better support for care leavers after turning 18
When a young person in care turns 18, they face a cliff-edge in the support they can access. Having already dealt with complex changes in their lives, they are now left to go it alone with only a personal adviser to guide them, but this level of support can vary. Leaving care may mean a change in accommodation and leaving their safe and stable environment and friends behind. Their personal adviser should help the young person to become more independent, achieve their goals, and support their health needs. But we often have to step-in to help young care leavers because the support they are getting isn’t good enough.
We welcome the Government’s acknowledgement that no young person should have to leave care during the crisis if it’s not right for them. But it should not have taken the crisis for to recognise this was needed. We now want Government to retain this ambition long-term with more funding and flexibility for local authorities to base decisions on leaving care on what is best for each young person. As well as leaving their placement and home, this includes a range of support services; for example, making sure that their mental health support does not just stop during the transition from CAMHS to adult mental health services. One young care leaver we support told us that she was discharged from CAMHS at 18 and ended up on waiting lists for therapy. Eventually, she ended up under secondary care mental health services, but this would not have happened if the right processes and support had been there in the first place.
More training and employment opportunities for care leavers
For young care leavers looking to become more independent, the lack of available work is a serious concern. Employment opportunities for young people have been significantly impacted because of the pandemic. Many young care leavers have told us that they are struggling to make ends meet and a lack of job opportunities is going to put them in debt. In May this year, Become and four other organisations surveyed over 450 higher education students with care experience or who were estranged from their family : only 5% said they had a job to go to, while one-in-five were relying on credit cards or other forms of debt.
The Chancellor’s recent announcement of a “kickstart scheme” to create more jobs for young people and to avoid them being “left behind”, as well as 30,000 new traineeships for young people in England, now needs to translate into action. This scheme must consider what care leavers need, to make sure they are given every opportunity to succeed.
Care leavers’ voices are key to meaningful change
Having listened to care leavers tell the Education Secretary honestly and openly about what support they and future generations should get, I’m optimistic that real change can happen. But this must happen quickly, and the upcoming Care Review is a perfect opportunity to do this. To achieve meaningful change, the Government must continue to listen to young people’s lived experiences. At Become, we will be doing everything we can to help them get their voices heard.
Katharine is chairing the Looked After Children and Care Leavers Conference, taking place online on 29 September, delivered by the IG Central and Local Government Hub.
Katharine has over 15 years’ experience working across policy, campaigns, public affairs and Parliament and has worked in the charity sector for the last 10 years. Her focus has been on disadvantage and inequality – she has worked on issues including homelessness, unemployment, multiple disadvantage, mental health and domestic and sexual abuse. Katharine has spoken about and written extensively on disadvantage and inequality issues and has sat on and chaired government advisory groups. Before joining Become Katharine was the inaugural Chief Executive of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk.