We know all too well that the quality of support young people in care receive during the transition to adulthood shapes their future life chances – for better or for worse. It's a crucial time for all young people, even more so for those young people in the care of the state. Whilst it's encouraging that governments across the UK have recognised the key role that foster carers should play in this process, practice varies hugely and lags some way behind. Just like other aspects of care, a young person's experience of leaving care depends far too much on where they live and their individual circumstances. How can there still be young people leaving care who can't cook, can't manage their money or aren't emotionally ready to look after themselves?
For young people in foster care, it is usually (though not always) their carer who should take the lead in helping them to prepare to move on to adult life. They should also be the key person in helping them to make decisions about their practical and emotional readiness for independence. And, ideally, they should be the safety net that young people need when they make mistakes, which most of us do so we might expect this to happen.
Crucially, the best pathway planning has young person at the centre and the practitioners involved communicate, plan and work well together. Currently, this does not happen enough. Foster carers in the independent and voluntary sector, in particular, not directly part of the local authority, are too often excluded from discussions about a young person's future. Some of the young people they look after do not have an allocated social worker or personal adviser (PA). Even when they do, these workers may not know the young person in the same way as their foster carer does. The result can be conflicting ideas, poor planning, anxiety or even young people leaving care before they are ready. Around a quarter of 16 year olds are given local authority accommodation, signed up for benefits and left to sink or swim.
It is time to give independent and voluntary sector fostering providers more formal responsibility for managing the transition to independence for young people in their placements. Foster carers, supported by supervising social workers, could take on the social worker/PA roles and decision-making tasks for young people moving on from care. Everyone, including the young people, would need to be clear about where responsibilities lie, and this may not be the best option for all young people. But it would contribute to the development of a more flexible, tailored process where engaged foster carers (like other parents) are able to take balanced risks. And young people need them to be able to do that, for their own good. Most importantly, it would help to create a care system which responds to the young person’s timescales, their particular needs and where they can feel positive and optimistic about the future. Surely, that is what we are all striving for?
Several things need to happen to make this a reality:
- Some foster carers already understand their role in supporting the transition to independence, but others will need support. They will need to understand how to pass on practical skills like cooking and budgeting, but will also need to recognise the social and emotional aspects of supporting independence.
- An NAFP project found in 2013 that 'coaching’ could be an effective approach to helping young people to learn (Moving On, Staying Put – foster carers, independent providers and the transition to adulthood, 2013), especially young people who have not developed a close relationship with their carers, those in care for shorter times and those with complex needs.
- Foster carers are role models who should lead by example. To that end, agencies must think about how they can encourage carers to look after their own health and wellbeing.
- And we need to develop our understanding of 'delegated authority', it has a different context for young people gradually preparing for independence.
Policy and practice need to come together in a meaningful way that is right for young people. And not just in the best areas but for all young people in care.