In the first article of a two-part series, Cllr Craig Wright discusses the statistics around what happens when children leave the care of the local authority and transition into adulthood and independence.
A care leaver is any young person aged between 16-18 who was in the care of the local authority. Some leave care at 16 and others 18. In the UK, 40,000 young people will enter the care system this year. In the North East, the Children Looked After (CLA) rate is 101 children per 10,000 children – the highest in the UK and increasing year on year. In Middlesbrough, we care for 560 children.
Against The Odds
Care Leavers in Custody: Nearly half of all young men (21 and under) in custody have experience of the care system.
Firstly, we accept almost as a self-evident truth, that care experienced individuals will become involved in the criminal justice system but this requires challenge. The 2009 Ofsted report Care and Prejudice found that nearly 50% of the young people surveyed believed the public viewed children in care as “bad and uncontrollable”. The longer children spent in care, the less likely they were to report discrimination. Care experienced young people are at particular risk in our justice system because their backgrounds make them vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination. Equally, our institutions such as police, courts and schools do not listen to care experienced young people because they simply see their often chaotic lifestyles without listening. The child sex abuse scandal in Rochdale and the sexual exploitation of girls in care in Oxford are just two notable examples of institutional failure to listen to care experienced young people.
The failure of corporate parenting also plays a role in the exceptionally high rates of care experienced individuals in custody. The Howard League Penal Reform report (2016) highlighted that children in the care of local authorities ‘are being criminalised at excessively high rates compared to all other groups of children, including those in other types of care’ (p.1). In effect, the lack of challenge and support from corporate parents in councils leads to an over surveillance of young people who are already likely affected by adverse childhood experiences and therefore displaying challenging behaviour.
In short, we need a trauma informed care system which places the emphasis on care.
One third of care leavers become homeless within the first two years of leaving care. 1 in 4 will sofa surf, 14% will sleep rough.
Care leavers transition from being highly supported to near total independence quite quickly. Important life skills like budgeting are learnt, often from our care givers, so when it comes to managing money care leavers need to learn quickly and often without a role model. Many of them don’t manage this steep learning curve and issues with rent payments, food and utility bills escalate. This is assuming that they can afford rent in the first place or even granted a tenancy. Housing benefit rates for Teesside range from £248.47 to £650 per month depending on the category of house, the average rental cost of a property is £486 PCM. Equally, with only 40% of care leavers saying they have enough for upfront costs; bond, admin fees and other tenancy costs, it is unsurprising that homelessness is the reality for so many care leavers.
There are deeper emotional issues to consider too. Loneliness and isolation are common experiences of care leavers. Many move to areas which are affordable, or they’re housed by housing associations in places with available housing stock. This is often in neighbourhoods away from friends or with higher than average transient populations such as ‘student’ areas. A staggering 57% of care leavers felt unsafe when they moved from care to their first independent home.
39% of care leavers aged 19-21 were not in employment, education or training (NEET) compared to 12% of all 19-21 year olds.
In 2016, The Department for Education announced the ‘Care Leaver Covenant’ and £5 million of extra funding which aimed to bring together public and private sector organisations to enhance the opportunities of care leavers. It is disappointing that little improvement has been seen.
Care leavers face significant hidden challenges when accessing education, employment and training. Public transport is shockingly unequal across the UK. Snapshot analysis of 5 mile journeys found that in London, a bus fare is £1.50 whereas in Hampshire it is £5.65. Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham referred to the UK bus system as; “fragmented, incomplete, overpriced, fragile.” For care leavers managing on tight budgets this adds further barriers to them accessing employment and education. In Middlesbrough, I am campaigning for free bus travel for all care leavers. Xavier is one of my care leavers, he told me about his challenges of the public transport system; “Care leavers have more appointments for example social workers or other meetings with professionals…we don’t have much financial support to get to these meetings as we have to budget for other things. Some care leavers don’t have family to fall back on if they need extra money for travel.”
The picture for higher education is even more worrying. One study found that 12% of care leavers had entered higher education by the age of 23. Those who do study at university are more than a third more likely to withdraw from the course.
Craig Wright is an Assistant Principal in the North East of England and Labour Councillor for Ladgate Ward, Middlesbrough. He is the Education & Skills spokesperson for Middlesbrough Labour Group.
Follow him on Twitter @CllrCraigWright
 Laville, S. (2013) Oxford gang found guilty of grooming and sexually exploiting girls. The Guardian, 14 May.