FosterWiki Opinion Piece

Care leavers are living on the streets -it’s time to modernise foster care

Care leavers are living on the streets, modernising foster care will prevent it

Author: Sarah Anderson
Date: 16th of October 2023

According to the Government this week the number of care leavers aged 18–20 years facing homelessness has increased by at least 33% since 2018, it left me feeling wretched, and it should leave us all feeling wretched.

The problem doesn’t begin when young people leave care, we should be focused on prevention, not cure, the homelessness is a result of all that came before. I appreciate it’s very complex, but complexity should never be a barrier to change.

Every single child in care deserves the very minimum of a loving family home, albeit a substitute one, and rightly it’s high on the government’s agenda. It’s not that they’ve got the idea wrong, it’s the ‘how’ they get wrong.

Precious funding is spent over and over again on reviews, research, pilots, and recruitment schemes, they are usually a repeat of the ones that came before them, most talking about how we must start putting the children first. However, this begs the question; if you have not already been doing this for all these years, then who have you been putting first?

We all need to come together, work together and have some really brave and open conversations, we must not criticise but enable, everyone in this sector on all sides is to some extent tired, weary and burnt out, as budgets buckle and change feels like a distant dream.

Firstly it’s time for us to look in the mirror, Foster care is nowhere near as good as it should be, and we owe it to the many children and young people who have had a bad experience of foster care and the care system to acknowledge that. It is not all superheroes and angels by a long way, foster care is not (yet) a success story and those leaving care deserve more than us to diminish, dismiss and sweep their experiences under the carpet.

At present it’s firefighting, bums on beds, hit-and-hope mentality, just plonk a highly traumatised child on a foster carer’s doorstep because you have nowhere else for them to go and then disappear hoping love will conquer all. It won’t, This leads to multiple placement breakdowns and children and young people bounced repeatedly around the system, many losing contact along the way with people that matter most to them, finding themselves unable to attach to anyone, loss after loss, no trust, defeated, angry, anxious and depressed.

You can see it’s not much of a leap from here to homelessness, prison, substance misuse and mental health issues.

We need to take the foster carer’s role more seriously. I heard of a new foster carer starting the other day with no more than a basic online ‘introduction’ to fostering and a first aid certificate, and then finding herself frighteningly out of her depth when left with two extremely traumatised siblings, children with very high needs which she was hopelessly ill-equipped to meet. To say it was a disaster is an understatement, it not only had a negative impact on already traumatised children, but the foster carer resigned after just 12 weeks in the role traumatised herself.

If we are to change these outcomes we need robust, confident trauma-informed foster carers, ones that can hold their own within the professional team around the child, who understand their role within the regulatory framework, have a good knowledge of safeguarding and who can safely challenge, advocate and speak out on behalf of their children and young people.

We need them to understand the importance of their children and young people’s attachments and crucial relationships and promote them, be able to ensure their children’s schools understand them and support them to learn, to be sufficiently educated to navigate their child’s tumultuous transition into adolescence, a time of intense existential crisis for a looked after young person and when a huge number of previously settled placements break down. We need them to understand reunification, the importance of contact and be able to work closely with the birth family.

They will need to be able to challenge leaving care teams when they start offering 16-year-olds the teenage keys to the kingdom, wooing them out of foster care with promises of independence that soon become a disaster. We need them to recognise, act and prevent issues before they reach crisis point, they need to be able to champion their children’s mental health needs, care for them in a trauma-informed way and support them to access services. We need new strengths-based assessments and a complete modernisation of the whole process, the data demonstrate the current system of recruitment, assessment and approval is no longer fit for purpose and hasn’t been for a while.

We are not recruiting old mother Hubbard to dispense tea and biscuits with a kindly word, we are recruiting people to work with and care for some of the most traumatised vulnerable high needs children in the UK, pretty much 24 hours a day 365 days of the year.

It is often suggested, by those resistant to change, that educating foster carers to a higher standard, treating them more professionally or giving them any rights or status would somehow detract from, or change the concept of, the loving fostering family home. However, speaking from front-line first-hand experience I can categorically tell you that is not true.

It will simply lead foster carers who are better equipped to work with the abuse, neglect, separation and loss our children and young people have suffered, to be better trained to understand the effects of trauma and help children heal and thrive.

These are actually the foundations you need in place before you are able to build that stable loving family home, not the other way round. Perhaps then we will see less damage down the road and fewer care leavers living out their lives amongst the homeless.