For the last thirty years there has been a steady expansion of government engagement in the lives of young people who are leaving care. The term ‘careleaver’ is applied to a young person over 16 who has been in the care of the local authority for a significant time in their childhood and/or teenage years.
The precise definition of a care leaver and the support to which they are entitled varies across the UK nations. In particular, Scotland has a different policy and legal framework for the care system which precedes the recent devolution settlements, and which informs different definitions, processes and a different ethos. Further, each UK nation collects and publishes different statistics (Scottish Government, 2018).
Noting that the definitions vary across the nations, the data on the numbers of young people defined as care leavers in each UK nation (2018) is below:
• In England there were 39,580 care leavers aged 17–21 at March 2018 (Department for Education, 2018)
• In Scotland there were 6,109 young people eligible for aftercare, of which 4,488 are 16-21 and the remainder 22+ at July 2018 (Scottish Government, 2019)
• In Wales there were 646 Care Leavers, aged 16-18 at March 2018 (Statistics for Wales, 2018)
• In Northern Ireland there were 549 Care Leavers aged 16-19 at March 2018. (Department of Health, 2018)
The core legislation relating to the care system in England is the Children Act (1989), alongside the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 and the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. Detailed provisions for Wales are now contained in the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014. Each of the UK nations has also enacted further specific legislation or made additional legislative provisions relating to young people leaving care.
Government policy has focused on care leavers because their outcomes are consistently poorer than those of their peers, in terms of educational achievement, employment, progression to higher education, mental health and rates of homelessness.
Research by Professor Mike Stein indicates that care experienced young people premature independence, moving to live on their own much earlier than other young people (Stein, 2005). This is compounded by their experience of uncertain identities - most young people struggle with their identity as they grow into adulthood but care leavers have less support and family connections to help them develop a secure sense of who they are. Care experienced young people also typically lack support networks.
Over the last thirty years governments across the UK have introduced a succession of policy initiatives to improve these outcomes. These have included new data collections, performance indicators and targets, coupled with focused programmes, for example to allow young people to stay on with their foster carers after they turn 18, or to encourage local authorities (LAs) to do more to involve those with care experience in decisions about local services.
Reference: Grauberg, J. (2019). Young people leaving care: A four nations perspective. London: The British Academy
This report is a key guide to the legislative frameworks and policy differences of leaving care in the four UK nations and (inter alia) comparisons of outcome data for careleavers in each nation. The report includes a particularly valuable reference list. This report is part of the British Academy's Childhood Policy Programme.
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