Poet and care experienced Lemn Sissay said recently on a channel 4 programme that he had been told how he was a great survivor of the care system. His response was, he didn’t want to survive, he wanted to live!
At to the Moon and Back Foster Care, we have high hopes and aspirations for the young people leaving our care for independence, we want our young people to feel as confident and capable of achieving their potential in life as we do our own children. It’s worth thinking about our own children, who we are told are finally leaving home much later and often return home numerous times during their early adulthood, after hitting difficulty, either emotional or financial. We are a secure base for our children when they are young and for our adult children to return to when they need to.
Young people leaving care rarely have this secure base. They have had to survive the trauma of being separated from their own family and in many cases have moved around the care system, living with different foster families. On top of this they have had to learn to live with the personal experiences of abuse or neglect that resulted in them having to come in to care in the first place, this is an incredible feat.
Leaving the safety of a foster care family or a residential home to live independently between the age of 16 and 18 is far beyond the experiences of most children but a reality for young people in the care system. They are subsequently vulnerable if they do not have a strong supportive network around them as they move out.
There are several reports and research that highlights the high percentage of care leavers that are involved in homelessness, unemployment, mental health services and criminal activity. A sobering review by Lord Laming for the Prison Reform Trust found half the children in youth custody came from foster or residential care. (2016) http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/In%20care%20out%20of%20trouble%20summary.pdf.
The report made a range of recommendations that focussed on building healthy relationships for young people in care. At To The Moon and Back Foster Care, we believe this is essential basic for all young people coming in to our service and is the basis of the healing process. It is for this reason we describe ourselves as a trauma informed organisation that works on building and maintaining strong relationships.
Some of the recommendations from Lord Laming’s report are shown below. We truly think that these are not hard to expect or achieve. Most are what we should consider a human right and a reflection of how we view children as equal human beings.
6.1 Ensure that each child in care is treated with respect and understanding, is fully informed and engaged in matters that affect their lives, and receives consistent emotional and practical support from their primary carer and at least one other trusted adult. This may be a social worker, Independent Visitor or other professional or volunteer.
6.2 Ensure that each child in care is supported in developing and sustaining positive relationships with their family members where this is safe, in the child’s best interests, and in accordance with the child’s wishes and feelings.
6.3 Facilitate and support peer mentoring of children and young people in care by young adults who have experience of the care system and can act as positive role models.
6.4 Ensure that appropriate responses are made to challenging behaviour without unnecessarily involving the police.
6.5 Ensure that suitable care placements are available locally to meet local need and placement choices are made in consultation with children and young people.
All of the recommendations above rely on the making of good relationships with young people and making sure that foster carers have the right expertise, support, training and good supervision so that they are able to empower a child to make good choices for themselves and build self-confidence. We believe working in this way creates great levels of wellbeing in our foster families and reassures them that they are not alone in providing the care and support for the young person.
We have talked often of the power of an effective relationship between foster carers and the children they support, this starts with an effective relationship between the fostering agency and the foster carers. At to the Moon and Back this is a part of our core values and we believe this is essential and is therefore what we do day in, day out, with our foster carers and staff.
How do we help young people move successfully in to independence?
To start with, focusing on minimalizing the number of placement breakdowns is vital for a young person. By getting it right from the start, we believe this enables us to support a young person to remain in one placement and work through the challenges and conflicts that arise in all relationships. We do this by ensuring that matching between foster carers and young people is done well, taking time to highlight where extra resources or support may be needed to support the individual needs of foster carers to ensure that they are successful. Ofsted raised this as something we do well and in partnership with foster carers.
Providing local placements for children is also high on our priority list. Significant numbers of children are having to be placed long distances from their own community, often incredible distance away, as a result of a shortage of local foster homes. This results in them being unable to maintain important relationships with their teachers and friends which may be the only consistent relationships left when they are unable to be with their family. It also means if they are found foster homes locally, that when young people move on from the care system in to independent living, they are likely to be less fearful about having to move away from what they know or those supportive connections that they have developed whilst in care. We know if young people have moved to foster services outside of their home county through their teenage years, that they can be geographically at a distance from support services that they are entitled to from their Local Authority, and subsequently get caught between staying locally close to their support system or moving back to their borough and having to start to build those connections again.
Our blog from last year, ”It Takes a Village to Raise a Child”, focuses on the need to include the local community around a child living in care. In encouraging others in our communities to help us inspire and give opportunities to young people creates aspiration and goes some way towards improving a child’s self-confidence and hope for their own future. We spend time as an organisation getting to know the areas and services within the areas from where we recruit our foster families and as a result build networks that can support young people to dream big and access resources to help them achieve those dreams.
When thinking about a young person’s future and the opportunities needed for them to be able to support themselves in adulthood, we inevitably look to their education. Education can be a challenge for many young people living in care and this is shown in the often-poor outcomes for care leavers. Only 6% of care leavers go to university https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/nov/07/6-per-cent-care-leavers-university-deserve-better-chances
This is not to say that university is the only option, but what this report acknowledges is the lack of opportunity for a young care experienced person to go to university which is something many of us take for granted for our own children. We encourage our foster carers to inspire our young people to broaden their horizons, whether this is a job, an apprentiship, university or to travel and take a gap year.
Unresolved trauma can affect the way a child responds to the education system. They often require an individualised approach to accessing their studies which is not always available in our schools. We encourage our foster carers to advocate on a child’s behalf, so that their behaviour is not just seen as disruptive but as an expression of their hurt, loss and often the chaos and uncertainty that surrounds them. We have found, by our foster families building close links with key staff in schools, our young people are supported through challenging times to enable them to maintain school placements.
Despite the challenges faced by many children when entering care, the prospect of leaving can be even more daunting. We believe in supporting our children to ensure that they are fully prepared for the transition to independence. This may start early when encouraging children to learn to cook or keep their room tidy or manage their pocket money. We do this in partnership with young people, their foster families and their social workers to plan the period leading up to leaving care. This we hope makes it less daunting.
Throughout their time in foster care the young people will learn a range of skills and knowledge to ensure that they can progress into adulthood and independence. This has to be done in a way that recognises the impact of their early care. We know that this can and does impact on some of the tasks of preparing young people. Some of the tasks therefore may also include young people understanding their emotional world and how to regulate it.
These tasks include:-
- Develop their emotional and behavioural skills to be able to deal with a variety of different situations
- Develop a range of practical skills to help in everyday life such as cooking, laundry, financial budgeting, household DIY
- Find the best route into further education, jobs or apprenticeships
- Develop a strong sense of self-worth to ensure they have the confidence to experience new situations and meet new people
- Promote a good understanding of the opportunities available to them and how they can benefit from these, such as housing options
- Supporting them to understand how to maintain a good diet, physical, mental and sexual health
We believe in offering our young people the very best chance in life and know that leaving care can be a daunting and lonely prospect.
The young person will require a plan which incorporates what and how a young person will be equipped with the knowledge and skill set required to live independently. This is developed with the young person and is implemented mainly by our foster families with the support of the team around the young person.
At eighteen we believe that young people are still young and potentially still vulnerable, so we offer a scheme called Staying Put. Essentially this enables our young people to remain with their foster carers past the age of eighteen. The idea behind this scheme is to offer the young person more time to adapt to the world of independent living and learn any new skills they feel are required. We believe highly in this scheme and don’t want any young person to feel forced out of their foster home simply because they have legally come of age.
Coming back to the comment made by Lemn Sissay at the very beginning of this blog, research shows the offering to a young person, of a phased introduction into independent living, along with regular contact with their foster family, can help young people to live rather than simply survive!