Central Government must step up and be a more ambitious parent for care leavers, the children’s commissioner for England has said.
Anne Longfield highlighted that care leavers often lack their own family support networks, and have to deal with managing bills, getting a first job and moving into their own home without the safety net or support of a family network. During the Covid-19 pandemic care leavers often found themselves isolated, and unsure who to turn to.
“So many care leavers show remarkable resilience in the face of these challenging circumstances, especially considering how many have faced trauma and instability in their lives. But there is so much more government could do to make their lives that bit easier, and to help them on their way towards adulthood,” said Anne Longfield.
The children’s commissioner makes a number of recommendations for government in a bid to help care leavers as they transition from the care system to independent living.
1) Job Seeker’s Allowance/Universal Credit
The children’s commissioner calls for care leavers to be paid the higher rate of Jobseekers Allowance or Universal Credit, from their 18th birthday, given that care leavers under 25 are less likely than other children to have support networks of family who can help them with every-day living costs or one-off essentials.
2) Benefit sanctions
Care leavers are five times more likely to be sanctioned than other claimants, and less likely to appeal their sanction. The children’s commissioner’s office are urging care leavers to not have their benefits sanctioned, due to the fact that care leavers have fewer support networks to help with job applications, cover childcare for job interviews and so on, whilst also having much more responsibility for managing bills and benefits than other young people.
3) Council tax
Students, diplomats, the armed forces, carers and those with a severe mental impairment are currently exempted from paying council tax and the report says that care leavers aged up to 25 should be included in the list of those exempted, as they are in Scotland and Wales.
4) Housing Benefit/Universal Credit
Under benefit rules single people under 35 are only entitled to a ‘shared accommodation’ rate, meaning that benefits will only take into account costs for a single room in a shared house, rather than a self-contained one-bedroom home. Care leavers are entitled to the higher self-contained home rate until the age of 22. The government has said that this will be extended to 25 from 2023 but Anne Longfield wants this to happen sooner to prevent them moving out when they are 22 given they have found secure accommodation.
All care leavers up to the age of 25 should be automatically classed as priority need. In addition, local authorities should not be able to refuse their housing duty because a care leaver has become ‘intentionally’ homeless, for example if they don’t manage to pay their rent.
6) Staying Put
The government is piloting Staying Close arrangements for children in children’s homes. However, Anne Longfield says that all care leavers should have the right to get support from a ‘Staying Close’ style scheme or live with foster carers over the age of 18, regardless of their final care placement. This should not have to be with their existing foster carers if they would prefer to move. During lockdown, care leavers living in independent accommodation are likely to have been most at risk of loneliness and isolation. But the government must ensure adequate funding for this, as there is already a significant shortfall in funding for Staying Put arrangements. The commissioner makes the call as children living in unregulated or independent accommodation are particularly vulnerable to isolation or exploitation.
7) University Entry Requirements
University entry requirements should be lowered for care leavers, and when care leavers arrive at university, they should be offered free 52 week a year accommodation. Tuition fees should be scrapped for care leavers going into higher or further education. Care leavers should be eligible for bursaries when starting further education, even if they are over 19. These measures are to encourage the take up rate of university places for care leavers as currently just 6% of care leavers go to university.
All public bodies offering apprenticeships should be required to interview any care leavers who apply for apprenticeships and meet the basic criteria. All local authorities should provide support with applications and routinely provide information about apprenticeship opportunities to personal advisors. This is to help lower the number of care leavers who are not in education, employment or training.
9) Mental Health
Due to the trauma and adversity that many care leavers have experienced in their lives, the children’s commissioner is calling for all personal advisors to be required to have mental health training, and a knowledge of mental health issues should be added to statutory guidance on ‘Knowledge and Skills of Personal Advisors’. All local authority leaving care teams should have a dedicated mental health worker with their Leaving Care Team. Care leavers should be allowed to access CAMHS until they are 25 if it is necessary.
10) Improved local offers for care leavers
All local authorities should sign up to a minimum local offer for all care leavers.
This should include:
- Free local travel, which is not just limited to off-peak travel
- Free laptop and mobile phone
- Gym membership for them and a friend
- ‘Starter Kit’ of essentials for setting up at home or University
- Local authority acting as a guarantor for accommodation
- Paid for driving license and driving lessons
- Discounts with local businesses for care leavers
- A mentoring or buddying scheme
“When a child is in care, or is a care leaver aged under 25, the local council is their ‘corporate parent’. This means that they should act towards these children and young people as any good parent would to their own child. And just as other parents continue to love, support, care for and be ambitious for their children after they turn 18, so too must the state,” the report concluded.