The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and amplified the precariousness of many care leavers’ situations, and the inconsistencies and variations that exist in relation to support and services, according to the Scottish Care Leavers Covenant.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the SCLC Alliance partners have continued to meet regularly and have produced a briefing paper which aims to highlight some of the key issues and some of the solutions that have been identified.
“Despite the varied range of positive localised responses, the health pandemic has exposed the structural disadvantage and discrimination that many carer leavers face, impacting on their rights to services, supports and provisions required to meet their developmental needs into adulthood. This is in relation to both individual circumstances as well as recognising care leavers’ needs as a broader population to whom the State, as corporate parent, at local and national level, has specific duties and responsibilities,” said the briefing paper.
The Scottish Care Leavers Covenant was launched in 2015 and is the work of a cross-sector alliance of organisations who support Scotland’s corporate parents, carers, practitioners, managers and decision-makers in fulfilling their duties to improve the life chances of all of Scotland’s care leavers.
The briefing paper outlines that the current situation has emphasised the fundamental importance for all of in having a secure, reliable and affordable means of being digitally connected, as well as the skills and confidence to access online support and services. For young people in particularly marginalised communities, digital inclusion has become even more crucial as services have moved online. This includes access to health, education and training support services, and financial services including social security and online banking, but also the ability to participate in decision-making forums where potentially life-changing decisions can be made, such as the Children’s Hearing System and the justice system.
The report highlighted that continuing care is evidenced as the single most important factor in improving outcomes into adulthood for care leavers, and encouraging, enabling and empowering young people to ‘stay put’ has been a key policy in Scotland for a number of years now. The impact of COVID-19 has played out in a number of different ways. Some young people have had their plans to move out of care to ‘independent’ living accelerated earlier than otherwise planned, whilst for others continuing care has become the default with both young people, and their local authorities and care providers, positively seeking to reduce the physical moving on of young people during this time.
This raises rights issues for young people on both counts – some people who would have been legally entitled to remain in positive placements have been transitioned earlier, for example due to carers or agencies concerns about being ‘in lockdown’ with young people for an extended period. In other situations, however, young people who have wanted to exercise their rights to move on, have been unable to do so due to a number of factors such as a lack of proactive support and decision-making from staff and agencies (however well-intentioned due to pandemic-related health concerns) or a lack of suitable move-on accommodation and accompanying support.
It is also likely that there is a higher number of care experienced young people who may experience this form of homelessness than is currently understood in official statistics. In the wake of the pandemic and the public health response to it, corporate parents in Scotland are facing additional pressures and are more likely to struggle to meet their statutory duties.
The introduction of a full bursary for care experienced young people in 2017 has removed a significant financial barrier and gone a long way towards ensuring that more and more care leavers are able to access further and higher education.
However, the implementation of this bursary has not been without its issues and COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues of financial hardship and financial precariousness for many care leavers, including those who are in receipt of the Care Experienced Student Bursary.
Social isolation and loneliness are significant factors in relation to mental health and emotional wellbeing for care leavers. The social and physical distancing restrictions introduced during the pandemic have exacerbated this for many care leavers living more independently. At the same time, access to mental health support, both CAMHS and adult mental health service provisions, which were already acknowledged to be stretched prior to COVID-19, has become increasingly hard to access.
Maintaining strong relationships and connectivity has been central to almost every story of good practice in supporting care leavers throughout lockdown. Corporate parents have a particularly important role to play in creating the right culture and context for relationship-based practice to flourish.
However, there have also been examples of decision-making and risk-based policies that do not serve the needs of care leavers. In some cases, the removal of support has been abrupt and damaging, particularly for care leavers without any other support network to fall back on. Emergency protocols that have failed to include care leavers in their design and delivery have also been introduced in some areas.
“The fragility of connections with positive support networks, along with a fundamental financial precariousness challenges the notion that ‘we’re in this together’. COVID-19 has impacted on care leavers’ rights to services, supports and provisions required to meet their developmental needs into adulthood. The State, as corporate parent, at local and national level, has specific duties and responsibilities to these young people. We have seen however, some very positive responses from a broad range of agencies, both statutory and voluntary, at national, local and community level that have been a lifeline for young people. Whilst these responses remain subject to an already evidenced postcode lottery, they have demonstrated the flexibility, creativity and responsiveness that is both required and possible,” the report concluded.
It makes a number of conclusions including:
- Digital connection must be regarded as a right, and the principle of ‘assumption of entitlement’ must apply here. Corporate parents at local and national level must work together to ensure that there is a national and strategic solution to ensuring that all care leavers have the required technology and are supported and funded to access to broadband and internet provision.
- Robust and consistent rights-based and needs-led approaches should be taken to support young people moving on to more interdependent living.
- The needs of care experienced young people cannot and must not get lost in this pandemic, particularly considering the progress that has already been made to improve support.
- Access to mental health services for a group whose vulnerabilities and disadvantage is already established and documented as a national concern must be prioritised. This includes specific specialist CAMHS and adult mental health services and interventions, as well as ensuring a range of community-based supports and projects to address issues of isolation, lack of structure and boredom as contributors to poor mental health.
- Enabling environments for relationship-based practice to flourish should be encouraged to ensure that positive approaches developed in response to COVID-19 are supported to continue.