Flexible and creative adaptations to services but ‘care gaps’ persist

Wed 02 June, 2021
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Following the UK government’s announcement of £51 million in new social care funding (24th May), researchers at the University of Bedfordshire have completed the first stage of a study investigating the support available to care leavers during the pandemic – with emerging findings highlighting that Covid-19 has heightened the challenges facing young people leaving care.

The study found that children’s social care services have been flexible and creative in their responses to support this group but that the pandemic has exposed fragility in current systems. ‘Care Tilda Goldberg Centre logogaps’ persist and the findings highlight access to effective mental health support and suitable accommodation as priority issues. 

Led by Principal Investigator, Professor Emily Munro, Director of the University’s Tilda Goldberg Centre for Social Work and Social Care, the ‘Care leavers, Covid-19 and the Transition from Care’ (CCTC) research project launched in November 2020, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.

In the first stage of the 18-month project, Professor Munro and her research team have been interviewing children’s social care professionals and leaving care managers from across England to explore the impact that the pandemic and subsequent restrictions have had on care leavers’ lives.  They have also been examining how children’s social care have adapted their services and support since the first lockdown in March 2020 to May 2021.

Findings suggest that there were some unanticipated benefits of the pandemic. It has been a catalyst for some positive adjustments to approaches to service delivery and the levels and types of support available. There was some indication that during Covid-19 services had moved away from bureaucratic and ‘task-focused’ practice and towards more personalised, flexible and relational support.

Professor Emily Munro, Director of the Institute of Applied Social Research, explained more about how services reported they had responded: “Young people leaving care are a diverse group but Covid-19 has increased the challenges and disadvantages they face. Emerging findings so far suggest that care professionals have been creative and flexible in their approaches to supporting young people leaving care during the pandemic. They have been meeting young people for socially distanced walks or bike rides and arranging virtual drop-in sessions, quizzes, cooking sessions and exercise classes to try and minimise isolation. Children’s social care providers have also been making discretionary payments, in some cases, to respond to increased financial hardship.” 

One manager provided an example of one of their practitioners offering a simple ‘cuppa’ care package: 

“She’s been sending a little biscuit and a teabag and other things [to her young people] in an envelope, which kind of says ‘We’ll sit and have a brew together’... Little things like that mean an awful lot, don’t they? When you think, actually, that somebody is sitting at home thinking about you…it’s a lovely little thought.” 

Cuppa care package

However, findings from the study also re-expose underlying issues affecting care leavers, including poverty, isolation and mental ill-health, which have been further exacerbated during the pandemic. The pandemic brought into sharp focus the reality that some care leavers were isolated and managing on low incomes. 

Mental health and access to suitable accommodation were of particular concern, with every local authority having identified mental health support for care leavers as a pressing issue. There was evidence of gaps in the availability of, and access to, effective mental health services for care leavers during transition to adulthood. At a time when mental ill-health needs are elevated, access to services had become more challenging. A small number of leaving care managers drew particular attention to an escalation in self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts amongst their care leavers and there were widespread calls for improved access to mental health support for care leavers. 

Maintaining young people in accommodation was another major challenge, particularly in cases where young people’s non-compliance with social distancing measures exposed their foster carers or other young people in shared accommodation to risk. In cases where young people had been evicted a few local authorities reported major difficulties finding alternative accommodation, with some having to resort to placing vulnerable young people in Bed and Breakfast accommodation and/or out of authority placements. 

Professor Munro reflected: “In the aftermath of the pandemic, it will be important to build on the positive adaptations to services and support that have been embedded during the crisis, and to remain attuned and responsive to the diverse needs of young people leaving care.”

Visit the CCTC webpage for further information: www.beds.ac.uk/goldbergcentre/research/goldberg-current-research/cctc/ 

The next stage of the project will involve the research team analysing anonymised local authority management information system data from between 1,500 to 2,000 young people, to contribute to understanding care leavers’ transition pathways and answer the question: Who moves where and do those with similar characteristics tend to follow the same routes out of care? The team will also be interviewing around 50 care leavers and their key workers and working with young people and service providers to develop tools to support best practice.

All findings will then be combined to produce the final report in May 2022, which will be used by the Economic and Social Research Council to advise and help enhance professional practice and support for young people making the transition from care in the aftermath of the pandemic.

For further information about research and postgraduate opportunities with the Tilda Goldberg Centre and the Institute of Applied Social Research, visit: www.beds.ac.uk/iasr/pd

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