Researchers find English care system needs to get better at providing safe accommodation and support for care leavers into adulthood

Wed 18 May, 2022
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In the first large-scale statistical analysis of young peoples’ exit from the care system (either residential or foster care) at age 16 and over in England, researchers from the University of Bedfordshire found wide variations in pathways and outcomes for young adults leaving care and that more needs to be done to maximise their life chances.

On average, young adults leave home at the age of 23 which is in sharp contrast to young people in care who leave their foster homes or residential placements much earlier, between the ages of 16 and 18 years old. The University’s analysis – based on the data of 1,338 young people from across ten local authorities who left care during the pandemic – is the first to explore how individual characteristics, reasons for entry into care and in-care histories influence young people’s pathways out of care.

The 18-month study, funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) – as part of UK Research & Innovation’s (UKRI) rapid response to Covid-19 – was supplemented by interviews with care leavers and care professionals, including ‘leaving care’ service managers, social workers and health service representatives.

Findings from Bedfordshire’s Institute of Applied Social Research (IASR) highlighted that:

  • Care leavers follow five main pathways out of care. The most common pathway, followed by almost half of the research participants (49%), involved moving care into ‘supported living arrangements’, e.g. hostels or supported lodgings. These arrangements differed in terms of their purpose, design, and length of stay and the level of support provided. They are not regulated by the quality Inspectorate. Those taking part in the study had concerns about the quality of some of the provision.
  • Just 1 in 7 (14%) in the study remained living with their foster carers in Staying Put arrangements beyond the age of 18; statistical analysis showed these young adults typically entered care earlier, benefitted from placement stability were significantly more likely to be in education. Just under 1 in 10, left care early to live with birth family.
  • Young people who came in to care later (as a teenager) were most likely to move directly into private tenancies or council properties when they left care (18%) or to have a more complex transition from care (8%), including multiple moves, or placements in secure settings or adult social care.
  • Our study shows that early transitions (leaving before age 18) stubbornly persist despite changes to legislation and research which continues to highlight that leaving care later and extending placements is a positive experienced for many and improves outcomes.

Lead researcher, Professor Emily Munro – Director of IASR and Professor of Social Work Research at the University of Bedfordshire – said: “Our research highlights the different paths that young people take out of the care system. Almost all young people in care are expected to grow up faster than their peers in the general population, whereas, ideally they should have a more gradual transition, a guarantee of safe accommodation and a network of support well into adulthood.

“Our analysis shows that the care system is not always providing this level of care. We should seek to address the ‘inverse care law’, where the provision of good social care varies inversely according to the needs of the population.”

IASR’s analysis is echoed in the words of young people who took part in the study:

“I think corporate parenting teams should try to input what a real person parenting their real children would do.” (Care leaver)

“They need to give us more time… We shouldn’t have to grow up as soon as we hit 18 – other people don’t. I feel like it’s quite rubbish.” (Care leaver)

Another major aim of the analysis undertaken for this study was to assess the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of care leavers. There were many impacts including on daily life and accessing support for health and wellbeing, as well as support for education and employment. Interviews with ‘leaving care’ managers revealed that many local authorities stepped up their support, including financial support, to care leavers during the pandemic. The government’s increase of Universal Credit by £80 a month was seen as crucial in keeping care leavers above the breadline.

“The young people who’d turned 18 during Covid-19 were only used to that, so it was very much a ‘we’re going to take money away from you’ situation.  That was a struggle for them.  And it’s a lot, that’s £80 a month.  And with rising living costs and everything as well...” (Personal Adviser)

Professor Munro added: “Findings from our research bring into sharp focus that young people’s pathways out of care are not akin to those of their peers in the general population; and that poverty and isolation are realities for too many.”

Access the full report here


For further information and for interview opportunities with Professor Emily Munro, please contact 01582 489399. 


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