Putting on the grown up shoes and stepping into the world outside of home and all its childhood familiarity and comfort is a major transition in our passage through life. And it is so scary. I remember that drive to Plymouth when I left home for the first time to go to college so well. The anxiety brings me out in goosebumps even now 50 years on. First I had to drive there in an old Ford Anglia and I had never been further than London before so that was an adventure, then I had to find my accommodation, settle in and face the beginning of the academic year in a place I didn’t know. I had the advantage of a boyfriend on the second year of my course so that helped the aloneness. But it was all hugely terrifying.
Why am I telling you this?? Well in the past week or so my niece took her first step into the world of work leaving home for a resident job in an independent school in the South of England and a temporary volunteer at the food bank left Norfolk for university in Glasgow. Both of these amazing young women had the same advantages that I had in making these huge transitional steps . Both had a stable,loving and supportive family whose job had been to raise their children for this very moment, the moment they truly become part of the adult world on their own terms. They had a secure base from which to make their move on the world. They also had the advantages of good education which had explored and grown their individual talents and given them a sound understanding of the world. They had travelled , learned how to cope with new experiences, they were both socially competent and confident yet they were anxious and just a bit scared too. But they like me had a family home that they could go back to if it all got too much and I did in the early days to recharge my confidence by waking to my own room at home, to the familiar and the comfortable , to Mum’s cooking and the unique family banter of mealtime conversations.
Now imagine for a moment how these steps must feel if as a child or young person you have lived with many strangers in children’s homes, residential schools, and foster homes and this has left you with little or no security from which to begin adult life, plus poor educational outcomes and not much sense of self.
Young adults leaving the public care system for an independent adult life face many more challenges that just another move. They take with them their history which frequently carries many unresolved or even unspoken issues, they may not know much of their own story or understand how they have arrived at this point of embarkation to the adult world with so little preparation or support. Now I can hear the cries from leaving care staff across the country and those who support initiatives like Stay Put and I recognise that many carers and social work staff try their best to provide practical, financial and emotional for their clients. But given the level of vulnerability this is a barely a start on what is required. As social workers and service planners we have totally unrealistic expectations of what our care leavers can achieve. Yes we should have high expectations as all parents do of their children but we must not set them up to fail. The preparation for adulthood must start from the beginning and unless we can begin to provide a care system that owes more to a good parenting model and less to Victorian values and beliefs about the poor then we cannot expect the outcomes to be good.
But maybe there are things we can do while we are waiting for that particular revolution as it requires some serious adjustments in our general values and beliefs in society. The first would be to remove the artificial team barriers and working practices in social work organisations. It has never made any sense to me to have to change social workers at 15 or 16 from the Looked After Children Team to Leaving care. This is the point at which the social worker with whom you have built up a relationship and who knows you is needed to walk with you into independence. Of course I start from the premise that the LAC SW has been around for longer than a few months and is not an agency worker.
The second is to look seriously at the Stay Put schemes. There are young people who have foster carers who have stayed with them, often without the local Authorities permission or agreement ,and I know personally young people for whom this has been a family for life. Stay Put has issues because it is formalised and therefore if a young person stays then it can take out other placements and when foster homes are at a premium this presents a problem for both local authorities and for private fostering agencies alike. There are of course financial implications in this scenario too. This is not the answer.
For the care leaver every organisation they deal with has barriers, thresholds to be negotiated and no one provides them with unconditional services or support. Theirs has been a rocky road so far in life and who will hug and cry with them at that moment of leaving after settling them in their hall of residence or new lodging near their job, who will plan their first weekend home with a favourite meal or trip out, rescue them when they get sick, listen in the middle of the night when love fails them, advise about the best hangover cures, or be there to celebrate their successes. I was homesick for my own bed in my early student days and I knew it was still there and I was unconditionally welcome whatever the day, time or circumstances. We owe our young people whom we have rescued or seperated from their families a much better path into the adult world. Their red shoes are waiting but there are many forms and many meetings before they have any hope of getting them. We need to make our care fit for caring, fit for purpose.