Christmas Day is almost with us and the anticipation of the gathering of families and friends for that special few days together is growing.
Even if we’re not spending time together, we will probably be speaking to our families by phone or Skype on Christmas morning to catch up and convey our good wishes.
But we should remember that many children who have recently left care will not have families or friends, or any kind of support around. And for these children the sense of isolation at Christmas can be acute.
It’s easy to forget that there are a significant number of children who have recently left care who are not entitled to any further support. When they exit the care system they can be left largely to fend for themselves. ‘Staying Put’ is a very positive initiative – it allows some 18-year-olds to stay with their former foster carers. This means they have somewhere to come back to for those important events like Christmas. Young people who have been in residential care don’t have this option.
In our State of the Nation report, which we published in August this year, we outlined the findings from our survey of children in care. The survey revealed that many children have good experiences of being in care – the overwhelming majority felt they were living in the right place and most felt safe and secure, although too many did not.
Unlike most young people, who rely on the love and support of their families long after their teens and often into their 20s and beyond, care leavers are often expected to be independent after they turn 18 – with some of them having to look after themselves with insufficient support at 16.
In fact, our survey revealed that just under half of children leaving care felt they were not ready to go. Many felt settled and secure in their placement; others spoke of the shock of support being withdrawn suddenly.
Clearly this is unfair and puts these children at a significant disadvantage.
That’s why I set out a series of recommendations designed to ensure that all children leaving the care system get the support other young people get.
First and foremost I want children to be involved in the decisions made about them and for all decisions to be fully explained to them. Support for all care leavers should also be extended to up 25 years of age – something most children with their own families take for granted.
Children should also be able to keep their social worker – often a person with whom they develop a significant, stable and consistent relationship – for longer through their time in care and into adulthood.
Children who have been through the care system have often suffered abuse and trauma, which led to them going into care. It’s therefore vital that every child in care should have access to high-quality therapeutic care to enable them to recover and build resilience and emotional wellbeing.
Next year I want to look at how support for care leavers could be extended. I would like to see care leavers get guaranteed support into employment, education or training as well as guaranteed access to mental health support. We will be looking at ways this could happen over coming months.
So this Christmas, please take the time to spare a thought for those young people spending Christmas on their own. The Topé Project was set up by a group of care leavers initially to provide a welcoming, friendly space on Christmas Day. It is named after a 23-year-old care leaver who took his life in 2010 and whose death had a profound impact on the young people who knew him. It now organises events for care leavers to help combat loneliness throughout the year.
In 2016 we will be shining a light on some amazing young people who are leaving care. I know you will join me to ensure they get all the support they need.
Anne Longfield, OBE
Children’s Commissioner for England