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As Children’s Commissioner, I have specific powers to provide advice, assistance, and representation to care leavers up to the age of 25, to ensure their rights are respected and they receive the services they are entitled to. This is the role of my Help at Hand team, who support hundreds of care leavers each year on a wide range of issues including housing, financial support, education, and access to their full leaving care package.

Care leavers have the right to independent advocacy from their local children and young people’s advocacy service, and the Help at Hand team ensures that every young person who needs an advocate gets one. However, if advocates are not making progress with the local authority, or if the matter is urgent or serious, the team can step in directly and, in the most concerning cases, I will write personally to the Director of Children’s Services.

In addition to helping young people with specific problems, the team’s work provides an important insight into how the social care system is functioning for care leavers, which has a direct influence on our office’s policy work and research, and my priorities as Children’s Commissioner.

Over the past year, the team has spoken to young care leavers who are succeeding in many aspects of their lives and are looking for more or different support from their local authority as a ‘corporate parent’. While some leaving care services do this very well and have an excellent local offer for care leavers, unfortunately this is too often not the case. Key themes to emerge from Help at Hand’s work with care leavers this year are inadequate housing, access to funding for higher education, and immigration issues.

The cases below give a snapshot of what the young people who contact the service are facing and the impact the team can make for them.

Jane was a 20-year-old care leaver in her second year at university.

She was studying within her local authority area and had successfully secured a training contract to become a solicitor once her degree and further training was completed. She had, however, struggled to find suitable housing within a reasonable distance of her university. When she called Help at Hand, she was living in shared temporary accommodation, sourced by her Leaving Care Team and the Housing Service. However, the instability and poor quality of the accommodation was having a detrimental effect on her mental health and studies. The Help at Hand team contacted her leaving care personal advisor and the team manager to request a meeting to discuss Jane’s housing options and preferences, so her wishes could be properly heard and considered. Soon afterwards, Jane was offered alternative accommodation that she was happy with, and she was able to move in as soon as the academic year was complete.

Donna was a care leaver who had faced difficulties getting suitable accommodation when she became homeless at 16.

With the support of a solicitor, Donna was given retrospective care leaver status, having come in to care late, and accommodation once she reached 18. When she contacted Help at Hand through her advocate, she had suffered three floods in her shared housing and had been moved to another temporary flat, where her living room faced on to an open sewage pipe. Her Leaving Care Team did not initially help with moving her belongings into this accommodation, despite many requests from her advocate, including formal complaints. The advocate got in touch with the Help at Hand team, who contacted senior managers to request a move or emergency repairs to deal with the sewage. Donna was transferred to an alternative property nearby and had support to transport her belongings. She also received financial compensation for what she had been through.

Josie was placed in poor quality temporary accommodation by her local authority’s homelessness service when she left care at 18.

The one-bedroom flat was in a state of disrepair and, despite Josie having two children soon afterwards, she was still living there four years later. Josie went to work part-time to improve her family’s situation, but this caused some short-term problems with her benefits and rent, due to the high cost of the accommodation. The landlord used this as an excuse not to complete repairs, and the severe damp in the flat had a significant impact on her children’s health. Despite being proactive and making numerous complaints, Josie was not moved by the Housing Service, and the Leaving Care Team ended their support, as they said she was doing well overall. After being offered two unsuitable properties, Josie contacted Help at Hand, who supported her in getting a leaving care personal adviser. The team also contacted the local authority’s Housing Service and took the matter to managers, reminding them of their responsibility to ensure Josie and her children had safe, decent housing. They agreed to move Josie and her children to more suitable private-rented accommodation, which was in a much better condition, and to retain her priority on the social housing register so she could bid for affordable, long-term housing for her family.

Tom was a care leaver who was 22 and seeking funding to study for a Master’s degree, having completed his BA.

He contacted Help at Hand for advice about whether he was entitled to financial support from his local authority. The team advised that this support can be offered by Leaving Care Teams, but this is discretionary, depending on what is set out in their Local Offer for Care Leavers. Tom’s local authority offered a one-off bursary for Masters degrees on a case by case basis. Help at Hand wrote a supporting letter to service managers on Tom’s behalf, setting out why he should receive this funding, and they agreed to provide it. The team also advised him about other sources of finance he could access to help with his study and accommodation costs, for example a graduate loan and a bursary direct from the university, and ensured he received support from his personal adviser to do this.

Chinh was an 18-year-old care leaver who came to the UK as an unaccompanied asylum seeking child.

He contacted the Help at Hand team because he had been waiting for the outcome of his asylum application for two and half years. This delay was causing Chinh a lot of uncertainty and distress. It also meant that he reached adulthood without access to public funds or a student loan and had to rely on funding from his local authority to meet his basic needs. The Help at Hand team raised this issue with the Home Office’s Safeguarding Advice and Children’s Champion and soon afterwards he was invited to an interview, which led to him being granted refugee status.

While my team are always happy to assist young people who call us, I want to reach a point where an excellent service for all care leavers is the norm. This is why I have set out my priorities for care leavers and will continue to advocate for these young people, so that every care leaver has the high-quality, long-term support and stability they need to pursue their ambitions and fulfil their potential. As Children’s Commissioner, this is what I want for all young people in England, and I expect absolutely nothing less for those who have grown up in care.

Care leavers can contact Help at Hand directly by calling 0800 528 0731, emailing [email protected], or through the Children’s Commissioner’s office website.

Help at Hand will be running a training session for advocates on care leavers’ rights in December. Please contact the team for more details.

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