Education & Family

Care leavers' 'emotional needs unmet'

Girl on beach
Image caption Many care leavers feel abandoned

The emotional needs of children who have been in care are not being well looked after, a charity suggests.

A small but in-depth study by Action For Children says issues children bring into the care system can be compounded by their poor experiences while in it.

It calls for better ways of meeting such children's needs and warns support must be ongoing to prevent them from following "chaotic pathways".

The government said the support on offer had improved significantly.

The report, Too Much Too Young, is based on in-depth work with 31 care leavers and 12 professionals working with such children in England and Wales.

It says: "Most young people who have been in care continue to cope with the lasting impact of a traumatic childhood.

"They can suffer from depression and anxiety, on top of dealing with the challenges of living on their own for the the first time.

"They tell us that too often they feel alone with these difficulties - even when they have been helped with the practicalities of transition and finding somewhere to live."

The report argues that leaving care is not the same as leaving home, as care leavers rarely have the stability or support networks that most teenagers take for granted.

"Without that safety net, every poor decision can have serious consequences and prevent the most vulnerable young people from achieving their potential," it adds.

The report notes that government policy has focused on the quality and location of accommodation that youngsters move into when they leave care and the practical support they are offered.

But it warns: "Emotional wellbeing should be our starting point. Without it, practical support is not enough for the most vulnerable young people.

"Poor emotional health permeated young peoples' stories. Essential support disappears rapidly after those with complex needs and disabilities leave care.

'Take responsibility'

"The emotional and mental health of children in care is not sufficiently prioritised, with the Welsh government and local health boards needing to take greater responsibility for their role in corporate parenting."

It also highlights young people's need for long-lasting relationships they can trust to help them manage living independently.

"Young people consistently ask for continuity and support from a trusted adult after they have left care.

"This helps them build resilience, manage their tenancies and prevent housing crises," the report says.

And it quotes a report that suggests about one-third of care leavers experience homelessness at some point between six and 24 months after leaving care.

It also cautions against drawing comparisons between other children and those who have been in care as the "impact of adverse experiences means that children in care often do not reach the same stage of development as their peers by the same age".

Kate Mulley, director of public policy at Action for Children, said young people were not getting the emotional support they needed to move on from the legacy of the most difficult childhoods imaginable.

"We have to make the emotional wellbeing of young people our starting point, otherwise vulnerable care leavers will continue to struggle with living independently," she said.

"Giving young people in or leaving care guaranteed continued access to mental health services after they turn 18 would be a good starting point.

"Providing more specialist care for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties will also to help set them up with a better future."

A spokesman for the Department for Education said the rules have changed "so children can stay with their foster carers until they are 21 - and we believe no-one should leave care until they are truly ready.

"We are committed to tackling the emotional needs of the most vulnerable young people, and local authorities must produce a care plan for all looked after children which ensures all of their needs are met. They must also be assigned their own social worker who will keep their case under review.

"We have also established the Children and Young People's Mental Health and Wellbeing Task Force to make recommendations on how local authorities can best look after the mental health needs of young people."

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