A third of all homeless people in the UK have been in local authority care at some point in their childhoods, with 20 per cent of care leavers experiencing homelessness within the first two years of leaving the care system.
This over-representation of care leavers among homeless people frightens me as a kid in care. I came to the belief that the care system wraps individuals up in the cotton wool of protocol and red tape, but abandons them into adulthood. Legislation like the Homelessness Act 2002 and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 are parliamentary attempts at addressing the issue. But there is a fundamental problem that no policy change can rectify – reducing homelessness among care leavers actually requires changes in personal interactions and relationships.
Restrictions placed on foster carers form a barrier that hinders young people in their care in forming blossoming relationships that will continue after 18. Foster carers must get permission from numerous professionals prior to everything from paying for a young person to have their haircut to going on holiday as a foster family.
They must also get permission to allow young people to sleep over at a friend’s house and go on school trips. The process takes so long that the sleepover and the school trip have often happened once the permission comes through.
Constant permission-seeking undermines the confidence of foster carers in their opinions and caring abilities, and can create resentment between the foster child and foster carer. If this prevents relationships from being maintained into adulthood, support dissolves once the young person leaves that household and they are more likely to experience homelessness.
Since May 2014, fostered young people have the right to stay with their foster families when they reach 18, if both parties agree. But the low ratio of foster parents to young people needing care makes that unrealistic for everyone. And not all young people would want to remain anyway.
There needs to be a major shift in the level of delegated authority, which would not only increase the sense of normality within fostering households – therefore increasing the likelihood of maintained relationships – but also put less strain on social workers.
I am not saying that foster carers should replace birth parents or that there’s no place for regulation and communication within teams that focus on children’s welfare. I understand that a child’s background experience and opinion should be taken into account when considering the type of relationship that is formed. But unnecessary protocol prevents any possibility of normality.
Foster carers are encouraged to remain distant out of fear of stepping on the parents’ toes. I believe if a healthy relationship based on trust, respect and love is grown then foster carers will be able to contribute immensely to young people’s lives (alongside the birth family) and remove a burden from the government as they would be at the heart of preventing homelessness from arising and therefore cutting welfare expenditure caused by their homelessness.
If we tailor support and love to the child with passion, we can bring back the elements that foster carers came into the profession for. They wanted to make an impact on a child by showing the goodness that exists within humanity. We can prevent homelessness among this vulnerable group by creating an emotional investment between the foster carers and the young people.
Allow care leavers to have a place of safety, security and the knowledge that if anything goes wrong they will have someone that truly knows us who can pick us straight back up in the same way they did when we were children.