Before I joined The Fostering Network as its chief executive, one of the things I most admired the organisation for – indeed, I sometimes wish I had been its chief executive at the time – was it leading the campaign to give young people the right to stay living with their former foster carers until the age of 21, if both parties agreed. The Fostering Network’s Don’t Move Me campaign led to the introduction of Staying Put across England, a policy which had the potential to be transformative in the lives of young care leavers.
The organisation continues to be rightly proud of this achievement. And we are not alone. In the latest edition of Children and Young People Now (the magazine for professionals working with children, young people and families) former Children’s Minster Edward Timpson says that one of things he is most proud of from his time in government is Staying Put: ‘As a policy reform, Staying Put was the right thing to do.’
Absolutely it was – and is – the right thing to do.
However, a few years after its implementation we have to face the fact that Staying Put, as a policy, is falling short in practice. Introducing a policy without sufficient resources to implement it properly is not good enough.
The number of young people Staying Put is woefully low
Although many young people have remained living with their former foster carers, the numbers are still too low.
Figures from Ofsted and the Department for Education show that last year there was a significant drop in the percentage of 18 year olds who stayed living with their foster carers (45 per cent compared to 54 per cent the previous year), while only 11 per cent of 19 year olds were still living with their former foster carers. Given that up to a third of all young people aged 20 to 34 years are currently living with their parents, this figure is woefully low - especially considering that young care experienced people often require increased support as they transition into adulthood.
For a number of reasons, the hopes and expectations we had that Staying Put would change the care leaving experience of young people have not been met. The financial support from central Government for Staying Put has not been sufficient, and this lack of support is the root cause for many of the implementation issues. We are particularly concerned that there is no minimum Staying Put allowance, meaning that the vast majority of foster carers (80 per cent according to our most recent survey) find themselves out of pocket when a young person stays living with them after turning 18. No foster carer should be financially worse off because they agree to a young person remaining living with them.
One solution that many local authorities appear to be using to help fill the funding gap is requiring young people who wish to stay put to claim housing benefit, which they are then expected to pass on to their former foster carer. We are very concerned about this as we do not believe that young care leavers should be forced to claim benefits unnecessarily nor do we believe that the relationship between a young person and their former foster carer should be changed into a transactional landlord/tenant arrangement – this undermines the strong relational benefits of Staying Put.
The funding gap must be rectified as a matter of urgency, not least because evidence shows that investing in stability in early adulthood reduces public expenditure on services such as mental health, benefits and the justice system later in that young person’s life.
A culture shift is required
We also need a culture shift within fostering services, which must accept that Staying Put is the new norm and that they must do all that they can to make it a reality for as many young people as possible. Just as over the past 15 years there has been a shift away from expecting children to leave care at 16, we now need a sector-wide understanding that fostered young people should be able to live at home until they are 21, and a determination to make this happen. Shockingly, feedback we have received from a recent foster carer survey has said that planning can start as late as the young person’s 18th birthday. No wonder Staying Put isn’t happening for so many young people – it should be considered as early as possible as part of the long-term care plan for all looked after children and young people in a long-term or permanent placement.
There is a lack of awareness of local policies on Staying Put among foster carers and young people – information about Staying Put should be available to all those involved, including children, their families, foster carers, fostering service providers, children’s social workers, IROs and leaving care services. Significantly, we often hear that young people are not fully involved in the process. This is not good enough.
The change to the law was one of the most important moments in The Fostering Network’s 44 year history, and ensuring that it works properly for all young people who want to stay with their foster families remains a solid commitment for the charity. We would like to see that same commitment from fostering services and the Government: this and future generations of care leavers depend on it.
Kevin Williams, Chief Executive