The success of the Fostering Network’ Don’t Move Me campaign means that 2014 will become known as a landmark year for care leavers across the UK. With children’s matters being a devolved issue, it has required separately-focused efforts in England, Wales, and Scotland to convince politicians of the merits of young people in care being able to stay with foster carers after their 18th birthdays.
While it was fortunate that parliamentary bills with similar scope were under consideration at roughly the same time in Westminster, Cardiff and Edinburgh, this did not make the task any easier. The limited resources of our media and campaigns team were stretched to their limit to ensure that research was completed, reports were written, politicians were briefed, and supporters informed and energised.
Over many years we had heard countless stories from foster carers and young people who had been forced into severing their good relationships at an arbitrary cut-off date. Often this could be in the middle of important exams or just before embarking on the first steps of training or employment. These are crucial moments in a young person’s life, where the loving support of a stable family home can make all the difference between success and failure.
So while the Fostering Network had argued for this change in the law for a long time, it made sense for us to coincide the start of the Don’t Move Me campaign in England with the publication of the Children and Families Bill in early 2013. That April, MPs were filmed talking about their experiences of leaving home, and at what age their own children left home. This simple concept allowed for an easy and stark contrast to be made with outcomes for children in care, who are often forced to fend for themselves at or before their 18th birthday, long before they are ready.
One of the MPs who took part in the filming was Paul Goggins, who very sadly died earlier this year. He volunteered to get the ball rolling in Parliament by tabling an amendment to the bill, and his hard work in the Commons was built upon in the House of Lords by the Earl of Listowel. Armed with reports and briefings from the Fostering Network, which themselves had been informed by international evidence and the Staying Put pilots in 11 English local authorities, Goggins and Listowel built an army of parliamentarians sympathetic to the cause.
We also spread the message of the campaign with the help of our supporters and other children’s charities, and through the media, with the result that politicians were inundated with letters, phone calls, Facebook messages and tweets urging them to take action. So with immense pressure to change the law building up both inside and outside parliament, and a really strong argument behind us, we were eventually able to convince the Government to adopt their own amendment to the bill in November 2013 – and also to back it up with an impressive £40 million investment over three years.
The Children and Families Bill received Royal Assent in March 2014, and local authorities will be starting to prepare for their new duty right away.
There is no doubt that this success in England, along with continued pressure from the Fostering Network and a coalition of other charities, planted the seed in the minds of politicians in Scotland and Wales that they could do the right thing for young people in those countries as well. However there was still a lot of work to be done. We did some similar filming with MSPs in Scotland, and again we were able to build coalitions of support – particularly so in Wales with our joint “Chance to Stay” campaign with Action for Children – and to draw attention to this crucial issue through the media.
Following big efforts from all our members and supporters contacting their MSPs and AMs, we were successful. Scotland’s Children and Young People Bill now contains a commitment for all young people in care to stay until 21, with the option of “returning to care” until the age of 25. Meanwhile as I write, the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill has just been amended to ensure that post-18 living arrangements with foster carers become a duty that all local authorities in Wales must support – though we are continuing to fight for money from the Welsh Government.
In Northern Ireland they are already fortunate to have a scheme in place that allows all young people who live with foster families and are in education, employment or training to “stay put” – though there are now moves to get this enshrined in law too.
So it’s been a whirlwind and very busy year in the campaigns team, but it has been so worthwhile to know we’ve helped to make such a positive difference to the lives of young people in foster care across the UK. Politicians, and moreover governments, often get a bad rap from the public, particularly when it comes to meeting children’s needs. This time however, thanks to a concerted campaign, they have come good. Everybody – foster carers, young people, staff and volunteers – should be proud of what we have achieved. However in the team we are already enjoying planning our next campaign to make foster care better, so watch this space!
Rob Cann, Campaigns Officer