Fewer foster children ‘staying put until aged 21’, says charity

Jess Atkinson.
Jess Atkinson.
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A much-feted Cameron-era policy designed to keep foster children in stable homes until the age of 21 is failing, charities have said, after figures showed the number of children “staying put” has dropped to its lowest level since it was introduced in 2014.

The Staying Put programme requires local authorities to support arrangements for fostered young people to stay with their foster carers beyond their 18th birthday and until the age of 21.

However, analysis of the most recent Government figures by the charity Action for Children, on behalf of the Yorkshire Evening Post ahead of the start of Fostering Fortnight on Monday, shows that the number of young people that still lived with their foster carers after turning 18 fell by almost 10 per cent in 2016/17 to just 46 per cent nationally - its lowest level since the duty was introduced in 2014.

In Yorkshire, the level fell to 56 per cent, four per cent less than 2015/16.

Action for Children said the figures were in line with the Education Select Committee’s finding that many young people were still missing out of Staying Put due to a “lack of clarity and consistency” around its implementation.

The charity said a foster carers’ income could drop from around £500 a week to around £120 under a Staying Put arrangement - a fall of 70 per cent.

Fostering services manager in the North at the charity, Paul Goodwin, said: “These are young people who are vulnerable - and that vulnerability does not switch off when they become 18 years of age.

“Carers are often keen to support their foster child, but it is often not financially viable for them to consider Staying Put.

“Staying Put is vitally important. For many young people, they will have experienced the most stable parts of their lives running up to their 18th birthday.

“Having a supportive foster family is critical in giving the confidence to move forward and succeed in life.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said it was providing £23.3m to local authorities in 2018/19 to enable care leavers to remain with their former foster carers after they turn 18.

She added: “Our guidance is clear that local authorities should pay former foster carers an allowance that will cover all reasonable costs of supporting the care leaver to remain living with them.”

My foster family put no time limits on how long I stay

FOR 20-year-old Jess Atkinson, staying at her foster family’s home after her 18th birthday was never an issue - it was her home, her family, and she was welcome to stay “as long as she liked”.

But she knows that for many young people who have spent time in the care system, that is not always the case.

Jess, from Huby in Harrogate, said Staying Put arrangements were “really important” and that in the third of cases where they are not possible due to financial pressures, funding should be re-evaluated to ensure that young people can continue to stay where they feel supported.

Miss Atkinson was seven years old when she came to live with her foster family, who have two birth children and two other long-term foster placements.

She said: “From when I was born I had social workers involved in my life, as my mum and dad couldn’t really cope.

“My dad died when I was a lot younger, having been ill for most of his life. Social services tried to keep me at home but this didn’t prove possible and things were very difficult, as after my dad died, mum re-married and we both suffered abuse from her new partner.

“During this time, I spent time in respite care, part of the week staying with my foster family and the rest of the time with my mum.”

Eventually the decision was made for Jess to move in with her foster family full-time, though she kept in contact with her birth mother.

“My foster family - mum, dad, and sisters, and their extended family, have always treated me the same as their birth children - no difference at all – I’ve always been told ‘you are part of our family’,” she said.

“You do feel different when you are in care because there are reviews and social work visits and so on, but my family treating me the same really helped and made me feel better about it…it just feels natural.”

A couple of months before her 18th birthday, Miss Atkinson met with her new support worker, who would take over from her social worker as a point of contact when she turned 18.

“We talked about the next steps, and different options, whether I wanted support in finding my own place, or if I wanted to stay,” she said.

“My foster family always said I could stay there as long as I wanted, no time limits, it was entirely up to me. I always felt so comfortable and safe there, I had no reason to want to go. Financially, and everything else, it would have been so stressful having to move out.

“That’s why I think Staying Put is so important. When you’re in care, you already feel different. You build up a relationship with your foster parents. To have to move on when you’re 18, that’s a big step for anyone at any age.

“It would make you feel alienated, for them to be your family for long then, and then to turn 18 and that’s it, you have to go.”

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