There seems to be an unspoken assumption that when we talk about children in care on a day to day basis, we’re picturing a very young child. It’s the image we see in films and tv shows, of a child usually under the age of 10 being placed in a foster home or being removed from the care of their parents. You can understand how this develops. Sensationalised and dramatized storylines about toddlers who are in need of “rescue” from negative environments makes for great plot points in TV. It’s the type of thing that keep people tuning into soap operas every day. And thanks to the high rates of good practice across the UK, real-life practitioners are able to recognise a vulnerable child earlier on, meaning they’re placed in care at a younger age. Nevertheless, we need to ensure that older children who find themselves in care get the full breadth of our attention; whether or not they fit into a prejudiced stereotype that the media has constructed for us. Young people can be just as vulnerable as children, and they face a whole range of struggles that need practitioner (and societal) support.
Young people are growing up, they’re starting to understand the world a bit more and they’re more aware of their surroundings. While this can be a great time in your life, when you’re learning who you are and the defining features of your personality; many children enter this stage with a very real risk of neglect, abuse and trauma. If a young person is in an unsafe environment at home (for whatever reason) then their development will be inherently defined by this situation. To minimise the risk posed to them and to attempt to provide them with the most stable environment while they grow up; some young people will be removed from their home and placed in care. These looked-after young adults will then either be in foster care or residential care, with aid from social workers and members of the social care community, preparing them for when they will be independent.
Whether in foster care or residential, young people face a period in their lives of great emotional upheaval and distress, and being in a foster home, residential home or other residential setting away from their homes does not simplify things. Young people are aware enough to understand what is happening and can recognise that moving into care is the right move; however, they require personalised support to manoeuvre their way through this period.
For many, moving into the social care system is a positive step in their childhood and adolescence, as they are removed from a situation where they were vulnerable and now have the potential to grow and thrive. Each case is always different, but overall, the social care services in the UK do an excellent job to be there for vulnerable young people who need them. However, it’s no secret that the services are stretched thin. The number of children in care is rising all the time, and with shocking statistics like 836 children in care in Stoke-on-Trent alone, it can be easy to feel like the sector is overwhelmed.
Currently, it’s hard for practitioners to provide this fully personalised support that young people need, no matter how hard they try. The constant battle for funding in social care means that the resources practitioners need to help young people develop their independence are simply unavailable. As with any matter in social work and care, staffing issues also come into play, as teams are stretched thin trying to meet all the demand for their help without the necessary manpower. Such a vital part of supporting young people who are being looked after is to prepare them for life after care. It’s about developing their skills, confidence and capabilities so that when the time comes, they can lead fulfilling independent lives. As with any other young person, someone in care is preparing to be an adult. And it’s up to us to make sure they are given the tools they need to grow into positive contributors to society. As a result there are dozens of services nationwide who work to be there for every child; but is this part of the problem? Is it too easy to develop a reliance on the services that exist and so young people do not have the opportunity to build up their skill sets? Front-line services provide invaluable help, however, should practitioners work to wean young people, and themselves, off the safety net that they give us? If social workers had the necessary resources to care for vulnerable young people in an effective way, then this direct work would build more confident and capable adults when they left care.
The Guardian commented in 2015 that “having a cut-off in England that deprives many care leavers of statutory support after the age of 18 means that many are left to fend for themselves in a way that sets them up to fail”; and that rings completely true. While the people who work to support children and young people in care and afterwards, the system itself is flawed. It’s too easy currently for children in care to not receive effective guidance as they grow up, leading them to situations where they remain vulnerable and at risk. Young people are tough, resilient and capable of great things – no matter what background they’re from. And if anything, those who have been through the care system have learnt to adapt and handle pressure from an early age, making them almost more likely to be able to handle curveballs in life. Despite all this, having to do all this on your own is nearly impossible. This is why young people who are lacking stable family environments really need a system that will be there for them and foster their skills while they grow. As it stands, we’re failing young people in care. Not by any fault of individual practitioners, but because overall, we need to rethink how we’re doing this. Care isn’t just about protecting the youngest of our citizens from harm, it’s also about ensuring their growth isn’t hindered and preparing them for a bright and positive future.