Young people leaving care are much more likely to be living independently at a far younger age than their peers. Not because they want to, but because they are forced to. Because they've not always got the support that allows them to stay in a familial home for as long they need, they've only got it for as long as it is legally obligated.
Many young people who leave care at 16 or 17 end up feeling lonely and unprepared to live independently, and that's where their carers come in.
At Become, we work with children in care and young care leavers, but we recognise and respect the enormous amount of work that carers do for the children that they devote their lives to looking after.
I know exams are coming thick and fast, but carers can't, at this crucial time, shy away from providing young people with a more holistic education than that which they find in classrooms - because for many young people this exam period will be their last few months of living in a family home before independence.
The summer holidays are a perfect time to make sure that young people are developing the skills, tools and knowledge that will help them when they move into adulthood.
Here are ten things carers with 16 year olds should be doing this summer to help them on their way to a brighter independence:
Make sure they have a national insurance number
Unlike children living with their birth parents, children in care are not automatically sent a National Insurance number automatically just before their 16th birthday. Social workers must apply on the young person's behalf. It's a simple form to fill in - if you're caring for a young person who should have one, but doesn't - get in touch with their social worker.
Talk about sex
To be fair, talking about sex at 16 is probably a bit too late. But being in care can mean that it's something that gets missed, or left to someone else to do. Yes, it might be awkward, and yes, they might think they know it all. But talking about sex isn't just talking about biology - it's about consent, staying safe, and knowing what is and isn't okay in a relationship. Never underestimate the importance of these conversations because these discussions can shape their whole sexual outlook for life.
Talk about the future
The future can be brighter for children in care than they realise, and sometimes they need reminding that they have lots of options, and lots of people who believe in them. If university is their thing, make sure they're talking to the right people about how they get there - propel.org.uk has some tips for care leavers who want to go to university, but university isn't the only option. They can retake GCSEs if they need to, start an apprenticeship, find a job - the important thing is that they have a plan, or at least are trying to work out what they want to do when they turn 18.
Make sure they have a passport
Passports are not only handy for holidays (which children in care can often miss out on because they don't have passports) but are often required as proof of ID, so are useful things to have. The local authority can apply for one in the young person's name, and they should pay for it too.
Talk about self-care
Taking care of yourself, both physically and mentally is really important, and often not something that we are taught. When times are tough, we can easily forget to look after ourselves, so we need to help young people recognise the importance of self-care. Talking to them openly about what they can do to look after themselves will help them, both when they're facing the stress of exams, but also bigger challenges like loneliness or mental health issues when they are older.
Teach them how to cook
Being able to cook a few simple, cheap, meals may help make sure they avoid the takeaway temptation - after all, it's not a cheap or particularly healthy habit. They might discover a new passion and way of relaxing, and even if they don't turn out to be a natural cook - it's equipping them with a skill that they'll need for the rest of their life. Don't forget other useful skills that young people will need when they move out, like being able to use a washing machine and build flatpack furniture. Get them involved in the creation of your household, and they'll be more equipped to build theirs in the years to come.
Make sure they have a bank account, and know the details of their Junior ISA. All children in care who have been looked after for a continuous period of 12 months or more, from 3rd January 2011 will have a Junior ISA opened for them. The Government puts £200 into the account - but if young people don't know how to access it, they won't be able to add to, or take money from the ISA. Budgeting is an important part of living independently, as well as learning about all the different bills adults have to pay and how to go about paying them.
Teach them to swim and to ride a bike
There are lots of things that children learn when they are growing up, and sometimes we take it for granted that every child will have learnt to swim and ride a bike when they were little. Being able to swim saves lives, and being able to ride a bike can help them from cheap travel to fun exercise. Talk to them and find out if there are any skills that they wish they had learnt when they were younger, but missed out, and look to see if there's a way they can learn them now.
Talk about staying put
Planning for where a young person lives when they leave care is really important, and too often, the discussions about staying put are left until the last minute. Starting the conversation early doesn't set anything in stone, but it gives everyone involved the chance to think about the practical and financial implications, and if necessary get support and advice about what to do. Even if staying put isn't an option, it's important to acknowledge that everyone needs emotional and practical support when they move out, and provide an opportunity to start looking for where that support will come from.
Find out when pathway planning starts
The 1989 Children Act requires that a pathway plan must be prepared for all looked after children, ready for when they leave care. Some local authorities start the pathway planning process early, but others don't. Start asking questions about when the process is likely to begin - so everyone is ready when it happens, and if it hasn't happened by that point, you know you need to chase!
With the right support, children in care can grow to become adults who thrive in independence. For 25 years we've seen how good holistic care accompanying a well-rounded education can boost a child's chances, and there are so many more ways we can all play our part.