THE BLOG

The State Should Be a Parent Who Doesn't Turn Its Back on Young People

14/10/2014 08:34 BST | Updated 13/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Childhood is short. And maybe like me, you remember longing to be grown up because of the freedom and adventure we perceived adulthood brings. But for some of our most vulnerable young people, adulthood is thrust upon them too soon.

Young people, who have gone through the care system, often find themselves unprepared for the adult responsibilities and problems that life still has to throw at them. When I was growing up I always knew that my parents would be there to help me and pick me up if I fell.

Some of the most vulnerable young people in our society don't have this support though. They have grown up in care after going through abusive childhoods, being neglected or encountering insurmountable problems in their relationship with their family.

For too many of them, the care system hasn't given the consistency and stability they need. Rather than knowing there's always someone to look out for them, some children keep changing placements and social workers, sometimes going through more than ten different homes.

The different services that these young people need don't join up well enough, so young people who need help with a range of issues, like mental health problems, the effects of childhood trauma and learning disabilities, can fall through the gaps.

When the public thinks that the best age to leave home is 21 or older, it's ridiculous that teenagers carrying the weight of traumatic childhoods are leaving care at 16 or 17. Even for those people leaving later than this, many of them are not emotionally prepared for the demands of building a home, meaning that practical help is not enough.

One young person - John - told us about his experience and how he struggles with practical and social barriers to independence:

"Me and my brothers went into care when we were young. I was with a foster family for years but I had to leave and then I was in a children's home until I got my own place.

"I am not good around people, I feel like they don't listen to me so it is hard for me to ask for help.

"I never really learned to do things on my own - I could have done with more time to practice and more money so that I could learn how to manage it properly. I need more help in my own place, someone that I know to help me to keep on top of the place and keep it clean and tidy.

"If I could turn back the clock I would like to have stayed with my foster family or the children's home. I wasn't ready to move out and I should have stayed there until I was 21."

This isn't happening for lack of political activity around the care system - there have been many efforts to change and upgrade different parts of it. A new Children and Families Act and Care Act took effect earlier this year. But among all the new initiatives and guidance we have lost focus on the most vulnerable young people and how to improve their life chances.

Unless this changes, life for these young people won't change as they move into adulthood. For many, the route out of care will lead to job centres, police stations and hospitals. This is a scandalous waste of young people's potential and also puts a bigger burden than needed on public services. If we acted earlier to protect children who are still with their birth families, and to better serve those in care it would benefit both them and wider society.

All parties need to rethink how the state takes care of children for which it is acting as a parent. They have to start from the needs of children and work from there. This includes making greater provision of therapeutic placements for young people who have undergone trauma, joining up mental health support to other services and ensuring that when young people get back in touch with their family they are still supported in case something goes wrong. Young people in care need lasting relationships and emotional support.

Underlying the specifics must be a different attitude. One that says the state will act like a good parent - who doesn't give up or turn its back on young people, no matter how bad their problems get. Without that, we will keep failing children.

Read Action for Children's new report Too Much, Too Young on our website.