I think I'm becoming less patient - not in all of life, but certainly when it comes to the pace of change regarding things that could or should make fostered young people's lives better.
That's certainly how I'm feeling about staying put. In 2013, The Fostering Network was delighted to be at the forefront of the campaign to extend the age to which young people in England should be supported to remain living with their foster carers. It was an amazing breakthrough which means that local authorities have a legal requirement to advise, assist and support a young person and their foster carers when they wish to stay living together after the young person has turned 18 (there are similar schemes in place across the UK). Previously, and rather ridiculously, if you were fostered you often had to leave your foster home as soon as you turned 18 - sometimes just before really important exams. That isn't the case for most birth children - and it shouldn't have been the case for fostered children.
The dragging of feet
The staying put arrangements in England have the potential to positively impact thousands of fostered young people for generations to come, giving them time to prepare for transition into adulthood. And yet...
And yet, feet are being dragged. Despite widespread acceptance that staying put is in children and young people's best interests, there have been a number of issues with implementation that have caused concern for all involved, have led to variability in policy, practice and participation at a local level, and have resulted in not enough young people staying put. Ultimately, these problems - which are also of concern in the other nations of the UK when it comes to post-18 care - mean that too few young people are benefitting from what ought to be potentially life-changing legislation.
There appear to be (at least) four particular issues, almost all of which could be overcome simply by the people who make the decisions agreeing to them. They don't require legislative change, but rather cultural and mindset change as well as some investment. The transition into adulthood is difficult for most young people, and without the correct support care experienced young people are likely to encounter particular difficulties including mental health issues, homelessness, increased criminality and so on. Care works - it improves outcomes for fostered young people - so investing in staying put now will save the state money in the long run.
But this is not purely a financial argument. What is important is that nothing should get in the way of the right decisions being made which will most benefit fostered young people now and in the future.
The four particular issues are:
- The amount of money that has been allocated for staying put by the Westminster Government is insufficient. We are calling on the Government to ensure that staying put is properly costed and then fully funded.
- There is, in many cases, a financial disincentive for foster carers if the young person they have been looking after stays put. The Fostering Network would like to see a minimum staying put allowance introduced and for no foster carer to be financially worse off because of agreeing to a staying put placement.
- Many fostering services reduce allowances to foster carers once the young person reaches the age of 18 with the intention that the shortfall is made up from the young person claiming housing benefits and then passing this money onto their former foster carers. The Fostering Network believes that no young person should have to start their adult life claiming housing benefits in order to be able to fund post-18 care. We would like to see a reallocation of funds so housing benefit is paid directly to the foster carer, without having to go via the young person.
- There is a lack of clarity as to what happens to a staying put placement when a young person goes off to university. They still need a home during the long holidays and it would make sense if the former foster carer was given a retainer during the term time. But the issue isn't just a financial one, it's the fact that so many foster carers and young people are just not being told what the situation will be when they go to university. There must be better communication with support for young people going to university clear in staying put policies.
Action must be taken
The Fostering Network will shortly be releasing staying put guidance for fostering services to help them develop an approach to staying put which makes it achievable for all those young people who want to stay put to do so. We also hope that the fostering stocktake in England will take a good look at the issues surrounding staying put, and recommend action to make staying put a reality for more young people. It's vital that we do not allow this excellent change in the law to be sidelined because of a shortfall in funding, inconsistent implementation or simply a lack of will. Thousands of fostered young people are depending on it.