We take so much for granted. At our grandson's first birthday party we meet some of our daughter's friends. Now parents themselves, they gather with their babies and toddlers, sharing stories about broken nights and nappies, first steps and playgroups. Our home fills with the laughter of children and the accompanying chat of watchful parents. As hosts, our role is to make sure there is plenty of food and drink, so we spend a frantic, if joyous, couple of hours on the go.
But there is also time to observe and reflect on the spirit of community that exists between these young parents. Once school classmates and neighbours, they share a history that has forged their life experience. They played in the same playgrounds, drunk in the same pubs, played football for their village team. Today there is gentle banter, kind words of encouragement, a commitment to be parents together. And they count with the support of their own mums and dads, now grandparents, who are at the heart of this extended community. These core relationships are often the route to jobs, housing and opportunity, a crucial pillar of well being.
As I say, we take so much for granted. It should be possible for every child to grow up in this way, nurtured by family and accompanied by friends through times good and bad. It is not much to ask.
But the sad reality is that thousands of children become separated from their families as a consequence of neglect or abuse and those early, defining relationships are broken. Fortunate are the looked-after children who remain with the same foster family during those formative years, for they will have a better chance to build new relationships. Many children and young people will be moved from home to home, enduring multiple placements and unable to forge meaningful friendships. Those leaving children's homes face an even bleaker future.
But for all looked-after children the fact of being in care is an isolating experience which sets them apart from their peers, and the passage into adulthood is fraught with uncertainty despite an increase in the care leavers' age from 18 to 21 for those in foster care. They are likely to begin their adult years with a significant disadvantage, with fewer educational qualifications and limited financial support. The statistics for care leavers, for unemployment, homelessness, offending, ill health and suicide, bear out this appalling legacy of neglect.
At present nobody takes responsibility for care leavers. The state's view is that its responsibility ends when a young person reaches the age of 21, although it is still the case that many young people leave care and sever links with social services at 18.
This state of affairs shames us all, and is the root cause of the unforgivable waste of so many lives. As parents we enter into a lifelong commitment to our children and grandchildren. As corporate parent the state must also make a lifelong commitment from the moment it intervenes to take a child into care. Beyond the moral imperative, there is a compelling economic case as well. The cost of providing meaningful support to care leavers will be recovered if young people are able to lead fulfilling lives.
As foster carers we do what we can. We remain in contact with the children who have been in our care and we hope they will feel they are always able to turn to us to share their sadness as well as their joys. There always will be a place for them at family celebrations like our grandson's first birthday party. We shall not take for granted that every child leaving care matters.