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Lessons from the lived experience of care leavers

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A man with a suitcase leaving a building as the sunsets. Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

The Care Leavers’ Association is a user-led charity established as a voice for adults who grew up in the care of the state. It was set up in 1999 when there was no charity supporting care leavers over the age of 25. In this article, David Graham, National Director of The Care Leavers’ Association, provides advice for local government on improving the quality of life for care leavers. The charity also advocates for better policy and practice informed by the lived experience of care leavers.

A good life in care, a good life after care

Our vision at Care Leavers’ Association is for “a good life in care, a good life after care” and our mission is “to bring together the voices of care leavers of all ages to improve the current care system, improve the quality of life of care leavers throughout their life and change for the better society’s perception of people who have been in care.”

As the National Director, I am responsible for the overall running of the charity. In 2010, the trustees decided to set up a Young People’s Project (YPP), to bring together both younger and older care leavers to develop resources that could improve outcomes for younger people leaving care. The YPP set about talking and listening to care leavers about the issues they faced. We then brought smaller groups of care leavers together to produce resources such as our Leaving Care Guide.

Leaving Care Guide by The Care Leavers Association

At this time, concepts such as “participation” and “involvement” were only beginning to gain traction in the local government sector, and we hadn’t seen any promotion of ‘lived experience’. However, for The CLA, individual lived experience is the most important element of our work. Our view was that if you want to know how to improve a system then you ask the people who use the system on a daily basis. It’s not rocket science, but it wasn’t happening widely enough in the leaving care system. So, as well as developing our resources, the YPP gathered knowledge about the lived experience of the care and leaving care systems and presented this to government and public bodies to try to improve policy and practice within the system.

Wanting to find some more advice on co-production? LGIU members can read this case study briefing on developing an equal partnership

Bringing together young people from across the country to develop our YPP was not without its challenges. To achieve co-production with young care leavers, our preferred approach, is a living and dynamic process. It’s important to stay present and respond to issues in a trauma-informed and supportive manner. In order to empower the young people to participate fully in the project, we had to provide additional emotional intelligence support alongside practical advice and guidance on dealing with day-to-day life issues. This takes time. Ultimately, this meant that the project moved at a much slower pace than originally anticipated. As a result, it didn’t deliver on many of our initial targets.

But that’s okay. It was a valuable lesson that we should only go at the pace suitable for the young people we are working with. Powering ahead, fuelled only by professional wishful thinking, is a sure route to failure. One successful outcome was our Leaving Care Guide, researched and written directly by care leavers. Although we have not been able to continue its regular development, the guide remains amongst our biggest website downloads, showing it still offers great value to care leavers.

Outcomes from the Young People’s Project

At the end of the project, in 2014, it became apparent that there were two areas of unmet need where we could focus our services:

  1. Guidance on entitlements
  2. Independent living

Throughout the project, we received numerous requests from care leavers for advice about their legal entitlements. We therefore set up and continue to offer support via email and telephone, informing care leavers of their entitlements and advocating on their behalf if they feel they are not getting the right support from leaving care services. We currently receive about 150 requests for support per year. Most care leavers come to us when they have exhausted other avenues. Some require us to advocate with their leaving care team on their behalf, particularly if there is a disagreement about the level of support being offered. The topics of these requests include issues such as financial entitlements, housing, education, employment, wellbeing and mental health.

The second area of work we initially focused on was independent living. At the time, we felt social care for children was struggling to help young people to be ready to live independently. Alongside a group of care leavers, we developed our GOAL Program (Get On And Live). The program focused on working with care leavers on 10 key module areas to improve independence. These areas included budgeting, cooking, and wellbeing.

Care leavers worked individually on exercises designed to improve knowledge and skills and then worked in groups to share their experiences and support each other. After delivering the program to three cohorts, we decided to discontinue the work as we found the care leavers needed to first have better emotional literacy to be able to benefit from practical programs. We found that too many care leavers were dropping out of the course at various points due to being unable to deal with everyday situations and crises.

As a result, we reassessed and developed a new program called Express Yourself. This is an empowerment program designed to support care leavers with self-autonomy, helping them develop the skills required to navigate their lives successfully.

The lessons for local government and other public bodies

Our experience providing advice, guidance and programs has raised several issues and insights for leaving care teams to understand if they are to support care leavers in the best way. Here are a few of the key lessons to take away from what we have learned over the years.

1. Make sure all care leavers are aware of the support

It’s important to ensure all care leavers are aware of the local offer and how they can access the support it provides. Knowledge is power, and many young care leavers are easily capable of using this power, but only if they know where to get the basic facts they need.

We recognise that leaving care services are not adequately resourced. However, each care leaver is an individual. It is important to be as flexible and responsive to their needs as possible. This means having an advocacy or complaints system in place to try to resolve differences.

2. Take a trauma-informed approach

Making sure the leaving care services you offer are trauma-informed is also important. We frequently hear responses from care leavers like, “My PA is not listening” or “they are not giving me the support I need”. It’s important to remember that the young person you are dealing with will have experienced trauma during their life. This is a common denominator, almost by definition, for all children in care. After all, at a bare minimum, at some point in their lives, they were separated from their families and almost everything they knew to be taken into care. The legacy of such trauma can make communication difficult. Issues such as emotional dysregulation, anger and avoidance can recur. Try to understand what lies underneath the behaviour.

3. Provide access to wellbeing and mental health support

Linked to trauma is the need for care leavers to have access to wellbeing and mental health support. This can be through local NHS and voluntary sector services. However, it can also be from within the leaving care service. This is because wellbeing is not just about diagnosable mental health issues. It includes emotional intelligence and dealing with everyday life issues.

4. Utilise the power of peer support

Next, we cannot underestimate the power of peer support. Bringing the care leavers you work with together in some form of peer support work can be hugely beneficial. There is power in the group experience.

5. Co-production is key

It’s critical to involve care leavers in the development and delivery of the leaving care service. If care leavers are ‘heard’ at an individual and service level, it not only supports their growth but can make the service more effective for others.

6. Be the stability and security they need

Finally, stability and security are key components in supporting a young person to thrive. We would like to see local authorities provide better quality accommodation options for care leavers of all ages to allow them to be settled and safe as they begin their life after care.

What about the wider lessons for local authorities, over and above leaving care teams and individual workers?

The concept of ‘corporate parenting’ is a clumsy term that many care leavers dislike. However, it embodies an approach to care leaver support that can be helpful. It also expresses a real sense, held by many young people, that their local authority does, indeed, have parental duties towards them. The sense of abandonment many care leavers have historically felt when leaving care support ends or is inadequate is often expressed in acutely personal terms. The comparison with what actual parents do is often made. Young care leavers frequently see the reality of parenting at this stage in life in the families of their friends. The contrast with what local authorities do, or don’t do, can often be damming.

For this reason, leaving care teams and professionals need to be able to draw in wider local government services in such areas as housing, education, employment and with ties to local health services. This requires action and responsibility over and above children’s services. Local government leaders, therefore, need to seek advice from their leaving care professionals on how they can develop a corporate parenting approach that is endorsed and promoted at the most senior levels. They also need to take responsibility and be designated to do so, to ensure that the whole authority seeks to act as parents do for the young people leaving their care.

Leaving care services play a significant role in the lives of care leavers. Where this works, with supportive professionals, we have seen care leavers express great appreciation for such support. This should be unsurprising. There are few people more genuinely appreciative of good personal care than care leavers. The fact that they have often had little support and care earlier in their lives makes them particularly able to spot it and welcome it when they see it.

To find out more about the work The Care Leavers’ Association do, check out the website here



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