For most people in the UK, an 18th birthday is a long-awaited rite of passage mainly because it means that you no longer have to financially support the shittiest, most desperate pub in your hometown. Until recently, that hasn't been the case for foster children, for whom the onset of legal adulthood has meant the cutting off of council funding for their placements. Simply put, 18-year-olds who've had pretty unstable childhoods would get booted out of the place they'd come to call home on their birthday. Some ended up in council housing but there were also those who languished in run-down hostels because city councils had failed to make arrangements.
Barnardo's estimate that roughly 62 percent of those in foster care are victims of abuse and neglect. As such, many are saddled with emotional instability and trust issues – all too often, one thing leads to another and these teenagers end up on the streets, where they are more likely to settle into lives of drug abuse and crime. Fortunately, last month the government changed this law and set aside £40 million so that those in foster care can stay in their placements until the age of 21 – by which point, they will hopefully be itching to strike out on their own anyway. But what's become of those affected by the old law?
Shane McCaffery had an itinerant childhood, driting from placement to placement as he struggled to settle down. After sticking with the same family for two years, he finally landed some stability. His foster parents helped him find a job, and their support levelled his head after years of bullshit. "I was starting to recover from some really distressing times, but then I turned 17 and social services started arranging for me to live alone. It turned my world upside down,” he told me. "I was forced out of my parents' home and ended up homeless. I slept in the woods and would go as deep into the trees as possible so no one could see me. It was a nightmare, if nobody gave me food I would often go several days without eating."
The state's obligation is to ensure that this sort of thing doesn't happen. Those who are brought into the system should – in a perfect world, one in which starving teenagers aren't forced to sleep alone in the woods – enjoy the same opportunities as the rest of us. However, according to The Adolescent and Children's Trust, those who were pushed out of care represent about one-in-four homeless people. They also form 23 percent of the prison population and are four times more likely to commit suicide. Which are some pretty depressing stats.
In many cases, those previously in foster care went to stay with approved people in supported lodgings. Others were given their own flats and were regularly checked in on by social workers. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case for Scott King, who was 16 when his local authority decided to put him in an old B&B that was routinely raided by police because it was spilling over with drugs. "I don't know how they can justify chucking us in those places, it was absolutely rank," he said. "One night all my stuff was nicked, and when I tried to get it back they jammed a knife to my throat. I ended up homeless because I feared for my life."
The Care Leavers Foundation's Janet Rich seems to think that Scott's case was not particularly special: "If you're put into one of those hostels at 16 or 17, you can end up living with older vulnerable people who have drug problems, and so many of these teenagers resort to substance abuse themselves. Others put up in supported lodgings find the loneliness so unbearable they feel abandoned and run away to escape it all."
The Fostering Network's "Don't Move Me" campaign tried to arrest this situation by fighting for those in care to be able to stay with their families into early adulthood. Of course, not all the young people uprooted from their placements wound up homeless or in prison, but with their over-representation in figures for unemployment, single parenthood and as users of mental health services, the charity maintained that the current arrangement was casting too many already-vulnerable people to society's fringes.
Want more depressing stats? Only 7 percent of care leavers go on to higher education, compared to 40 percent of those who've grown up in a traditional family setting. Zoe Joy was getting ready for her A-level exams when she got the news that she had to leave home. Think back to the stress you had while studying for your exams, add to that the possibility of being thrown out of your home, and you can perhaps see how Zoe spiralled into a depression that eventually landed her in hospital. "I should have been studying but instead I spent my time writing letters to social services and MPs," she told me. "For a while, I heard nothing back and became ill from worrying about my future."
Back in 2008, Don't Move Me's mantra was put into practice by 11 local authorities that implemented the Labour Party's "Staying Put" scheme, extending placements by three years. This is still the case now and the scheme has unsurprisingly been a success. Those in foster care who've chosen to take up the offer have proven twice as likely to remain in education at 19 years old.
It was estimated that rolling out the model nationwide would cost £2.7 million – which, considering there are currently 63,000 young people in foster care in the UK, wouldn't work out at all that much per person. (There's also the considerable cost to the state of picking up the pieces of a person after you've removed their support structures at a vital time.) Paul Goggins, the Labour MP who tabled the amendment, died last week at the age of 60. Before his death, he had the opportunity to see his campaign come to fruition. "I am delighted ministers are taking this step. These days most people move out at 24, so forcing the 10,000 people leaving placements every year to do it so prematurely was an awful injustice,” he said. Shane, who is 23, and 24-year-old Scott are now living in flats in Kent, after turning to their local councils to lift them out of homelessness. "I am ecstatic, because at least now others won't have to suffer the same way I did," said Shane when he heard about the law's amendment.
Many foster children are grappling with psychological traumas that make it difficult for them to find mutually fulfilling relationships with foster parents. It seems pretty ridiculous that many of those who manage to do so had until now been forced out of those homes prematurely. You may be legally an adult when you’re 18, but plenty of people stay in their homes for years after that, so it’s great that the law seems to be undergoing reform. It’s just a shame it happened too late for the likes of Shane, Scott and Zoe.
More vulnerable people:
WATCH – Young and Gay in Putin's Russia
Topics: foster, foster care, corporate parent, Care, neglect, state, drug use, depression, housing, austerity, 2014, homelessness, UK, Government, The Adolescent and Children's Trust, Don't Move Me, campaign