An International Database and eJournal for Outcome-Evaluation and Research


Young people leaving public care in the United Kingdom: experiences, outcomes and interventions


Background. Each year around 10,000 young people aged 16-18 or over leave public care in the four countries that comprise the United Kingdom, most to establish an independent life in the community as young adults. From the late 1970s, relatively small-scale research studies highlighted the diversity that exists amongst young people leaving care, but also drew attention to the difficulties many encountered, including risks of unemployment, homelessness and of involvement in the criminal justice system. While some young people fared quite well, others struggled to adapt to life after care.

In response to these problems, local authorities began to sponsor a steady if piecemeal growth in specialist leaving care services to assist the reintegration of young people leaving care from the mid 1980s. Although specialist services were shown to make a positive difference to leaving care planning and support, the overly permissive nature of leaving care legislation meant that services developed unevenly within and between different regions.

In recent years, the development of initiatives to improve outcomes for care leavers has been a major policy priority for UK Government, resulting in the first targeted legislation aimed at delaying transitions from care and improving the consistency of services for these young people from 2001. Alongside developments in law and policy, research has begun to map out the outcomes associated with leaving care, to elaborate the connections between young people's past experiences and their experiences on leaving care and to make some comparisons between the progress made by care leavers and their peers in the wider population.

Key findings. Transitions and social exclusion. Studies have demonstrated the high risk of social exclusion faced by young people leaving care. Care leavers assume adult responsibilities at a much younger age than their peers. Although youth transitions have generally become more extended and families have an increasing role in supporting their children into adulthood, the main elements of transition for care leavers - managing a home, starting a career and a family - tend to overlap in the immediate period after leaving care. It is not therefore surprising to find that many do not fare well. Care leavers have far fewer educational qualifications than their peers and much lower rates of participation in post-16 education. They are more likely than their peers to experience unemployment, homelessness, mental health problems and early parenthood. There is also evidence that this disadvantage may have a long lasting effect into adulthood. For example, research comparing adults who had not spent time in public care in the past with those who had, showed that this latter group were more likely to experience psychological difficulties and to have weaker support networks (Cheung and Buchanan, 1997), were less likely to have educational qualifications and were more likely to be unemployed in later adulthood - even when taking account of socio-economic disadvantage (Cheung and Heath, 1994).

Characteristics, care and aftercare. Some face additional difficulties on leaving care, resulting from their characteristics or from aspects of their care experience. Young people with a broad range of mental health or emotional and behavioural problems appear to be a high risk group for poor overall outcomes on leaving care. This is also the case for some disabled young people. There is evidence of limited planning for this group leading to delayed or disrupted transitions and, where disabled young people do move to independence, of insufficient support to enable some to manage their homes successfully.

There is growing consensus about the value of stability and continuity in relationships for looked after children. Settled care careers and continuity in schooling are important factors for the small number who progress to higher education. Stability after leaving care, settled housing, strong life skills, the absence of offending and targeted careers support have been associated with more positive early employment career outcomes some 12-15 months after leaving care. In contrast, leaving early (before the age of 18) may increase the risk of later unemployment (Wade and Dixon, 2006).

Some damaging features of young people's early experiences may bear heavily on progress after leaving care. However, research on young people leaving foster care found that strong attachment to a key adult was associated with a positive outcome. A recent study found that how young people fared in their homes and employment careers was, in large part, shaped by events in their lives after leaving care (Wade and Dixon, 2006). Young people do not therefore follow pre-determined pathways. They experience life in an inter-connected way and positive events in one sphere of life can have positive effects on others and on young people's overall sense of well-being. Wade and Dixon's (2006) study found that where young people had the skills to manage well in accommodation that was suitable to their needs, where they were free of serious troubles (offending or substance misuse) and where they were positively engaged in education, training or work, they were also more likely to have had a positive appreciation of their mental well-being (as assessed through the GHQ-12).

These findings, if replicated, offer encouragement, since they imply that there is considerable scope for leaving care services (using a resilience framework) to help young people shape their lives after leaving care.

Leaving care services. Completed research suggests that leaving care services can make a positive difference to the outcomes attained by young people on leaving care, especially in relation to housing, financial support, life skills and young people's social networks.

Studies on the early impact of the new legislation reveal that the additional duties placed on local authorities have led to improvements in assessment and pathway planning, in the consistency of aftercare contact with personal advisers and in the development of multi-agency working.

Recommendations. Some key messages for research, policy and practice arising from this body of research:

Young people leaving care are at risk of social exclusion in early adulthood. Providing a stable and positive care experience, including continuity in young people's key links and relationships, may help to mitigate these risks - especially where young people are not expected to leave care at an early age.

Some groups with more complex needs are at particular risk of poor outcomes on leaving care, including those with mental health, emotional or behavioural problems, disabled young people and young offenders or substance misusers. Mechanisms need to be found to meet their particular support needs more effectively.

How young people fare on leaving care, however, does not appear to be entirely predetermined by their past experiences. Events after leaving are influential and offer scope for fresh turning points to be provided at this stage.

Specialist leaving care services have been found to make an important contribution to positive outcomes for young people and these services have been positively reinforced by recent UK legislation targeting care leavers. However, regional disparities in resources and services persist and need to be addressed.

However, much is not yet known in a UK context. There is a need to take forward a more systematic approach to the evaluation of services, to develop more longitudinal work (reaching into later adulthood) on pathways and outcomes, to undertake more focused research on particular groups of care leavers with more complex needs and to develop comparative international research to understand how experiences may vary in different socio-economic landscapes.

Key references

Cheung, S.Y. and Buchanan A (1997) 'Malaise scores in adulthood of children and young people who have been in care'. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 38, No. 5, pp575-580.

Cheung, S.Y. & Heath A. (1994) 'After care: The education and occupation of adults who have been in care'. Oxford Review of Education 20 (3) 361-374.

Wade, J. and Munro, E.M. (2008) 'Leaving care in the United Kingdom', in Stein, M. and Munro, E.M. (eds.), Young People's Transitions from Care to Adulthood: International Research and Practice, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Wade, J. and Dixon, J. (2006) 'Making a home, finding a job: investigating early housing and employment outcomes for young people leaving care', Child and Family Social Work, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp199-208.

Wade, J. (2006) 'The ties that bind: support from birth families and substitute families for young people leaving care', British Journal of Social Work, Advanced Access: doi: 10.1093/ bjsw/bcl342.

Contacts: Jim Wade, University of York, SWRDU, Alcuin College Block B, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, United Kingdom, E-mail: jw35@york.ac.uk, Phone +44 (0)1904 321297.


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