The Hygiene Bank works with many services and organisations that support care leavers. These young people are particularly vulnerable, often financially struggle and find themselves having to choose to eat or be clean because they can’t afford both.
Within six to 24 months of leaving care, one third of this group will have a period of homelessness. Others when faced with stretched resources choose to go hungry rather than face the humiliation of presenting themselves with greasy hair or body odour
We got some information from the charity BECOME, to understand more about the Care System and the financial implications of being a care leaver. The charity’s vision is that children who spend time in care have the same equal chances to lead a happy and fulfilling life as those who are raised in their birth families.
Children and young people are taken into the care of the local authority when they cannot remain at home. This is either because it is unsafe for them to be there, or because their parents are unable to look after them.
Some of the most common reasons include abuse, neglect, family breakdown or a parent or child’s illness or disability. Looked after children may be either ‘accommodated’ by the local authority (at the request of or in the absence of their birth parents) or subject to a Care Order made by the Family Courts. For some children and young people, being taken away from the home where they have been unsafe will be a relief. For others, being separated from their parents and/or siblings will be extremely distressing.
Whatever a child or young person has dealt with beforehand, being taken into care is itself traumatic. Some young people come through the care system and flourish. They have loving, dedicated foster carers or residential workers, and encounter social workers who go the extra mile to fight for the opportunities and support that make all the difference to that child in care. Sadly many don’t and there is still a long way to go to close the gap in achievement and aspirations between children in care and their peers.
In England and Wales, the leaving care age is 18, although young people can leave care from the age of 16. At 18, however, a young person’s care order ends and the local authority is no longer their corporate parent. All statutory support from the local authority will end by 25, although for many, it ends sooner, at 21.
Many 16 or 17-year-olds actively choose to leave care, while they are still children in the eyes of the law – too young to smoke, drink or vote. Some feel they are ready, are excited at the prospect of not having adults around to tell them what to do, or are unhappy in their placement. But independent living may be much harder than they expected.
Local authorities have a duty to house all care leavers aged 16 and 17 but once at 18, young people’s accommodation needs are assessed under homelessness legislation and most will need to claim Housing Benefit.
The law states that care leavers must be given ‘suitable accommodation’, which is defined as suiting a young person’s needs and lifestyle (being near work or college, for example), have received checks from the local authority and follow health and safety regulations for rented accommodation. The law also says that bed and breakfasts are not suitable for 16 and 17 year olds, and that 18 year olds should only be placed in a B&B on a temporary basis. Young people’s wishes and feelings about accommodation should also be taken in to account.
In reality, housing is one of the most significant challenges that young care leavers face; very few care leavers will have any choice about their accommodation and young people often speak of being placed in unsuitable housing.
Living independently requires a care leaver to manage their money, pay their bills on time and live on a budget.
However, often due to poor financial education and support prior to and on leaving care, care leavers often find themselves in debt. This can make them much less likely to undertake further study or an apprenticeship. Understanding what bills need to be paid is just as crucial as knowing how to go about paying them. Unfortunately, by the time care leavers receive support they are often already in debt.
Part of the problem is that children living in care aren’t always exposed to the way household decisions are made or how to budget. This is particularly the case for children living in children’s homes, as things will often be run from the office and in a different way to a family home.
Some care leavers will receive lump sums of money when they turn 18, perhaps savings their carers have made, their Junior ISA, inheritance or the leaving care grant. However, without proper support, care leavers can be without the skills to know how to spend large amounts of money wisely.
It can be all too easy to fall into debt, compounded by the relative ease with which payday loans can be accessed, as opposed to bank loans. Even opening a bank account can be difficult to access for care leavers, as most require proof of address and other identity documents that not all care leavers have. Again, without some financial education, care leavers may lack an understanding of how bank accounts work, the ability to choose the right one for them and the confidence to go in to a bank branch and open an account.
Unless they are in education or training, when care leavers reach 18, they are expected to earn enough money to support themselves. For many care leavers, this will mean applying for benefits. The benefits system is complicated, and not understanding the system can result in care leavers not claiming their full entitlements, or failing to meet requirements required for certain benefits. It can also result in care leavers being sanctioned. Often, care leavers will not understand why the sanction has been made. Without the right support and information, care leavers may not know that they can challenge their sanction – and although sanctions can be challenged, it can take a long time to be overturned, which can leave care leavers in severe financial difficulties.