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Corporate parenting should be a job for life

BASW's acting chief executive Bridget Robb argues that spending more on extended support for care leavers is not only the right thing to do morally, it also makes economic sense.

Being a parent is a job for life. Though the role may change as a child develops, in healthy families the bond never goes.

So why should it be different for people who have been “corporately parented” and grown up in care? How can it possibly make sense that a care leaver as young as 16 is cast out into the wide world with little or no support?

Children’s Minister Edward Timpson recently described it as akin to throwing care leavers of the “cliff edge” into a world of low achievement, unemployment, crime and poor mental and physical health.

What good parent would do that? Perhaps more pertinently, what parent would do that to someone who’s already vulnerable?

In discharging its corporate parenting responsibilities the state can, in this regard, only be seen as a bad parent.

Routinely, it casts young people out to fend for themselves, cut off abruptly from any support network they once had.

Getting on in today’s fiercely competitive world is hard for any young person, even those with the benefit of a loving and supportive family.

So why do we expect those without this not to be at risk of drifting into unsuccessful or even destructive lifestyles marred by substance abuse and crime?

The evidence for greater on-going support is staring us in the face. Nearly 30 per cent of the adult prison population has been in care, rising to 40 per cent among under 21-year-olds. Young people who have been in care are four times more likely not to be in education, employment or training by the age of 19 than those who have not.

These are shocking statistics that give flesh to Mr Timpson’s complaint that we do not do enough to support young people leaving care.

What makes it even more unforgivable is that we know many of these young people want extra help.

An Ofsted report recently found that half of people leaving care felt they had been prepared badly or very badly for life in the outside world.

But the failings of corporate parenting do not end there. Vast amounts of money is spent on children in a care – more than it costs to send a child to Eton. But despite this, it’s not always the child that benefits the most from all this cash.

Two-thirds of children’s homes are run by private companies for whom the raison d’etre is to make money. As such, they will be motivated by a need to keep costs down to maximise profit, which means they will typically be located in areas characterised by cheap housing, unemployment and high crime. The NIMBY brigade will often also do their bit to keep such children out of the leafy suburbs armed, as they usually are, with greater political and media savviness.

The uphill struggle for care leavers is compounded by the fact that when they leave they generally end up housed in similar areas of deprivation, characterised by cheap housing, unemployment and high crime.

Add to this the fact they are abandoned by a corporate parent that seemingly no longer wants to know, and the recipe for potential disaster is plain to see.

Being a good corporate parent requires more than just lip service. It should not just be a duty discharged until a young person comes of age, but an on-going responsibility providing support and guidance.

It makes no sense to continue throwing young people off the cliff edge expecting them to swim for their life when we don’t expect this of more fortunate children.

Not only is it morally wrong, it doesn’t make economic sense, as the prison statistics show.

Social workers play their part in discharging corporate parent duties and this needs to be properly recognised. But in a climate of cutbacks, there is a real danger of local authorities overriding the needs of what’s in the best interest of the children in their care.

Equally, the government’s current focus on adoption must not be seen as a less costly panacea, as the complex needs of children in the care system often makes them less suitable for adoption or fostering.

Whatever it takes in this case, the state should provide.

It could be support to help gain a job or access to training opportunities. It might be cash to set up home, or pay for therapy to deal with personal issues later in life. Or it can simply mean having a mentor to turn to for a chat in times of trouble.

An honest review of the kind of corporate parenting young people in care want, and who should deliver it, needs to take place.

To not do this risks seeing the sins of the father revisited and the lives of thousands of children being irreversibly damaged. Which is a very high price for society to pay indeed.