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Care Leavers, Criminal Justice and Higher Education

“These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents- and what are we setting them up for…the dole, the streets, an early grave? I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right.”

David Cameron MP, Prime Minister October 2015 at the Conservative Party Conference.

Well, I think it would be fair to say that politicians’ minds have not been exercised unduly over the fate of care leavers since David Cameron made the above promise in 2015. I worked with children in care and care leavers involved in the youth justice system for over thirty years and although his analysis of the outcomes for care leavers was simplistic and crude, tragically Cameron’s statement rings true for many of those leaving care.

With regard to the criminal justice system, Lord Laming’s independent review “In Care, Out of Trouble” http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/In%20care%20out%20of%20trouble%20summary.pdf, notes that there is no reliable data on the numbers of looked after children in custody. However, based on data from a number of sources, the review came to the conclusion that around 400 looked after children are in custody at any one time. The total number of children in custody for July 2019 is 817. So, slightly less than half of those children in custody are looked after children according to the best estimates available, drawn from different sources. http://youthjusticeboard.newsweaver.co.uk/yots2/1g2x6m3h9q315chudc9elc?email=trueYJBulletin

Moving the spotlight, a huge 40% of care leavers are not engaged in Education, Training or Employment and only 6% of care leavers gain entry to university https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/464756/SFR34_2015_Text.pdf . This at a time when around 50% of children now have access to Higher Education and the opportunities that this can provide. Also, 20% of young people who are homeless have previously been in care.

Naturally, we have to be careful to provide a level of balance to the above rather desperate and shocking figures. Lord Laming’s review found that 94% of children in care did not get in trouble with the law. However, children in care are six times more likely to be cautioned, or convicted of an offence than children in the wider population. Furthermore, children in care who come to police attention are more likely to be prosecuted and convicted than cautioned when compared to the wider child population.

So, what has happened since 2015 when David Cameron declared his intention to “put it right”? In truth, there have been some steps forward and these need to be celebrated and built upon. The Care Leaver Covenant, a promise made by private, public or voluntary organisations to provide support for care leavers aged 16-25 has meant the availability of employment opportunities for young care leavers in the Civil Service, local authorities and a range of private sector organisations. Closer to home, here at the University of Northampton, we have launched a new package of support for care leavers who want to study with us. The package offers the possibility, from 2020, of a fully funded place in our Halls of Residence for the first academic year, a contract which extends their accommodation lease to include the summer vacation. A block for many care leavers entering Higher Education is the very real issue of where to live at the end of the academic year, so this tries to address this issue. Another block experienced is financial hardship; the offer provides a non-means tested financial award of up to £1,500 per year to help with course and living costs, and this alongside the local authority’s statutory responsibility to support access to higher education may also help. We also have a designated member of support staff to provide advice and guidance. All these demonstrate our commitment to widening participation and encouraging ambition.

Of course, this is only part of the picture. Arguably, our engagement with young people in care needs to start shortly after their transition to secondary school. The wider social structures which perpetuate disadvantage and poverty will continue to challenge those who are children in care and leaving care. The “adverse childhood experiences” – a rather unedifying term for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse perpetrated by carers or parents-will still have an impact for this group and potentially impair their ability or commitment to study.

If however, I learnt anything from my years working with children in care and children leaving care, it is that you should not underestimate their ability to overcome the obstacles placed in their way. With the right support and a child centred approach, education can provide the right framework for opportunities. Victor Hugo famously said that if you open a school door, you close a prison. Let’s kick open the door of Higher Education a little wider and increase the life chances of these children in OUR care.

As a footnote, I should say that my mum was in care from the age of four until she was fifteen when she was adopted. I would therefore be happy to acknowledge that this has some influence on my perspective and my interest in this group of young people.

Dave Palmer Lecturer in Criminal Justice Services

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