Isolating and unsettling lockdown is extra hard for care leavers

Care leavers have been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak. 

Not only are they starting adult life without the support network that many of us take for granted, they face a ‘business as usual’ where loneliness is the norm and insecurity is heightened by precarious financial and living arrangements. The current crisis, which has turned so many lives upside down, has brought many of their crucial support structures, work, study and social lives to a grinding halt.

Local  authorities are under particularly pressure during the current crisis. The government rushed through The Coronavirus Act 2020, which was designed to alleviate some pressure, but was greeted with alarm by service users and those who support them. By providing access to a number of ‘Easements’ government aims to enable local authorities to “streamline present assessment and prioritise care so that the most urgent and acute needs are met”.

Some care leavers are fortunate that their rights are untouched by the Easements. Local authorities still have certain duties towards under 18 year olds, and failing to provide them would be unlawful. They have a duty to:

  • Keep in touch, or to re-establish contact if it has been lost
  • Provide each care leaver with a personal adviser
  • Assess the need for advice, assistance and support and prepare and manage a Pathway Plan for them
  • Until it’s unnecessary, provide and maintain them in suitable accommodation, which could be the continuation of foster care

Indeed, government guidance to local authorities leaves certain points regarding child-centred, risk based assessments to their discretion. Additionally, the Department for Education’s Children’s Social Care Guidance encourages the use of a proportion of the £1.6bn coronavirus emergency funding “to provide discretionary payments to care leavers to cover items such as food, utilities and rent”. This may go some way to creating a financial safety net to care leavers who may be financially vulnerable and at risk of increased levels of anxiety and isolation during this period.

Unfortunately, care leavers who have turned 18 do not share this protection. Human rights solicitor, Sophie Wells, points out that under the Easements, local authorities are no longer obliged to assess the care and support needs of care leavers after they turn 18.

Further, the Easements mean that care leavers would not be able to benefit from the ‘safety net’ provided by the Children Act 1989. This specifically requires local authorities to provide services until taking steps to determine, through assessment, that its care and support were no longer needed by the care leaver, or that the care leaver had become ineligible for its services.

Wells comments: “The removal of this safety net is very concerning. That said, there may be some steps that can be taken to avoid this potential cliff edge”. She suggests that the Human Rights Act (although notoriously difficult) may be one basis for recourse, or public law, on the grounds of fairness and rationality.

On the ground, care leavers are being supported virtually, pastorally and practically. Yoni Ejo, a practice manager in Lancashire said: “Many are living alone and personal advisers report time and time again how mature and considerate our young people have been in their adherence to keeping themselves and others safe.

“This time has really built relationships which will definitely remain for years to come,” she added.

North Yorkshire’s leaving care team has worked hard to keep in touch with care leavers. Facebook pages have been a source of support and advice, maintained by members of the leaving care team who are former care leavers themselves. They have also provided than 300 care leavers with parcels funded by locality budgets including vouchers, sweet treats, toiletries and gloves. Amazon has also helped out, through its Small Acts of Kindness programme. It donated headphones and speakers, designed to help care leavers through lockdown.

Cllr Janet Sanderson, Executive Member for Children’s Services, said: “We always take an active role in the wellbeing of young people who have left our care, so at this difficult time we wanted to do a little bit extra to let them know that we are thinking of them.”

London-based theatre company The Big House is continuing its work with care leavers throughout the pandemic. Its mission is to unleash the potential of care leavers, supporting 16-25 year olds with a combination of drama, skills development, mentoring and counselling to help them develop the skills and resilience they need to lead fulfilling, independent lives. It has announced that it is working on a socially distanced production, The Ballad of Corona V that will open in October with a maximum of six audience members per show.

Billed as a "darkly comic response to the Covid-19 crisis", writer David Watson sees this project as “an early opportunity to take stock. Much like the young people who’ll inform it, we envisage it will be immediate, funny, angry and, hopefully, hopeful."

The production’s director, Maggie Norris added: “Never have the voices of our young people been so critical, yet they are hugely at risk of not being heard.

"We will be addressing the harsh reality of what has happened in this pandemic to some of the city’s most marginalised young people."

This is a group of young people who face extraordinary challenges, and the current crisis has added to their problems. When care leavers are asked who gives them emotional support, just under half of them say it is their leaving care worker (second only to friends). These workers carry out a crucial role and often feel overwhelmed and privileged - often in the same day. The least we can do is to offer our support and try to make sure they have the support they need too.