Staying Put on benefit?
First, the good news. This government’s level commitment to offer Staying Put for young people leaving foster care was most welcome. And, from what I see, more young people are staying with their foster carers post-18. That's all to the good.
Staying Put in foster care mostly comes with the expectation that young people will claim benefits. Young people usually have to claim housing benefit and remain with their former foster carer under supported lodgings. This enters the young person and carer into a new world of bureaucracy for both.
Some (former foster) carers are helping young people to get into employment - they do not want young people to enter into adult life by claiming benefits, if at all possible. But they're now taking on a new role – do they need insurance? Does anyone have to register as a provider of adult services?
Carers are sometimes offered a top-up payment by local authorities, over and above housing benefit, to the level of their previous foster care payments. But the funding agreements are inconsistent and may not make the continuation of placements possible for carers for whom this is their only source of income. This uncertainty can place a massive emotional burden on young people and their carers at a key point of transition to adult life. Government have rather neatly passed the burden of form-filling and dealing with multiple departments on to young people and their carers – that doesn't make any kind of sense to me.
Carers are not usually offered any support - a day after the young person leaves care, their former carer is now their landlord and not entitled to any support. Local authorities are not in any position to find additional finance for this with the small amount of Staying Put monies currently allocated to them.
Local and central government are now expecting foster carers to offer Staying Put. But some foster carers will feel that this is something they never committed to. Young people may be placed with them for longer than was ever anticipated. They don't want to let anyone down, but they might think the goal posts have been moved. And, don't forget, they're self-employed, though we often seem to think of them as quasi-employees.
There are issues for the carer with remaining as a registered foster carer, whilst not having any placements of children in care, though wanting to return to foster care after the Staying Put placement has ended. Are they de-registered, so have to go through a new assessment when they return to foster care?
When government offered young people leaving foster care the chance to stay put, they didn't give local authorities anywhere near the means to make this a reality. The danger is that young people will have had their expectations raised and then find they blame their local authority, unfairly in my view, for not being able to deliver.
So, what's the answer. Well, in the first instance, and as a matter of principle, all young people leaving care at 18 should be able to choose to stay put, and that includes those in foster care, those in children's homes and those in kinship arrangements. We also have to simplify the funding arrangements to ease the burden of bureaucracy and uncertainty on young people and carers. And, of course, we have to make sure local authorities have sufficient funding to deliver the pledge that central government have made on their behalf. That includes payment for carers. It also means continuing to invest in the very support that has been so central to ensuring placements are successful enough for young people to want to stay put in them.
So, over to you, the next government...