Headlines: July 8th, 2005

A new study shows that although a disproportionate number of young people in public care are from ethnic minority groups, white care leavers often fare worst through unstable placements while they are in care and problems when they leave, including homelessness, getting caught up in crime and a lack of qualifications.

Young people from Caribbean and mixed-raced backgrounds are also at high risk of disadvantage after they leave care, the study says, but it finds that some Caribbean youngsters are helped by placements in families that reflect their own ethnic background and help them to achieve greater stability.

The leader of the research project is calling for local authority social services departments to act to reduce the disruption and instability faced by young people in care.

Professor Ravinder Barn and colleagues at Royal Holloway College, University of London, surveyed 261 care leavers in six English local authority areas for the study, published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The researchers also conducted in-depth interviews with 36 care leavers and 13 professional workers and staff.

The study establishes a link between time spent in care, placement stability, disrupted schooling and teenage parenthood. African and Asian young people in the survey not only had fewer problems, but had also spent less time in care, with fewer changes of placement.

Its findings show that young white people experienced the worst outcomes, including frequent changes of care placement, early departure from care, low educational attainment, homelessness and risk-taking behaviour, such as criminal activity and drug use. Rates of exclusion from school were high among young people from white, Caribbean and mixed-parentage backgrounds in the survey but the Caribbean youngsters were more likely to have gone on to gain further qualifications, although they still faced high rates of unemployment.

Some care leavers from minority groups, who were interviewed in depth, felt they had not always been given appropriate cultural and racial support in residential and foster care. Asylum-seeking children in care felt especially vulnerable to stereotyping and racism but professionals working with them commented positively on their resilience, educational achievements and determination to build a positive future.

The researchers say that in spite of changes to the law and support arrangements for care leavers, many of the young people who took part in the survey felt swept along by the changes expected of them after the age of 16, and that they were allowed too little time for the transition to independent living. Although the young people described support from social services as ‘variable and lacking in focus’ they often reported receiving continuing support and interest in their welfare from foster carers.

Professor Barn said the research would help to fill a serious gap in knowledge and understanding about the needs and concerns of care leavers from different ethnic groups, but it suggested that there were still major challenges regarding the complex relationship between ethnicity and disadvantage. He went on, “As ‘corporate parents’, local authority social services departments must actively seek to reduce disruption and instability to avoid social exclusion and cumulative disadvantage in the lives of children placed in their care.”