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Five things the new Children’s Minister needs to know about children in care and care leavers

At the age of just nine years old, Nadhim Zahawi and his family fled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and immigrated to the UK. He begins this role with an understanding of how it feels to be a child supported by the Government through the most challenging of times.

Dear Mr Zahawi,

We were very glad to welcome you to February’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked After Children and Care Leavers, and no doubt everyone in the room was encouraged to hear you speak so warmly about your enthusiasm for your new ministerial post. We know there’s a lot of information for you to absorb, so we wanted to take a moment to highlight a few of the most important things you should know about working for children in care and care leavers.

As you start your new role, here are five things we think will help you make a big impact in the lives of children in care and care leavers.

1. Look for the child behind the statistics

There is more data collected about children in care than almost any other group of children. Please remember, Mr Zahawi, that behind every number is a real child.

The data that is collected about children in care helps local authorities and central government see what is happening on a large scale and what is changing over time. Sometimes, though, each individual child’s experiences and their personal journey can get lost behind the data tables.

The statistics can be stark. Almost two thirds of children who are looked after have experienced abuse or neglect (Department for Education statistical first release, 2017). Care leavers are less likely to attend university than other young people, and more likely to have contact with the youth justice system or become homeless.

We have to address these systemic problems, but we should also remember that these children and young people are full of potential. With the right support, they can live happy and fulfilling lives, contributing a lot to society. As children in the care of the state, the government has a duty to help them achieve that.

You’ve started your ministerial role positively and are being very active in your first weeks in the service of children in care, meeting with social workers across the country. If you want to feel inspired, you can read about some of the amazing young people we’ve worked with on our website, where we tell the stories of Ben, Fatouma, Katie, Kevani, and Michelle.

2. Make mental health and wellbeing a priority

We know that looked after children are more likely to experience mental health problems than their peers, in part due to the trauma that many experienced before going into care, and sometimes because of ongoing problems they face within the care system. We’re sure you agree that it’s really important that a range of tailored support is made available to them.

That’s why we hope that, as the new Minister, you’ll support the Department for Education as it continues to make progress on the mental health assessment pilots that were agreed last year (read more here). We hope you will consider the recommendations made by the final report of the Expert Group on improving mental health support for our children and young people.

We believe that as a society, our duties to looked after children go beyond ensuring their physical safety. We must also help them recover from trauma. It’s up to you to ensure that they receive the support that they need to thrive, and to be a role model to show what someone can achieve despite a childhood full of challenges.

3. See the whole system

There have been many different reviews of the care system over the last few years — we’re sure you’ll have read them all by now. We hope you will take the opportunity to sit back and look at the care system as a whole. The care system shouldn’t be fragmented, and children should be able to move fluidly from one part of it to another. We need a minister who understands this and helps to empower those who work with children in care to provide the best care for the individual, wherever their journey takes them.

Children in care and care leavers receive a lot of their support from their local authority children’s services team, and we’re sure you will be working closely with many of those departments. But these children and young people also come into contact with many other public services, whether that is schools, Jobcentres, or housing providers. These other services also need to ensure they are providing the right support for looked after children and care leavers. We hope that your ministerial position will allow you to join up work with other teams and other departments to make this happen.

We welcomed the November 16th Westminster Hall debate on the Department for Work and Pensions’ support for care leavers, and hope that the rollout of Universal Credit will include particular consideration for how best to support care leavers as they move into adulthood.

4. Keep on caring: support care leavers

Being a parent is a lifelong job, and you just took on 70,000 new children. We hope that like the best parents, you don’t forget your children on their 18th birthday.

We have a responsibility to keep supporting young people as they leave care and start to live independently. Care leavers frequently find themselves faced with more adult responsibilities at a younger age than their peers, whether it’s managing a household budget, learning to cook, or applying for jobs or education places without parental support.

There have been welcome changes in this area recently. Staying Put is a scheme that allows young people to stay with their foster carers past the age of 18, if both parties agree. Personal Advisors will now be available to all care leavers until the age of 25. It’s important to make sure that local authorities have the right support and sufficient funding to put these policies in place, and to continue to find ways to support care leavers as they move into adulthood.

5. Always ask: would this be good enough for my own children?

The phrase ‘corporate parent’ can sound strange and a little cold, but as you know, the idea is that each local authority has parental responsibility for the children in its care. This doesn’t just apply to children’s services, but also the council at large, including elected officials and partner agencies. The 2017 Children and Social Work Act sets out corporate parenting principles as including the following, among others:

• Promoting the physical and mental health and wellbeing of children in care

• Encouraging them to express their views wishes and feelings, and take them into account

• To help them access and make use of services

• To promote high aspirations and the best possible outcomes

Your fundamental guiding principle should be this: would this be good enough for my own children?

Until the answer to that is yes, we have more work to do.

We look forward to working constructively with you Mr Zahawi to improve the care system for looked after children and care leavers, as we have done with Ministers responsible for children in care for the last 25 years.

Please come and talk to us anytime you wish.