Children & Young People Opinion

Upholding the rights of care leavers during the COVID-19 pandemic

Prof Emily Munro, Director of the Tilda Goldberg Centre for Social Work and Social Care, University of Bedfordshire

The COVID-19 pandemic has bought into sharp focus how difficult it can be to cope with multiple and abrupt changes in one’s life simultaneously.  Rapidly having to adapt to different ways of living, working and providing care in response to the pandemic has undoubtedly been challenging for all of us.  These recent experiences provide some insight into the ‘accelerated and compressed’ transitions that around 13,000 young people leaving foster and residential care experience each year. Care leavers typically navigate a number of changes in their lives (setting up home, managing day to day living and their finances and maintaining education, employment or training) at a much younger age than other young people in the community, and without the levels of practical, emotional and financial support that families typically offer their children.  Although they have a right to care and protection there can be a mismatch between the services and support they want and need and what is actually provided during this important life stage.  COVID-19 has served to further intensify the pressures facing young people leaving care and local authorities have been working hard to adapt.

At the beginning of lockdown the Government issued guidance to local authorities outlining that they should ensure that no one has to leave care or Staying Put arrangements (remaining with former foster carers between 18 and 21 years).  They also recommended that local authorities put additional support in place, including provision of discretionary payments to cover food, utilities and rent where needed. Findings from an Economic and Social Research Council funded study (part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19) reveal that the children’s social care workforce have been creative and flexible in their approaches to supporting young people in and leaving care.  Leaving care managers who participated in the research said that they welcomed having the freedom to permit young people to remain in placement for longer, rather than having to move them on by virtue of their age.  They also reported that greater discretion and a commitment to keeping in touch with these young people during the crisis had helped more relational practices to flourish.

In tandem with making positive adaptations and offering enhanced discretionary support, leaving care managers also drew attention to how the pandemic had exacerbated existing gaps in provision, particularly to meet the needs of those with the most complex needs.  Particular concerns were raised about a deterioration in young people’s mental health during the pandemic and difficulties in securing access to appropriate support:

A phone conversation to talk about your mental health isn’t often what young people want to do. So, I think that even if we have managed to get them into services, they quickly disengage from that service because it feels very impersonal, and if they’ve not met that person, why would they start sharing how they’re feeling.

Securing suitable accommodation for care leavers who urgently needed somewhere to safe to live was also a major concern in some areas:

We certainly don’t want young people in unsuitable accommodation, but I know we have had to present some as homeless and some have ended up in a B&B, even though we’ve really pushed for them to not be in that B&B or for it to be a very short period of time. I think it’s our highest risk young people that have suffered the most.

The needs and experiences of young people leaving care will be explored further in the next stages of the research.  The work includes an exploration of the care histories and transition pathways of around 1750 young people and speaking to around 50 young people to get their insights on making the transition from care during the crisis.

For more information about the Care Leavers, COVID-19 and Transitions from Care study (CCTC) and to access the Research Briefing visit the Tilda Goldberg Centre on the University of Bedfordshire’s website:




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