Firstly, what incredible news. It feels like an absolutely massive shift to be able to support young people in their foster family placement until 21, especially as the average age that a young person not in care leaves home is 24 - and probably rising in this economic climate.
My dissertation explored the emotional support network for care leavers and the number one recommendation was to raise the leaving care age. So, job done?
I have a few initial thoughts about the implementation of this change:
a) the young people I interviewed said that at the time of leaving care, they wanted it. They were excited to live on their own and it was their choice. It was only after they moved that they realised how difficult it was, both practically in terms of financial difficulties and emotionally as this is often the first time they've been on their own with time to reflect on their experiences. (They've also now passed the cut off for access to child and adolescent mental health services but that's a whole separate issue!).
So it's possible that this news won't be as exciting to all young people as it will be to professionals. How can we professionals support young people to make the most informed decision about when to leave care? And will there ever be a time when it's possible for them to have an opportunity to go back after a trial period ( much like many of us 'boomerang population' who went home when we couldn't pay the bills)?
b) many of the teenagers I work with are in private agency placements. Local authorities have pressure to bring them back to live in in-house placements which are cheaper, but in my experience, if they go into the placement in their teens, it might be easier to leave them in their placement as they'll leave care by 18. Now it may be 21, will this change? Will private agency placements be even more disrupted, forcing more placement moves. Which, if I'm cynical, might mean the young person will say they'll just live independently rather than have to move again.
c) similarly, how will foster carers feel about the extension of age? Many I work with will love it and would have been planning to keep their young people anyway through Staying Put arrangements, despite the lesser financial support because they are so committed to the young person. However, some it will be a shift for some and an even greater commitment if you are offering long term foster care. Will foster carers receive extra support from their supervising social workers to think this through?
d) we already have a 90,000 shortage of foster carers in the UK. How is this going to impact that as foster placements are 'full' for longer periods?
e) finally, what about children in residential care who are often the most vulnerable and most likely to have been placed out of borough only to find themselves moving out at 16-18 and brought back to their home borough where their support network might be lacking. How can we support them for longer?
These are just a few initial thoughts and I'm sure they've all been raised and explored by people with far more experience than me and will continue to be!
For now though, this is incredibly welcome news and should send the message that children and young people in care are being taken seriously at all.
Congratulations to everyone involved in campaigning!