This is a guest post by Ella Walding of the Innovation Unit.
Care leavers are vastly over represented in our justice system. Children in care and care leavers account for less than 1% of the general population. Yet, over 25% of the adult prison population has previously been in care. The state can spend thousands on some of these young adults, yet their outcomes are consistently poor (for example, half of care leavers have mental health needs and a quarter of care leavers have faced a mental health crisis since leaving care).
The Innovation Unit is being funded by the The Oak Foundation to understand the lived experience of care leavers in prison and following release, and the experience of those that support them. Our overall aim is to help 18-25 year old care leavers to break the reoffending cycle, to help them to flourish, and fulfill their aspirations.
This challenge is complex, in part because there are many different organisations charged with provision of support – local government, children’s social care, the criminal justice system, health – and others seeking to support care leavers. We have gathered in-depth stories about people’s experiences across the system, to understand the challenges care leavers face and the strengths and resources they have to draw upon.
Our report, published today (28 February 2019), highlights what we have found and describes both what is working well and the problems that care leavers can face.
Care leavers are an extremely vulnerable group, a majority of whom have experienced past trauma, abuse and neglect, and a range of other problems. It is not a coincidence that the prison population is full of so many care experienced young adults: their traumatic childhood experiences can manifest as negative coping strategies which can lead to law breaking; they can also lack the lack supportive loving relationships, and guidance, that other young adults have, and can make unhealthy relationships in order to belong; children in care homes are more likely to come into contact with the police for minor offences. Care leavers then develop a police record which means that subsequent law breaking can lead them to be given prison sentences.
Prison can be a re-traumatising experience leading care leavers to feel stigmatised, isolated, anxious and abandoned. Sometimes they are not identified as care leavers and do not receive their entitlements. There is not enough joint thinking about how to support them. There is no clear overarching vision, strategy or outcomes for this group across government departments which would allow frontline practitioners to collaborate around a common planning and practice framework. This means the services to care leavers are fragmented and they are sometimes working to different agendas and aims, which makes it hard for staff to work together, and hard for care leavers to understand the rules of the systems they are in. These differing cultures, and a lack of resources, means that staff from different sectors are working separately with different plans and almost no communication. There is no shared sense of who is responsible for what, meaning that care leavers can be left without support, and unclear about who should be doing what to support them.
Upon leaving prison, their new label of an offender makes it very hard to access safe housing, education and employment. Unsurprisingly, a high proportion of care leavers then go onto re-offend.
I need a permanent place to stay so I can try and rebuild my life. They have already tried to recall me because I have moved three times – just moving out of the places that they put me in that weren’t safe – they set me up to fail. I want to get a new place, get a steady job, get better education. I want to be a positive person. I want to be a good role model for my younger brother. I need someone to help put me in the right direction and show me what to do, how to not go back to prison.
Andy, Care leaver (name has been changed)
These young adults are the responsibility of the state, yet diminishing resources and fragmented systems results in many falling through the gaps. The staff we spoke to were passionate, and dedicated and we have been blown away by the enthusiasm we have seen over the course of this project. People want to do more, but the system isn’t allowing them to.
This report shows the value of really taking time to listen. There’s no shortage of guidance about care leavers who end up in prison, but it’s not making the difference it should. The insights of the people living with the reality of that failure shows why. The same people will be able to describe how to fix things – we need to keep listening.
Peter Dawson, CEO, Prison Reform Trust
We heard about positive developments, that are improving support for care leavers, and these can be built upon. There is a real opportunity to develop integrated approaches, at a national and local level, to develop a shared vision on how to work with this group and help them to thrive. We are now seeking funding to co-design new solutions, with partners and care leavers, in the West Midlands. The aim is to help different services come together, and provide wrap-around support for care leavers given prison sentences. Our longer term ambition is to test and scale these new approaches to other areas and influence national policy, so that every care leaver is helped to thrive.
You can read the full report here.
 DfE 2013
 Berman, G. and Dar, A. 2013
Barnardos, Neglected Minds (2017)