The Right Support: Improving care leavers’ socioeconomic outcomes

The evidence about what works to improve care leavers’ outcomes is growing but significant gaps in our knowledge remain. On 13 June 2022, the OECD brought together experts and practitioners to discuss the findings from our report Assisting Care Leavers: A Time for Action, to promote cross-country learning and stimulate discussion. Banner image: © OECD
The Right Support: Improving care leavers’ socioeconomic outcomes
This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leadersfrom around the world and all parts of societydiscuss and develop policy solutions now and for the future.

On 13 June this year, the OECD brought together experts and practitioners to discuss the findings from our report Assisting Care Leavers: A Time for Action. Monika Queisser, Head of the OECD’s Social Policy Division, moderated an interactive panel discussion offering reflections on the report, as well as the challenges care leavers face and what needs to be done to better support them. The event was an opportunity to promote cross-country learning and stimulate discussion around the outcomes of the young people leaving their care.

  • Monika Queisser, Head of Social Policy Division, OECD
  • Emeritus Professor Robbie Gilligan, School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin
  • Philip Mendes, Professor, Department of Social Work, Faculty of Medicine at Monash University, Australia
  • Robert Macpherson, Department for Education (DfE), United Kingdom
  • Minister Signe Riisalo, Minister for Social Protection, Estonia 
  • Elise Skarsaune, Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs, Norway

The transition from adolescence to adulthood can be tough for all young people, particularly so for care leavers who often have more challenges to overcome. While the proportion of children in care may appear modest—less than 1% of children on average in out-of-home care across OECD countries—this still means tens of thousands of children are affected every year. According to Assisting Care Leavers, around 2.3 million children in OECD countries will likely have been in some type of out-of-home care arrangement in 2019. We know that young people who have been in out-of-home care are more likely to leave school early and are less likely to have a job or earn as much as others. Care leavers are much more likely to be homeless or end up in prison, and suffer from poorer mental health and higher suicide rates. These outcomes are not inevitable; with the right foundations and supports, young people can transition successfully from care and live happy and fulfilling lives.

On average, children in out-of-home care represent less than 1% of 0 17 year olds in OECD countries

Share of children in out-of-home care, in percentage of all children under 18 years old, in 2020 or most recent year

Source: OECD (2022), Assisting Care Leavers: A Time for Action, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Note: 2020 data for Chile, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Turkey, England and Scotland (UK); 2018 for Italy and Spain; 2019 for other countries.
Source: OECD (2022), Assisting Care Leavers: A Time for Action, OECD Publishing, Paris.

What works to improve outcomes for care leavers?

Assisting Care Leavers provides a range of good practice approaches to improve care leavers’ outcomes in areas the evidence says will make the biggest positive difference.

In Estonia consider it very important to support young people leaving any form of alternative care…we have to gather our best knowledge and efforts so that all children are given the skills to cope better throughout life.

– Minister Signe Riisalo

According to participants in the event, the most promising policy measure is offering care leavers the opportunity to remain in the care system until at least the age of 21. This would provide them with the same time, space and opportunities as their peers who grow up in their own families. Transitions should be based on more than simply age: as one young person expressed it, “Imagine your parents kicking you out because of your birthday” (A Way Home Scotland, 2019).

Governments need to meet their substitute parenting responsibilities—what we call in loco parentis—by enabling planned and gradual transitions from care that reflect individual levels of maturity and skill development. This means ensuring that care leavers are at least 21, and preferably 25, years of age.

– Philip Mendes

A number of countries have introduced extended care programmes. While there are some limitation—for example, young people transitioning from residential care may not all have the same opportunity as care leavers living in non-residential care to access extended care arrangements—studies in the United States and the United Kingdom have demonstrated measurable social and economic benefits from extending care beyond the age of 18.  

Participants also agreed that care leavers need access to consistent and ongoing support, often until well into adulthood, identified through a comprehensive and individualised assessment of their needs and aspirations. Any support should meet their core material needs, such as access to a liveable income and stable housing and opportunities for education, training and employment. The support of at least one responsible and caring adult is critical: someone the young person trusts, and who can help them access core social and community resources as a conduit to the rest of the system. This person could be a caseworker, family member or foster carer, or a personal adviser as provided for in England.

Getting the services to work around care leavers’ needs is important. We need the services to be coherent and pointing in one direction.

– Elise Skarsaune

Directions for reform to improve support and socio‑economic outcomes for care leavers

  1. Raise the leaving age from 18 to at least 21 to facilitate more gradual and flexible transitions from care.
  2. Start early preparation and planning for a young person’s transition out of care, focusing on further education and work.
  3. Ensure care leavers have an adequate social network, in particular a caring and involved adult who supports them in their transition in a similar way to a parent or caregiver might support their child.
  4. Take a holistic and flexible approach to providing support based on an assessment of needs, life course and resilience approaches. These may involve a continuation of existing support and/or specialist leaving care services in areas such as education and employment, mental health and stable housing.
  5. Introduce specialist legislation for care leavers as a protection mechanism.
  6. Involve care leavers in individual decisions and policies that shape their lives.
  7. Foster innovative approaches to improving outcomes for care leavers, including piloting programmes and encouraging grass-roots innovation that attracts other actors to help.
  8. Encourage more cross-country research to address critical issues, such as which policy measures work best to achieve successful outcomes and what good planning looks like.
  9. Improve data on care leavers.

Effective policies and support start with the voices of young people. The value of involving care leavers in individual decisions that affect their lives, as well as relevant policy processes, is reflected in the growing body of literature about lived experience as countries experiment with more and different approaches to listening to young people.

Inviting young people to participate in policy and other processes will be counterproductive, however, if young people do not feel they have been heard or cannot see the results of their input.

One example is around council tax exceptions. Five or six years ago it would have been very hard to find any local authority that exempted care leavers from having to pay council tax, but it’s probably now about 80% of local authorities that do, and I think that campaign was very much driven by young people.

– Robert Macpherson

The challenges

Despite progress in recent years and countries taking increasingly innovative and evidence‑informed approaches to supporting care leavers, challenges remain. Assisting Care Leavers shows that although many countries have legislation and policies in place that enable young people to remain in the care system beyond age 18, in practice many do not. Furthermore, while social and other services are generally available, they do not necessarily meet the needs of care leavers who may also have difficulty accessing them.

In reality, care leavers are living in a gap. A gap between what is available on paper and what is available in real-time when they need it. Are the resources available in the moment when they are looking for them? And do the rules deem care leavers eligible? Do their circumstances fit the system?”

– Emeritus Professor Robbie Gilligan 

Being available to young people when they need us is a working challenge for us; care leavers do not only need us during the opening hours of 8am to 4pm. And they do not only need us when things are going badly, young people want to share good news as well.

– Elise Skarsaune

Care leavers are a diverse group, living in diverse circumstances, following different pathways. At a policy level, systems need to be flexible and recognise the daily world and lived experience of care leavers. We must think more creatively about how to provide support, and in ways that makes sense to the young person. A whole-of-government response is required; improving the outcomes of care leavers is not just the responsibility of the child protection system.

One of the key messages from the evidence, and from the Assisting Care Leavers report, is that policy systems need to be flexible and generous in spirit; we need systems that adapt to the care leaver. Too often we find situations in which the care leavers adapt to the systems.

– Emeritus Professor Robbie Gilligan

Young people should be able to opt-in or out of services when they are ready, which may mean returning to a system they initially chose to leave behind. As presented in the report, several countries provide for a right to return to care where care leavers may have initially refused services at age 18.

Care leaving represents a lot of anxiety. It can lead to a distancing of the care leavers from the system. All young people in society want to be independent, but they also want the option to go back to their parents. We must have a system where there is no closed door in case they want to come back.

– Philip Mendes

What does success look like?

A recent report by Josh MacAlister, The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, recommends collective effort to bring care leavers’ outcomes in line with the rest of the population in the United Kingdom. Loving relationships, education, secure housing, employment and good health into old age are the baseline of a good life: “Having taken on the role of parent, it is right that the state does everything in its power to give those with a care experience every possible advantage in life”.

Looking ahead

Data, data, data. You cannot say it often enough. We need more data. We need to build an evidence base within countries and across countries, to help us align policy responses with policy realities.

– Emeritus Professor Robbie Gilligan

The evidence about what works to improve care leavers’ outcomes is growing but significant gaps in our knowledge remain, exacerbated by a lack of administrative data. The report offers directions for reform, and to conclude the event panellists were asked what more the OECD could do to support countries’ progress. There was a consensus that highlighting the issues and identifying good practice through benchmarking can have a powerful impact. Encouraging quality data collection across countries was also suggested, to identify what success looks like and how to measure it; track the progress of care leavers in areas like education and employment over the longer-term; and to better understand issues such as the impact of the care system on the social capital of care leavers.

Read the report Assisting Care Leavers: Time for Action

Read the report Assisting Care Leavers: Time for Action

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