Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference, Kevin Williams said that all young people leaving the care system should be given a passport that guarantees them access to services to help them with whatever issues they face.
He suggested that the care system should better reflect the type of lifelong support that is provided by the best birth parents, arguing that such an investment would lead to significant savings in both the criminal justice and health systems in the long-term.
“The care system has an arbitrary cut-off age at 18, which may be extended to 22, where we don’t support our most vulnerable young people for the duration of their lives,” he said.
“We need a radical rethink. We need to stop talking about leaving care and instead talk about a transition to adulthood with appropriate lifetime supports.”
Williams claimed that support should be offered to care leavers until at least their late 20s, or early 30s, to take account of emerging scientific evidence on brain development, which suggests young people are still maturing at that age.
“If all care leavers had a passport that said, ‘I was in the care of the state, I have priority access to services to make sure that my needs are met’, I think that would see a huge change in outcomes for children in care,” he said.
Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, argued that existing support for care leavers must be improved as a matter of urgency.
“The degree to which young people in care are prepared for adult life varies massively across the country,” she said. “Some are trained in budgeting, cooking and other life skills, others are not. The grants that they get to set up their first home vary enormously too.
“Children in care get very cross when they find out someone living a few miles away from them is getting an extra £1,000 toward setting up home.”
The children’s minister Edward Timpson pledged to explore the issues facing care leavers.
“I’m looking at things like the care leavers’ grant very closely,” he said. “I want to look at why it is there is such a discrepancy across the country. Unless care leavers have confidence that we’re on their side, then they’re always going to feel that they’re being treated as second-class citizens.”
Timpson added that he intends to improve advocacy services for children in the care system, so they can “challenge the authorities” if they are missing out on support.
“Children in care have a right to advocacy but it’s too patchy,” he said. “I want to look carefully at exactly what the offer to children is across the country in terms of advocacy.
“My impression is that it’s good in places but almost inaccessible in others, so we need to find ways to make sure that it’s readily available everywhere.”
He added: “I also want to strengthen the role of independent reviewing officers and virtual school heads, and make sure that children-in-care councils are extremely effective, so that they are a really strong voice across the country.”