Statistics released by children's minister Edward Timpson have highlighted significant disparities in how many young people in England are taking up the opportunity to stay in their foster placement past the age of 18.
Under so-called "Staying Put" arrangements, since 2014 councils must offer young people turning 18 the opportunity to remain in foster care up to the age of 21.
The government's statistics show that 27 local authorities – including East Sussex, Havering, Lincolnshire (see box), Middlesbrough, Wakefield and York – reported that 100 per cent of young people who were eligible for Staying Put in 2014/15 were still with their former foster carer three months after their 18th birthday.
But in several councils, including Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Leicester, and Wandsworth, the government figures showed that no young people were reported to still be with their former foster carer three months on.
There were a further 30 local authorities that either did not submit data, or the DfE did not release it, citing confidentiality, while many more authorities had fewer than the national average of 48.3 per cent of young people remaining in place.
So why are some authorities lagging behind the rest?
Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP), says the disparity is down to the wide-ranging way in which local authorities view their priorities.
"Individual councils decide what their policies (on Staying Put) are, and some barely have policies up and running," he says. "Staying Put has been around for a while. The pilots were launched some time ago. But some local authorities still don't have solid policies yet."
Gallagher says that although the law now stipulates that councils must offer young people in foster care the opportunity to remain in their placement, their keenness - or lack of it - in making young people and foster carers aware of the right, and encouraging them to take it up, can play a major role in whether placements endure when they turn 18.
He points to the 2014/15 annual report of fostering advice service Fosterline, which highlights a "great deal of confusion" around how Staying Put works.
"Information is not filtering through to young people and foster carers," he says. "Take-up relies on care leavers and foster carers getting the message (that they are entitled to stay).
"I don't see any evidence that the government or Department for Education are clamping down on local authorities with low take-up."
Lack of funding
A report published in December by NAFP warned that the £40m government funding for councils to implement the scheme is not enough due to wider cuts across children's services. As a result, councils are having to subsidise the scheme.
"Local authorities have not been given enough money," Gallagher says. "It is a good idea in principle, but unless it is backed properly, it is very difficult for local authorities to live with. The best thing the government can do is give local authorities the money to deliver it."
Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network, also believes that money is a major issue at a time when council budgets are hard-pressed. He says some councils are not supporting foster carers to the same level for 18- to 21-year-olds as for under-18s.
"Often foster carers are losing out financially," he says. "There is an absolute commitment from foster carers for Staying Put to work, but on a pragmatic level, it may not be affordable for them to continue if they don't receive the same amount of money."
He says some foster carers also report concerns about having to be reassessed as a foster carer once Staying Put arrangements end if they want to look after another young person under the age of 18.
"We need to think about whether we can suspend their fostering status (during Staying Put) to avoid them having to be reapproved," he says.
The Fostering Network also wants improved recording of Staying Put numbers.
"We would be concerned if numbers are only measured at three months," Williams says.
"We need to make sure this is not just about transitioning to adulthood, rather it is about staying put for a period of time."
How Lincolnshire achieves good take-up rates
Lincolnshire is one of the best performing authorities with 20 out of 20 young people eligible for Staying Put in 2014/15 remaining in their placement for at least three months after their 18th birthday, according to government figures.
The council currently has 38 young people in Staying Put placements.
Mark Garrick, supervising social worker for Staying Put at Lincolnshire County Council, says foster carers in the county receive the same rate for 18- to 21-year-olds as they do for 16- and 17-year-olds.
"We have been doing it for five years now as we were a pilot authority," he says.
"I was recruited specifically to start up Staying Put. All our looked-after children teams and independent reviewing officers are aware of our responsibilities under Staying Put and we concentrate on making sure all young people are aware of it. It is raised in the plans we do with young people at 16."
However, success has come at a cost. In 2015/16, the authority budgeted £157,000 for Staying Put placements, receiving a government grant of £122,000. However, the cost for the financial year so far is running at £250,000.
Garrick says he is keen for the government to review the way Staying Put is funded - to end the current situation that sees young people having to claim housing support and income support.
"Some young people have been in their placement for 10 years and refer to their foster carers as 'mum and dad', so it is an anomaly that they have to effectively become landlord and tenant," he says.