Our responsibilities for children in need and their transition to adulthood
The Government has an obligation to ensure a much better transition into adulthood for all.
The discussions resulting in the ‘Staying Put’ initiative for those in foster care have opened a much wider debate about our responsibilities for children in need and their transition to adulthood. Are existing obligations, placed on local authorities, the NHS and other safeguarding bodies, sufficient or is it time for a rethink?
Looking at children’s mental health services has revealed a pressing need for improved access for those with eating disorders, self-harm issues and other problems. The Children’s Society suggests there may be as many as 240,000 vulnerable 16 and 17 year olds in England and Wales but only about 58,000 are identified by local authorities. In fact, 46% of children referred to Children’s Services are actually turned away and 30% don’t even reach the ‘threshold’ for an assessment. Where young people are in receipt of support that often changes on the day they reach 18 as there is no legal obligation to provide continuing assistance and no requirement to help with a transition to adult services. Disabled children face particular challenges moving into adulthood when responsibility for providing continuing support moves from children’s to adult services. There are over one million disabled children in the UK yet fewer than ever are getting the support they need.
The Children Act 1989 requires every local authority to take reasonable steps to identify ‘children in need’ in their area and to publish information on the services available and places a particular stress on the health and development of children and the needs of the disabled but cash strapped local authorities are struggling to provide even the most basic services. The reality is that 15, 16 and 17 years olds often have to be at crisis point before there is any intervention.
Child exploitation scandals like Rochdale and Rotherham demonstrate that many teenage children suffer even greater risk outside the home yet for the vast majority support is limited even if their need includes neglect, abuse or exploitation.
We know about the common characteristics of such young people. Around 13% of them achieve no GCSE passes; they are much more likely to be NEETS; and 3 times more likely than children from the care system to end up homeless. I believe the time has come for a fundamental rethink on what is happening to them. We’ve got to move away from a model of rationing which allows us to deny help to those who don’t reach some arbitrary threshold or simply hit their 18th birthday and develop a model that recognises the continuing needs of vulnerable children and young people who are already in a very disadvantaged position.
Of course it will cost more money but we mustn’t forget that funding for children’s services has fallen by £2.4 billion, in real terms, since 2010 with an additional £1.5 billion gap for services needed for disabled children. The Chancellor will have to be pressed to address these issues in the 2019 spending review. We might start by ensuring a reasonable assessment for those who need it and an obligation to ensure a much better transition for all, including disabled, after the age of 18. We could extend higher rate Pupil Premium to all children in need and making bursaries available to such children entering FE or further training. Disabled children and young people would particularly benefit from improved provision of short breaks for them and their Carers and we should at least contemplate the Disabled Children’s Partnership suggestion of an early intervention and family resilience fund. Such an approach might be extended to all children in need.
We must decide how much we are prepared to pay before young people reach crisis point rather than make claims about increasing funds for services only available after they’ve suffered a major crisis.
Steve McCabe is the Labour MP for Birmingham, Selly Oak