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children in care

Leaving care

Matthew Kennedy tells his story in "Who Cares?" the English magazine for young people in care

Compared with some people, I was in care for quite a short time, just two years in a childrenís home in Lancashire. However, it didnít make the problems leaving care any easier. I left a week before my 17th birthday even though the approved leaving care age is 18. I was quite lucky because I was placed in a one bedroomed flat on my own near the childrenís home, receiving £19.40 per week income support. You may say "he could have easily got a job". Itís not that easy when you have a speech impediment which takes away the confidence you need to go for job interviews. I was lucky because I was the first person to receive the new leaving care grant from Social Services, but elsewhere they are receiving a lot more.

I canít see why there are different amounts of grants right across the country when leaving care brings the same problems everywhere. Out of the money, I was expected to pay for my gas, electricity, feed and clothe myself and pay so much towards my rent. Within two weeks of moving in, I moved out to a hostel for the homeless. Admittedly, the lack of money wasnít the only reason for me giving up my flat, but I realised I was just about to sink because of it.

In the hostel it felt as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The limit was twelve months and in that time you would work toward a flat of your own. The Department of Health paid my weekly rent which provided me with meals and a lot of other facilities. I was also given £10.30 per week for my personal expenses. When I moved into the hostel I had dropped to 8 stone in weight. I was quite depressed and was sniffing glue a lot. I was lucky not to be thrown out.

The staff at the hostel were brilliant. I was able to talk about my problems and started sorting them out. I went to the local drug unit and stopped sniffing. However, even though things seemed to be looking up, I was still losing weight and very depressed. I was finally taken into hospital suffering from anorexia nervosa (the slimmerís disease). When I got better, I returned to the hostel and went to college. After more ups and downs I finally got a flat of my own. Only two years after leaving care do I feel able to manage. Maybe if the authority had stuck to the official leaving care age none of these problems would have occurred.

In the hostel, one of the things I liked was at there were people around me. In the flat I was so lonely. Staff can teach you about budgeting your money and all the other life skills but they canít prepare you for the loneliness. You have to try to find ways of dealing with it yourself. I couldnít. I shut myself away with only little pixies for company (effect of sniffing glue). You can have friends around, although youíre very cautious about this as the staff drum it into you that people will only want to make friends with you so they can have somewhere to "doss" down.

Itís hard to distinguish between people who are real friends and those who are only using you. Because of your wariness, true friends soon drift off because youíre so uptight and then again youíre left with no-one. I did attend an Aftercare group but it was only once a fortnight for two hours and was manned by voluntary workers. What happens when a problem occurs at other times?

You could go back to the Home but you must remember that when you leave, there is always someone to replace you and who needs just as much or even more support than you. Therefore, though theyíd like to, staff in childrenís homes just donít have the time to help you in moments of crisis. Iím not trying to criticise social services staff. In my experience they have done an excellent job in what are sometimes impossible circumstances but we just need that little bit more effort to get things right.
The things we need are:

1. The setting up of a national full-time aftercare service funded by local authorities, run as drop-in centres, where people could call any time throughout the day and up to a certain time at night. It would take a lot of pressure off childrenís homes and Social Services officers when ex-residents go back for support in times of crisis.

2. A review of the leaving care grants and for a set figure for the whole country. By having this, no-one would be losing out.

3. For local authorities to stick to the official leaving care age and give independence training beginning at 16 and finishing at 18.

4. For there to be an agreement between Social Services and Housing giving people leaving care priority for council accommodation.