'The first person I met was snorting drugs from a mirror'
PUBLISHED: 06:14 11 June 2018 | UPDATED: 11:54 11 June 2018
Life chances for children who are taken into council care are well below the rest of the population. Why are they so low and are they getting enough support?
Aged 15 she was taken into care. Aged 16 she left her foster placement to live in a Norwich guest house where she says other teenagers were taking drugs.
And three years later she is still not in education or employment.
The struggles endured by one teenager highlight the challenges faced by young people when they leave council care.
Care leavers are meant to keep getting support until the age of 21. But in some areas of Norfolk at least half are not in education, employment or training (NEET).
That is four times higher than the ‘NEET’ figure for 16 to 24 year olds in east England.
The teenager, who does not want to be named, was meant to stay in her foster placement until “independence”, according to a court order.
She was taken into care after her mother had mental health problems. She said she also suffered abuse from her step-father - something she claimed her social worker did not believe.
She said she liked her foster placement. But shortly before her 17th birthday she was put in a guest house in Norwich.
Unable to cook, suffering from anxiety and a long way from “independence” she has struggled since.
“I was happy with my foster family,” she said. “I grew a relationship with them and then I suddenly moved.
“It was overwhelming. The first person I met was snorting drugs from a mirror. The people running it didn’t know. You felt pressure to take drugs and to stay friends with people.”
Despite complaints from her family, the council has defended its decision to move her.
A letter from Norfolk County Council managing director Wendy Thomson, sent in 2015 after her grandparents complained, said she was “living in supported lodgings and she is very happy there”.
The letter from Dr Thomson also suggests she wanted to leave her foster placement - stating she was “of an age at which she can make her own decision”.
But the care leaver, now 20, disputes what Dr Thomson told her grandparents in 2015. She said there was no support and she was not happy.
“It was me and five other teenagers and they were bad influences, doing alcohol and drugs. I was not independent at all, I was staying in my room,” she said.
Her grandparents have now written a letter to the new leader of the county council, Andrew Proctor, about her case, in which they said: “This has badly affected her health and welfare.”
Her grandmother said: “She is speaking out because she doesn’t want anyone else to have the treatment she has had.”
She hopes to go to college and on to university but faces a struggle to get back in to full-time education.
She is not alone. The latest figures for the council’s children’s services department show more than 40pc of Norfolk’s 500 care leavers, who are aged from 16 to 21, are not in training, education or employment.
The council said that with 58pc of its care leavers in employment, training or education, its figure was higher than the national average, but added it was not as “high as we want”.
There are also huge differences across the county in the percentage of care leavers staying in touch with their social workers.
In Norwich 98pc are in touch but in North Norfolk and Broadland just a third of care leavers are in contact.
Alongside jobs and training, another major challenged faced by those leaving care is accommodation.
Last year this newspaper revealed the shocking state of homes some care leavers were being placed in by the council through a private firm.
The council investigated and suspended placements with the firm.
It is now spending £5m on buying and renovating 11 buildings to give accommodation for care leavers with 24/7 support.
Rebecca White, founder of Norwich social enterprise Your Own Place which trains young people in tenancies and money management, said: “Employment and training are low because of the huge barriers care leavers face.
“Outcomes for them are really poor and support is not there.”
Dan Mobbs, from Norwich charity the Mancroft Advice Project (MAP), said care leavers needed the most support but got the least.
He said those in the care system had a much greater risk of unemployment, homelessness, prison and drug issues when older.
“If you have been taken into care you have come through a terrible situation and you need more support but you get less,” he said. “Care leavers are still expected to leave home at a really young age.”
An Ofsted inspection last year said the council’s care leaver service had made “steady progress”. Its Ofsted rating has increased from “inadequate” to “requires improvement”.
Inspectors said: “In most cases, young people are well prepared for independence. Nonetheless, inspectors saw examples where young people were transferred too rapidly to the leaving care team, without adequate preparation.”
•What the council says
A council spokesman said Ofsted inspectors last year found “increasingly effective and targeted support” had
led to a reduction in care leavers not in education, employment or training.
On accommodation, the council said it encouraged care leavers to stay with foster parents until 21.
But added: “These arrangements are dependent on mutual agreements between the young person and the foster carers.
“Every young person is encouraged to play a full part in their decision making and plans for their future.”
They added: “We always want to ensure that a young person is ready for independence but this will be different for all young people as their needs can and do change.
“When there is a complaint from a young person we will offer to meet and make independent advocacy available.
“However, in some cases the young person may not take us up on this.”
•Follow our Facebook page for the latest from the investigations unit