By Howard White, CEO, The Campbell Collaboration
A recent news item in the UK reported that many parents are paying their children pocket money into their twenties or even thirties. And there are many stories of ‘failure to launch’, that is adult children still living ‘at home’. But another news item which caught my attention flagged the difficulties faced by children in care who leave the system aged 18. For them there is no ‘bank of mum and dad’ to pay for higher education and the first rung on the property ladder, no ‘home’ to fall back on in times of hardship, of even visit at Christmas, and no one to guide and advise them on their first steps into adulthood. Where is the equality of opportunity? Where are the policies to ensure good life chances for all? The persistence of inter-generational inequality is almost inevitable in the face of such circumstances.
I came to Campbell after a career in international development. Many of the problems of global poverty are tractable. The record of poverty reduction around the world in the last two decades is historically unprecedented. We know what to do, we just need to do more of it and do it better.
What has struck me is that many of the problems being tackled in developed countries are more difficult and the policy responses woefully inadequate. Do we really think that a short spell of weekly counselling will turn around the life chances of a teenager whose father is in prison, whose mother is a drug addict, and who attends a high school from which few go onto anything other than crime or unemployment? It sounds rather implausible and the evidence mostly says no. However, many programmes continue untested. That is the case for the issue I started with, children leaving the care system.
A review undertaken for Campbell a decade ago documented the problems these young adults face. Compared to the general population, they experience much higher rates of homelessness, unemployment, dependency on public assistance, physical and mental health problems, and involvement with the criminal justice system. There are a range of Independent Living Programmes to support them. But the review found no high-quality evaluations of these programmes to assess their effectiveness.
A more recent review demonstrates that kinship care is better than other forms of fostering for a range of child outcomes. Kinship care also retains links to the family, which hopefully provides the basis for a lasting attachment into adulthood. But the review also comments on the poor quality of the evidence. Similarly, a review of Treatment Foster Care, a programme aimed at children in care with behavioural problems, notes the limitations of the evidence base.
The problems faced by youth in care are difficult enough. They are made worse by the failure to collect rigorous evidence of the effectiveness of the programmes intended to help them. If we are serious about our efforts to improve their lives, we have to start by examining if we are doing what works.