Page last updated at 16:34 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

The challenge facing young care leavers

Watch Liz MacKean's full report

For the past 17 months Newsnight's Liz MacKean has been following the progress of four teenagers in the care of Leicester City Council as they each turn 18 and leave the care system.

In its policy paper Care Matters, setting out the case for change in Britain's care system, the government said of children in care: "Many of them suffer terrible abuse and neglect before entering into a state care system that can seem cold and aloof."

Sadly their situation often does not improve and when young people leave care many join one of this country's most disadvantaged groups - more likely to drop out of education, to end up without a job and in prison.

It is recognised that the age at which care leavers are expected to live independently is one of the reasons some struggle.

Care leaver Phil
Young care leaver Phil voices optimism for the future

While the average British youngster does not leave the parental home until aged 24, a quarter of children in care will leave at the age of 16.

And care orders for all end at the age of 18, at which point many are forced to live independently.

One teenager who is confident that he can defy the odds is Phil, one of four young people in the care of Leicester City Council whom Newsnight has filmed over the last 17 months.

Forced to move

Phil was taken into care at the age of 10. When we first met him, aged 17, his situation was unsettled.

He had just been asked to leave his foster home following a violent and angry outburst which had resulted in his carer Denny calling in the police for the first time in 10 years as a foster parent.

Phil moved in with the Hawkers, who had five children of their own and were, like Denny, well used to dealing with foster children.

However, the move did mean that he was no longer able to live with his younger brother Frank.

Phil, who is now 18, remembers this is as a very difficult period, but he has moved forward.

He has his own flat, is attending college and has two part-time jobs to help make ends meet. Overall he looks back on his time in the care system positively:

"I got out of it what I wanted to - confidence, independence, I joined groups, kept myself busy."

Another of the young people Newsnight has been filming is Cherish. She turned 18 last summer, but unlike many care leavers her situation appeared secure.

She had lived with her foster mother Tracey from the age of nine, and Tracey had made it clear the placement could continue beyond the age of 18.

Cherish was also in full-time education, guaranteeing her a grant.

Kicked out of college

However her circumstances have changed and now her position is far more uncertain than when we met her.

GSCE exam results
Just 7% of children in care in England get five good GCSE exam results

After a breakdown in her relationship with her foster mother, Cherish is now living with her boyfriend. She is no longer in education, has no job and no home of her own.

Problems started when Cherish was asked to leave college for non attendance:

"When I found out I got chucked off college," she told me, "I made out to Tracey I was still going... I think it was for about a month".

Tracey is deeply upset at how things have turned out: "She has started going out more, which I've struggled with, to let go of her, I admit that. But it's the lies, which have really had an impact on our relationship," she said.

Of all the obstacles faced by children in care, one of the greatest is a lack of qualifications. Since 2004, councils in England and Wales have had a legal duty to promote education for care leavers - the same year it emerged that just 1% of them made it to university.

Greater efforts are being made to keep them in education, so they can still get financial support from local authorities beyond the age of 18.

Even so, only 7% of looked-after children who left care in England at age 16 get five good GCSE results, compared to 50% of all children.

Abuse within the home

For the past three decades there has been an emphasis on keeping families together rather than removing children and placing them in care.

The poor outcomes of children who have been in the care system helps explain that preference, but recent high profile cases have cast doubts on this approach.

Peter Connelly
There has been a big rise in care referrals since Peter Connelly's death

Although two brothers who carried out a savage attack on two young boys in Edlington were in care at the time, they had only been placed in foster care weeks before.

A serious case review, which Newsnight has seen, revealed a history of abuse and neglect, prompting questions about why the authorities did not intervene earlier.

And in the notorious Baby P case, toddler Peter Connelly suffered prolonged and sadistic abuse at home, despite 60 visits by Haringey social workers and other professionals.

The scandal over Peter's death has seen a big rise in care referrals - up 40% in some areas. So can the care system cope?

The fostering network estimates that we are short of 10,000 foster carers across the UK.

Many are put off by the task - almost one third of foster parents have said they were looking after children they did not feel equipped to deal with.

Financial cost

The European country which has done most research into its care leavers is Denmark.

The system there is very different - most looked after children are brought up in small residential homes, which try to replicate family life and are a far cry from the discredited institutions of the UK.

The educational record of its care leavers, one of the main indicators for future well-being, is much better than that of care leavers in the UK.

Danish researchers also report far lower rates of teenage pregnancy, lower crime rates and a much lower turnover of care staff.

A care home in Essex is now trialling this system, but there is a cost - a residential place costs about £2,500 per week, while fostering costs less than £500 per week.

As we enter an era of shrinking public spending the government's advisor on children's safety is warning that we cannot afford child protection budgets to be cut.

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