Young care leavers (from the age of 16 and up to their early 20s) disproportionately experience homelessness, loneliness, unemployment, poverty and a range of other disadvantages. We are committed to try to change this by lobbying to improve the currently appalling leaving care provision in the UK. You can read more about what we are doing in this area on other parts of the website, particularly the leaving care section. However, alongside the difficulties of leaving care, we are also, as an Association, concerned with issues affecting older care leavers. Many care leavers make successful transitions to adult life, despite their disadvantages. For some, problems persist. In general, even for those who have been ‘successful’, many will have issues that they would still like help or advice with. In this part of the site, we explain why, uniquely amongst all agencies, we are concerned with care leavers of all ages.

Children in Care and Adult Care Leavers: Background

Firstly, some context. The history of child-care involving the state and voluntary organizations in the UK goes back many centuries (Heywood, 1965). However, we can begin with the development of voluntary child welfare agencies during the great flowering of Victorian philanthropy in the late nineteenth century.  During that period, child-care practices were established that set patterns, both good and bad, that continue to have an impact. These included ‘Boarding Out’ under the Poor Law, institutionalization in large homes and the ‘rescuing’ of children from their original backgrounds. With respect to the latter, attempts by both the state and voluntary sectors to remove parental influence and, in many cases, to break ties between children and their families are well documented (see Hendrick, 2003: 45-6). The most notorious example of this was the surge of child migration that began in the late nineteenth century and was not fully abandoned until the 1960s. The destruction of family ties and the damaging effects of such policies are now well known (see Humphreys, 1994).

An emphasis on keeping families together, and maintaining family ties, began after the 1948 Children Act and was influenced by the work of Bowlby (1952) and others on attachment. The establishment of local authority Children’s Departments reflected a new concern with child welfare that drew on the experience of the second world war. It was during these early post-war decades that many of the former care adults that we represent and come into contact with came into care. During those decades, practices often remained poor.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the ending of child migration and a growing suspicion of the power of the state helped to encourage a focus on the rights of the child and the rights of birth parents (Fox Harding, 1997). This shift in approach was reflected in the Children Act 1989, which encouraged an already developing move away from the use of state residential care and towards a concept of working in partnership with families. From 1981 to 1998, the numbers of children in foster or residential care declined from 92,000 to 54,000 (Hayden et. al., 1998: 36). Numbers have grown since, but within a context where the role of birth families is now accepted as an important element in the long-term welfare of the child. It is notable that it is numbers in residential care that have declined most rapidly. However, those who were in care during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s benefited relatively little from this greater understanding of the importance of identity issues and family ties. Moreover, many problems persist or have worsened (see next section).

Adult Care Leavers: An Invisible Network

Up to the present, UK research and policy on adults who have been in care as children has tended to focus on those in their mid- to late-teens or early twenties. This is perfectly understandable, since young care leavers have been much more likely than most young people to suffer from a range of disadvantages in such areas as unemployment, homelessness and lack of educational qualifications. (see Social Exclusion Unit, 1998a, 1998b, Social Exclusion Unit, 1999; Department of Health, 2003; Fawcett, Featherstone and Goddard, 2004: ch.5). However, some issues affecting care leavers can apply across the life course. Since its establishment, the Care Leaver’s Association has extensive experience of helping individuals to deal with those issues.

We will look at some of these issues shortly. Firstly, the dimensions of the subject. There are large numbers of such adults in the UK. We do not know precisely how many, but it is possible to make a reasonable estimate on the basis of the numbers in care and the numbers leaving care each year. Approximately one per cent of children are in care (currently just over 60,000), mainly in foster care or residential homes. Between 6,000 and 7,000 young people leave care annually in England. This was higher in past decades (Department of Health, 2003; Hayden et al., 1999: 35-37). These figures, extrapolated across the life course, explain how we came to our conservative estimate of approximately 350,000 adults in the UK as a whole who spent part or all of their childhood in care. For some of these adults, their time in care will have been relatively brief – a few months or a year – whilst for others it will have encompassed their entire childhood up to the age of 18.

Until now, the needs of this group has not been recognised or studied. This is chiefly because care leavers do not form an easily identifiable group in society. They go on to occupy all sorts of roles, occupations and position. Some of them are highly successful, others less so. Their needs will be diverse. However, we are beginning to gain evidence about some widespread needs that have hitherto gone unrecognised and which can and should be supported in various ways.

1. Accessing Child Care Records

Each adult care leaver will, whilst they were in care, have had a file about their lives. These are important documents. It is increasingly acknowledged that access to such files can be a significant means of addressing important identity concerns that centre around one’s present family and ones’ understanding of childhood experiences. The importance of such concerns with identity has long been acknowledged within the field of adoption. A recent change of perception in relation to the identity needs of former care adults is succinctly captured in the response of the Association of Directors of Social Services to the significant changes introduced by the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA):

Few of us depend upon official records for our identity or history. We may throw away old papers about ourselves but that is our choice. Unlike children who have been in public care we do not depend on the often fragmented and formal records of others. Yet, for many adults, such information can be critical in fully understanding the past. What records contain or can be found can be vital. Sadly, previous retention requirements have not always recognised this aspect (ADSS, 2000: 1)

More recently, in June of 2005, the House of Lords held the first parliamentary debate on the subject of access to files by former care adults. This debate reflected an emerging awareness of the importance of this subject. In that debate, the comparison between the situation for adopted adults and those for former care adults was clearly made:

The concerns and preoccupations of adults who were formerly in the care system about who they are and from where they came are natural, human concerns. They are every bit as strong and every bit as valid as the desire of adults who were once adopted to discover information about their birth parents and perhaps even to seek contact with them and with their wider birth families. (Earl Howe, House of Lords, 14th June 2005)

We know from recent research (Goddard, Feast and Kirton, 2005) that over 4,000 care leavers seek access to these files each year in the UK. We also know that this number is increasing.

A written history of one’s childhood is a rare event for most children, whose lives are more often captured in the collective oral history of other family members, in photograph albums and other memorabilia (many adult care leavers have no, or very few, photographs from their childhood). Birthdays, anniversaries, christenings and other family get-togethers are, for many outside the care system, part of the fabric through which family memories and identity are regularly revived and reinforced.

Nowadays, it is common practice to try to make up for this difference by preparing ‘life story books’ for children in care. These include photographs and notes of significant life events.

However, most older care leavers have no such records and care leavers as a whole are much less likely to have structured personal reinforcement of their identity through their families as they journey on into adult life. Information on their care files can help to compensate for this to some degree. As a result, accessing the information on these files can be an important way of enhancing a coherent adult identity and in addressing issues of self-esteem (Stein and Carey, 1986: 142-143; Biehal, Clayden, Stein and Wade, 1995: 108-109; Pugh, 1999; Wheal, 2002).

Since 2002, the Care Leavers’ Association has been actively publicising the needs of adult care leavers in accessing their files. We have also been helping adult care leavers with individual access to files issues. We have produced our own guide on the subject, which is available FREE to care leavers. Visit the Access to Records section for more information. We have a good deal of expertise in the field and use it for the benefit of as many adult care leavers as we can.

2. Care Leavers and Mental Health

In recent years, the mental health of children in care has been the subject of increasing concern. For example, a study by McCann (1996) – now widely cited – argued that in the residential child care system 67% of adolescents had a classifiable mental disorder, compared to 15% of a non-care control group.  As a result, medical, social policy and governmental interest in this subject has grown (Richard and Lelliott, 2003). In short, there is belated recognition of this issue.

However, it is clearly too late to benefit many current and older care leavers. It is not surprising, therefore, that care leavers should be significantly more prone to depression in later life. Buchanan, using data from the National Child Development Study, (1999) found that being in care led to a significantly higher likelihood of depression at the age of 33. The 20% likelihood was higher than for those from any other background, including the children of single parents.

There is a limit to what our Association can do about this. However, we believe it is important to help other care leavers to be in touch with each other, to overcome the isolation that some feel, to be able to discuss their concerns and to help each other where possible. We know, from experience, how many care leavers value the opportunities we provide. We have a regular newsletter, an interactive website, regular ‘keep in touch’ events and a range of information and other opportunities for engagement with care leavers.

3. Care Leavers Making Contact

One of the needs of adult care leavers that can easily be demonstrated is to be back in contact with others from their past, those that they grew up with in care. In September 2003, the Care Leavers’ Association established the ‘Careleaversreunited‘ website, to allow care leavers to reconnect with those from their childhood that they had lost touch with. It was seen as an important way of helping them to reintegrate their lives and remove some of the sense of isolation that we know, from our experience, many care leavers suffer. Since the site was set up, nearly 4,500 people have joined. These are adults of all ages, from 18 to 88. Their stories are worth reading, as they give a clear sense of the various reasons why care leavers might want to be in touch with others from their past.

The Careleaversreunited website is the only resource of its kind in the world. Indeed, it has a global membership, with people joining it from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland. We hope to hold an event in the future to bring together as many members of the website who wish, and are able, to attend.


The above are just a few of the reasons why The Care Leavers’ Association exists. We are a serious, committed organization that is addressing these and other issues. However, for adult care leavers we are also an opportunity to get together, share ideas and experience the sense of freedom, openness and fellowship that comes from being with other care leavers. This means that we also know how to enjoy ourselves!


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