Early deaths among care leavers revealed

By George Greenwood
BBC Freedom of Information researcher

Image caption,
Daniel found it hard to adjust after leaving care

Young people who have grown up in care are far more likely to die in early adulthood than other young people, Freedom of Information figures reveal.

They show 90 people who left care in England between 2012 and 2016 died in the years when they would have turned 19, 20 or 21.

Care leavers make up 1% of the population at these ages, but make up around 7% of the deaths.

The government says it is investing £10m in support for those leaving care.

While an exact comparison is difficult, the official figures, showing people who left care between 2012 and 2016, indicate they are roughly seven times more likely to die when they are aged from 18 to 21 than other young people of a similar age.

An inability to access physical and mental healthcare has been cited by care leavers as key contributory factors.

One young man described being "palmed off with pills" when he tried to get mental health support.

'It was the road to nowhere'

Image caption,
Colin became reliant on drugs after leaving care

Colin Raggett, 27, explained how, after leaving care, he became reliant on drugs.

"After care I was all alone, I was in a lot of debt, and I was constantly going out trying to make money, committing crimes to fund my drug habit."

He made several suicide attempts and during his last attempt, it was a chance intervention that saved his life.

"It came to the stage when I was stood on a train track one day. And I was spotted by my mental health worker, who completely by chance was also at the station, waiting to get on another train."

His mental health worker raised the alarm to save him.

"The police were there, the fire brigade, ambulances, they closed the line off... It was the road to nowhere. And they were like 'He's got to go in for some psychiatric care.'"

When Colin had reached out for help in the past, he felt it was not forthcoming.

"They were putting me on one drug to try and get me off the drugs I was already on. They tried to put me on Ritalin, and I then got addicted to that.

"I felt they were just trying to palm me off. They just said you will be fine. Just take this pill, just take that pill."

It was the lack of a holistic approach to care leavers that posed the biggest problem for Colin. He resolved this by making contact with The Prince's Trust, a charity that works with vulnerable young people.

These figures from the Department for Education could be an underestimate - as investigations into untimely deaths might not identify that someone was formerly in social care.

"Coroners will not be provided with the care status of a young person whose untimely death they are investigating," says Alice Frank, manager of the National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum at social enterprise Catch 22.

"Those care leavers who die while out of contact with their councils will not be reported to those councils, and the young person's care status will not be recorded in their death certificate."

Around 500 care leavers are recorded as refusing contact with their local authorities, according to Department for Education statistics.

Losing contact

One care worker, speaking anonymously, explained what this meant in practice.

"We had dealt with the case of one young man, who despite having a history of depression, seemed to be on track at the age of 21.

"As was correct, his case was closed, and we ceased contact with him. However, unfortunately, his life went downhill after that.

"He turned to drink and drugs, and did not receive proper mental health care. He committed suicide at the age of 23.

"We found out that he had died, by complete chance. We recognised his picture in the local paper when it ran a story announcing his death. It was quite a shock."

Keeping a routine after years of disruption can be difficult for care leavers. An inability to manage their own affairs often leaves these young people vulnerable.

'Reality hits you quite harshly'

Another young man who had a fortunate escape was Daniel Lee-Grabowski.

Daniel, now 24 and a student at the University of the Arts London, found it difficult to stay healthy and organised after leaving the care of Surrey Council.

"Reality hits you quite harshly when you turn 18. You are not really prepared to move out into the real world in the right way.

"When I moved out into my own flat, I was left with bills and I didn't know basic things like that you had to pay to watch television. I couldn't even use a washing machine.

"These are things you just don't get told. If you have a family they would be able to show you what compartment to put the powder in. But I didn't have any of that."

Daniel was kept on on track by an apprenticeship with Surrey Council, which he says gave him a purpose, an income and the support of his colleagues.

What do the government say?

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "We are committed to improving the lives of care leavers and giving them the support they need as they make their way into adulthood.

"That's why we are investing nearly £10m over the next four years in improving mental health support for looked-after young people in secure children's homes, and are changing the law so local authorities have to promote the physical and mental health of children in care."

Councillor Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, said: "It is disappointing that this report treats care leavers as a homogenous group, taking no account of factors such as their individual life experiences, their age at coming into care or the amount of support that councils were able to provide.

"Research shows that the stability provided by carers can help children to achieve consistently better results at school when compared to children living with their families while receiving social work support, particularly when that care started early."