Systemic disadvantage and unrecognised resilience: Why experience of the care system should be a protected characteristic

Last week, Revolving Doors members with experience of the care system met with the Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel De’Souza to discuss why being care experienced so often leads to the revolving door of crisis and crime, and how this could be changed.

Earlier this year we responded to the Commissioner’s consultation on whether care experience should become a protected characteristic. Our members were very clear this was a step that should be pursued, not least because care leavers’ outcomes remain poor, despite their resilience and talents.

Care leavers are a group that feature prolifically in the criminal justice system, with 25% of prisoners self-identifying as care experienced. Gaps across the system allow care leavers and those currently within the care system to become marginalised, leading to entrapment in criminality.

Early failings, systemic disadvantage and low aspirations

It should shame our country that more than half (52%) of children in care have a criminal conviction by age 24 compared to 13% of children who had not been in care. 15% of looked-after children have received a custodial sentence by age 24 years, compared with 1% of children who had not been in care.

The failings endured by those with care experience start early. Abuse, neglect, and family tragedy comprise just three of the common reasons children go into care, with a sad lack of help to process these experiences.

Once in the care system the journey is often turbulent, involving multiple moves of schools and homes, with 16% of care experienced prisoners having had more than six different placements whilst in care. Looked-after children also report that teachers see their care-experience as a reason to have lower aspirations for them, such as not encouraging them to apply for university, or encouraging them to aim for higher grades.

Those who have been in care are also overrepresented amongst people experiencing homelessness.  .  It is estimated that 17% of young people leaving care who are eligible for aftercare go on to make a homeless application.

We also know that those with experience of care can face discrimination, with employers, landlords and other services providers able to use their history against them.  Our care experienced members tell us they feel they have faced prejudice because of their care background – including from potential employers and potential landlords.

Empowerment through recognition

So, what can be done?

The final report of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care headed by Josh McCallister was published in May 2022, and included the recommendation that the Government should make care experience a protected characteristic.

Although this has not been taken on by the government, 90 councils in England and Scotland have already committed to adding care experience to the list of existing protected characteristics. This means that the needs of care leavers are considered in any equality impact assessments which are made for future policies and policy changes. 

Arguing that it would not only empower care leavers to challenge discrimination, the report highlights that this might also drive organisations to adapt and understand the unique needs of this group. This could be a crucial step towards creating a more inclusive and understanding society for care leavers, helping those in the group to have their health and social care needs met and allowing them to progress through life without becoming trapped in the revolving door of crime.

We await the response to the Children’s Commissioner’s consultation and will continue advocating for the inclusion of care experience as a protected characteristic.