Children in care and care leavers

A child or young person is in care, or ‘looked after’, if they live with foster parents, in a residential children’s home, or in a residential setting such as a school or secure unit.

They may have been placed in care for many reasons. These can include:

  • if there is significant risk of harm in the home
  • if their parents are unable to care for them
  • if they have complex needs and could benefit from respite care
  • if they are an unaccompanied asylum seeker.

Vulnerability to exploitation

Children in care and care leavers are a particularly vulnerable group. They may have experienced abuse, neglect and trauma. This can lead to significant emotional, behavioural and mental health needs, putting them at increased risk of being groomed or exploited by people offering them the attention, affection or support that they have struggled to find elsewhere. Indeed, care homes are often targeted by people seeking to exploit the vulnerabilities of these children.

Moving between care placements, or in and out of care, can further impact a child’s emotional and mental wellbeing, and can prevent them from developing stable and protective relationships with trusted adults.

Socialising with peers from similar backgrounds (who may be experiencing emotional or behavioural difficulties), can reduce children’s ability to establish positive, pro-social peer relationships. Their relationships with others may instead become characterised by abuse, violence and exploitation.

Children in care are more likely to go missing. During this time they are at greater risk of experiencing abuse, grooming and exploitation.

The experiences of being in care can continue to impact on children and young people after they have left the care system, especially if the transition into family or adult life is challenging and if the support they receive is unable to meet their needs.

Care leavers are often required to become independent at a younger age than their peers, with many leaving care when they are 16-18 years old. They may be expected to become responsible for finding housing, employment and study opportunities without the support networks available to many other young adults. This transition can be challenging and stressful, difficulties increased by past childhood trauma. Employment, housing and financial difficulties and feelings of isolation and exclusion can make care leavers particularly vulnerable to exploitation.