Executive summary

For many care leavers the path to adulthood and independence can be tough, and some risk becoming amongst the most socially and economically excluded young people in society. Having said this it is important not to view care leavers as a group “doomed to failure”, but rather as individuals who may have more challenges to overcome and who can nonetheless, with the right supports, thrive. To overcome the challenges, care leavers need time and space, akin to their peers who grew up with their family, to successfully transition from care. They need ongoing supports and services, in many cases until well into adulthood, tailored to meet their different needs.

This report provides a comprehensive overview of OECD countries’ policy settings and aftercare supports for care leavers to identify promising approaches based on evidence of what works to improve their outcomes. The objective is to promote cross-country learning, help strengthen the international evidence base and support countries to improve the outcomes of the young people leaving their care.

Reliable and comparative data on children in care and care leavers are limited. On average, children in out-of-home care across the 26 OECD countries for which data was available for this report represented 0.8% of 0-17 year-olds. While this may appear modest, it translates to 1.1 million children in care in 2019 and if the proportion was the same across all OECD countries, roughly 2.3 million children would have been in some type of out-of-home care in 2019. The share of minors who are placed in care at some point during their childhood or teenage years is considerably higher. Estimates in the literature suggest for example that 3% of children in Denmark are placed into care at some point before they turn 18, a share three times as large as the share of minors in care in the country in 2019.

There is a paucity of administrative data about care leavers. We know that as a group they typically suffer poorer outcomes such as being less likely to be in education or employment, care leavers are over-represented amongst the homeless population and have higher incarceration and suicide rates. Important questions remain, however, about what aftercare services young people access, the uptake of extended care, what barriers to uptake there are and most importantly what supports are making the greatest positive difference because data is not collected or not available.

The evidence base about what works is growing. For example, there is increasing evidence that care leavers who stay in care longer achieve better outcomes. Young people should be moving out of care when they are well prepared and ready to leave, with preparation and planning for that transition starting early and with the full involvement of the young person. The evidence tells us that stable care should be part of a holistic package of formal and informal supports determined by a comprehensive and individualised assessment of care leavers’ needs. Ideally, supports should be based on a strong legislative mandate and sufficiently detailed policy and procedures.

There has been significant policy reform across many countries in recent years, based on a better understanding of the needs of specific groups of care leavers. Reforms have also resulted from the need to respond to the impact of COVID-19, for example, several countries took measures to ensure that care leavers were not discharged from care during the pandemic. As can be seen from the good practice examples in this report, some countries are taking increasingly innovative and evidence-informed approaches. For example, while the legal age at which care leavers must exit care in all OECD countries included in this report is 18, the majority of countries (28 of 30) let young people remain in the care system beyond age 18. It is important to note from the outset that countries interpret remaining in the care system in different ways, including: permitting young people to remain in care placements beyond the age of 18 and/or providing a range of after-care supports. Twenty-two countries have a legislative framework that sets out minimum levels of support for care leavers.

Three-quarters of OECD countries undertake some form of transition planning with care leavers, in many cases involving the young people in the development of those plans. In 28 countries, young people are entitled to aftercare supports ranging from financial and housing supports to mentoring. Countries who provided information about more specialised services such as mental or other health and well-being supports, typically referenced it as part of a holistic package of supports, identified through the planning process. Two-thirds of OECD countries advised they have a mentoring system in place to support care leavers, again often provided as part of a broader package of supports.

Despite the progress made there is still much more that can be done and the report concludes with directions for reform, based on evidence both from the literature and from what countries are learning through their own experiences. Critically, the reform most likely to improve outcomes for young care leavers is to raise the legal care leaving age to 21, putting the right supports (in which care leavers have had a say) in place. Enshrining reforms in specific care leaving legislation will further increase the likelihood of success. Finally, countries could work together to strengthen the international evidence base about what works to support care leavers successfully transition from care, including improving data quality and availability, and encouraging more cross-country research on critical and common questions.


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