Leaving care

A child can be taken into social care for many different reasons; it may be that they have been abused or neglected by their birth parents, or their family may be struggling to cope in a difficult circumstance. Whatever the reason, going to a children's home or into foster care is undoubtedly a life changing event.

The number of times a child moves around in the care system can affect both their education and quality of life, as can a turbulent relationship with caregivers. Psychologically, these events can have a lasting effect, making care leavers more likely to be unemployed and suffer from mental illness.

For some, leaving the safety net of the care system can be incredibly daunting and, in some instances, further support may be required. On this page we'll look at the effects leaving care can have on mental health and what support is available to those leaving the care system.

Who is a care leaver?

A care leaver is someone who was in the care system (this could include foster care, adoption or social services) and is now leaving it. The amount of support someone receives after they leave care will depend on the young person's status at the time of leaving. More information about this can be found in the Children Leaving Care Act 2000.

The following terms should help you understand your status as a care leaver:

Eligible child

An eligible child is someone aged 16-17 who has been in care for at least 13 weeks since the age of 14 and is still currently in care.

Relevant child

A relevant child is someone aged 16-17 who has been in care for at least 13 weeks since the age of 14 and has left care. This includes young people who were detained when they turned 16 (e.g. in a youth offending institution) and were then immediately taken into care.

Former relevant child

A former relevant child is someone over the age of 18 who was previously relevant or eligible. Local authorities should support these people until they turn 21, or longer if they are in education or training.

Qualifying child

A qualifying child is someone under the age of 21 (or 24 if in education/training) who has not been in care since they turned 16. This includes young people who are under a special guardianship order.

Returning home

Your status as a care leaver can also change if you decide to leave care and return home to your birth family. For example, even if you fit the criteria as a relevant child, if you have lived with your birth family for a continuous six-month period, you will no longer be a relevant child. If this arrangement ceases before you turn 18 however, you would once again be considered a relevant child.

Care leavers and mental health

Concern regarding the mental health of children in care has been steadily building ever since a study in 1996 by McCann et al. revealed that 67% of adolescents in the residential care system had a classifiable mental disorder, compared to just 15% of those in a non-care control group.

Further studies show that care leavers are significantly more prone to depression in later life and are overall four times more likely to have a mental health disorder. The reasons for this are incredibly complex, but it is safe to assume that an unstable upbringing, trust issues and moving around so much have a part to play.

For some, going into care can lead to abandonment issues. You may feel as though you weren't 'good' enough to stay with your birth family, leading to low self-esteem. For others, forming a stable relationship can become difficult and trust issues may develop. A combination of these factors and other personal/genetic/environmental factors can all lead to the development of mental health problems including depression and anxiety.

Care leaver statistics

According to the Care Matters: Time for Change report issued by the Department for Education and Skills, a young person leaving care is:

  • four times more likely to develop a mental health disorder
  • three times more likely to be convicted (or cautioned) of an offence
  • five times less likely to achieve five good GCSE's
  • eight times more likely to get excluded from school
  • less likely to go to university.

Another worrying statistic is that an estimated 30% of homeless people are care leavers. It is thought by some that this could be due to a lack of support and planning for the young person when they left the care system. According to a 2014 study conducted by children's charity Barnardo's, the biggest fear among care leavers is ending up homeless. 

Adjusting to life outside of care

For the majority of people who grew up with their birth parents, when they leave home, they have a link to continual support. If they ever need a place to stay, career advice or even an extra £50 to keep them going until payday - chances are they'll have a family member or two they can call on.

For those leaving the care system however - this is rarely the case. Instead, many care leavers find themselves entering the world of adulthood having to rely on themselves alone.

If education and/or social skills have suffered during the time spent in care, finding work could prove difficult. With limited financial income this increases the care leaver's chance of drug abuse and homelessness. 

Support for care leavers

Local authorities are taking the issues of leaving care more seriously these days and there are systems in place to help those leaving care. Incoming legislation means that children can no longer be moved from supported to unsupported living without thorough checks taking place. This means if a 16 year-old in foster care wants to stay in care, they cannot be ejected from the system.

A 'pathway plan' will be developed for anyone leaving care to ensure they have the necessary skills they need to adjust to adult life - this could include anything from preparing for interviews to cooking meals and washing their clothes.

In some cases, teenagers may develop a bond with their foster parents and not wish to leave at 16 - this is now an option. Those who live in residential homes are less likely to want to stay after turning 16, however the government is planning to do some research to see if any would like the option to stay on.

Leaving care teams

Each local council should have leaving care teams to help those leaving care. This is likely to be made up of specialists from different areas including accommodation, employment and mental health. These teams are responsible for giving advice, support and even financial assistance to care leavers.

Within this team should be a personal adviser. The Children Leaving Care Act 2000 introduced the personal adviser role to help with the transition between care and independent living. Your adviser will be the person responsible for helping you develop a pathway plan which will help you prepare for life away from care services. You should be able to keep in touch with your personal adviser after you leave the care system.

Overall the council must support you until you turn 21 - or until you are 24 if you are studying full time. At age 16 you should be given a plan to help you make the transition from care to independent living. At 18 you can leave care if you decide you're ready. Up until you turn 21 (or 24 if in education) you will continue to receive support and advice from the council.

To find out more about what you're entitled to and what your local authority should be doing for you as a care leaver, read the statutory guidance and regulations, which is called 'Planning Transition to Adulthood for Care Leavers.'

What issues can arise?

For some people, the support and advice they receive from the council is enough to help them move on and start a new life outside of care with no issue. For others however, the experience of growing up in care may affect them psychologically - and for these people, the transition may not be so simple. In these cases, talking therapies such as counselling can prove helpful.

As everyone is different, there is no definitive list of issues that arise from a life in care, however the following are thought to be some of the most common:


Some young people may experience abuse before they enter care - this may be the reason for them being placed away from their birth family. Being abused physically or emotionally can stay with you long after the abuse stops. For many, speaking about these issues with a qualified counsellor can help them deal with the residual feelings.


Drug and alcohol addiction can affect anyone, but those leaving care may find themselves particularly vulnerable. Depending on the severity of the addiction, physical and emotional support may be required to help control the addiction.

Anger management

Anger can be a prevalent emotion for those in care - they may feel angry with their birth family, angry with their carers - or even angry with themselves. Dealing with anger issues in a calm environment can help to lower stress levels, improve mental well-being and may even help you maintain employment.


While a certain amount of anxiety is expected with those leaving care, feeling constantly anxious could be a sign that you're worries require more attention. Finding out the cause of your anxiety and practicing relaxation techniques can be immensely helpful - a counsellor could help you with this.


Children in the care system are likely to socialise with children outside of the care system on a regular basis. In some cases this could lead to a feeling of isolation and the child in care may even be bullied for being 'different'. Speaking to a professional about this could help you to understand why the bully does what they do and may help you to deal with them in the right way.


Feelings of rejection, isolation and low self-esteem can all lead a care leaver to develop depression. If this happens, the earlier you seek help, the better. Speaking to a qualified counsellor can help you get to the root of your depression and help you to devise methods of coping. In some instances you may be recommended a course of antidepressants to lessen your symptoms.

Low self-confidence / Low self-esteem

Growing up in care can cause people to develop low self-esteem or low self-confidence. This can hinder your personal and/or professional potential when you leave care. For some people, talking to someone completely unbiased can help you understand why you feel that way and how you can change that perception.

Relationship issues

Growing up without a stable family unit can lead some people to develop relationship issues later in life. It may be that you feel you can't trust people, or perhaps you are afraid to connect with someone for fear of abandonment. If you feel your past is affecting your current relationships, speaking to a relationship counsellor could help.

When should I seek counselling?

When it comes to counselling there is no 'right' time for care leavers to seek help and there is no age limit. You may have just left care and feel you could do with some emotional support, or you may have left care many years ago. Reaching out for further support can help you address any problems you may have (these could be to do with leaving care, or they may be completely unrelated) and offers you the time and space to explore them.

What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?

Whilst there are currently no official rules or regulations in place that stipulate what level of training a care leaver counsellor needs, it is recommended that you check to see if your therapist is experienced in this area. While some aspects of counselling remain the same regardless of age/situation, there are certain issues relating to care leavers that may require an alternative approach.

A Diploma level qualification (or equivalent) in youth counselling or a related topic will provide assurance and peace of mind that your counsellor has developed the necessary skills.

Another way to assure they have undergone this type of specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation representing youth/care leaver counsellors.

Further help

  • GOV.UK - Leaving Foster or Local Authority Care 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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