Care leavers are being significantly affected by cost of living, ITV News' Lucy Watson reports
Taking the huge step into adulthood, for Victoria Odude, after a scarred childhood and a life in care, has been beyond challenging.
“It’s been really, really hard. It does feel like the drop off an end of a cliff when you turn 18.
"You’re expected to know so much and you really don’t know anything at all.“
Victoria is 23 now but was in the care system from the age of 11.
She was moved from foster carers, to children's homes, to secure units, to psychiatric units, to semi-independent housing for seven years of her life.
Then at 18, she had to leave - like most do - and fend for herself. She told me that it has been very, very difficult and her mental health has really suffered. "I guess the first thing for me was having to decide between eating or putting on my gas and my electric," she said.
"It's been harder with the cost of living to rely on yourself because you don't have much. You've got no furniture, you've got a budget to stick to, you’ve got to buy all your white goods.
"It's very hard to juggle all these things without breaking, and if you break you feel like you’ve failed again.”
She does have a job but after her monthly bills and necessities are all paid for, she often has just £10-15 left, sometimes nothing at all.
"You think what other ways can I get money," she said.
"The temptation to do dangerous things or be with dangerous people does become a lot more. I guess I just try and think of the consequences of that and that keeps me on track."
Her life outside the care system is simply not what she thought.
She had high hopes of being an adult, leaving care homes and no longer feeling institutionalised but the reality is a lonely, daunting one.
She has ambitions just like any other young person but feels unable to achieve them.
"Is this how you imagined life would be at 23?" I asked.
"No, I thought I'd be driving a car, going on holidays," she replied.
"I thought I'd have a big friendship group. It's hard, especially as I can't just pop over to my mum's house or go anywhere for some comfort. It's hard that this is what it is and that's it."
Across the country, the care leaver experience is a shared one.
65% of care leavers are being significantly affected by cost of living. Nearly half (45%) are struggling to buy food.
64% are now in debt since last year, and three-quarters say their mental health has been affected.
Care leavers between the ages of 18 and 21 receive support from their leaving care team, and this can be extended up to the age of 25. But with the cost-of-living crisis, the practical and emotional support that can be provided is stretched.
I also met Jade Barnett who’s words echoed those of Victoria’s. “I feel like I'm not able to live like a normal, young person," she said.
Jade is 22 and has three jobs to earn enough money to get by.
She often starts her day at 4am packing bags at a supermarket. I met her after her shift and asked her how she was coping financially.
She explained that she feels like she’s “just about living.”
“I've got to a point now where I’ve looked at my list of outgoings so many times and there is nothing more I can take off."
Jade similarly left care at 18, having lived in homes across London, Birmingham and in Blackpool, from the age of 15. Since leaving, she's felt abandoned, with very little support.
"The adult world is scary," she told me.
"As the local authority you're meant to be our corporate parent. A parent wouldn't just tell their kid at 18, pack your bags, you're out.
"It's not like that so why should we be treated any differently."
When Jade works, she has to wrap up warm. Her utilities cost her £1,700 a month. Her income is £1,800.
Jade tries to keep her costs down. But she's had to grow up fast.
"There are bills you have to pay that I never knew you had to pay, like TV licence or how to check a boiler or set up water, or pay for water," she said.
"I never knew how to do those things. Having the cost of living pressure on you as well is like a tonne of bricks just hitting you all over again."
“Why is it so challenging for a care leaver?” I asked her.
The reply was simple. “It's just me, there's no extra, external people pitching in here and there. It's literally just me."
Exiting the care system and moving towards a life of independence is meant to be liberating.
But, for many it is isolating, and they feel deserted by the state.
“I feel upset, I feel angry. I want us to care and actually do something.” That’s what the Children's Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza told me.
She thinks the government should extend support for all care leavers until they're 25.
“We need to make sure these young people are supported right through. It shouldn't just stop at 18," she added.
So, I asked her if that was a very real suggestion, making it to 25, and she replied: “Yes, we shouldn't be thinking about minimum standards, we should be thinking about this could be my child.
"We are the parent, and we need to do for these young people what we would do for our own."
Become Charity's Chief Executive Katharine Sacks-Jones told ITV News that it's challenging for care leavers as they have far less benefits given to them at the age of 18.
"They get less financial support in terms of benefits because they are younger, they get a lower rate of benefits. We have young people coming to us every week really struggling, making difficult decisions - young people are struggling to afford the essentials, and we are worried that that going into this new year, it's only going to get worse." Ms Sacks-Jones also expressed her wider concerns for the cost-of-living crisis making more children enter the care system.
"We will see more families struggling and more children going into care, in an already overwhelmed care system." She added the effect of this will be more instability for children moving into adulthood, "without considerable investment, significant reform, it means more children moved at short notice and moved halfway across the country away from their friends and schools".
The Department for Work and Pensions were not prepared to give us ministerial comment on this report.
But they did give us this statement: "It is vital we support care leavers as they transition to leading independent lives which is why every job centre across the UK has a member of staff trained to help this group.
"This support was strengthened last year with tailored measures worth £172 million designed to ensure care leavers can access practical housing, employment, and financial advice.
"We offer further assistance through our Household Support Fund, distributed by councils who are best placed to assess local need.
"Since the Fund's introduction more than £1.2 billion has been provided for councils to help vulnerable people, with a further £842 million investment due from April 2023.
"The Government has also directly helped millions of households with £1,200 in direct payments, with more on the way in 2023, whilst our Energy Price Guarantee is saving the typical household £900 this winter."
Victoria and Jade wanted to talk to ITV News by way of making a difference.
They want other care leavers to have better experiences than theirs. They want improvements. They want care.
Despite the challenges of their childhood, the struggles of their teenage years and the stark reality of confronting adulthood without a support network, these women have enormous hope and drive for their future.
They are remarkable.
We have several organisations to thank for helping us cover this story and introducing us to Victoria and Jade, who’s ambition and way of approaching life post-care must never be underestimated.
Catch 22’s National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum did the research, and Becomecharity.org.uk worked with us in understanding the issue.
All are campaigning for a better future for care leavers, as is the Children’s Commissioner, and the government’s review of the care system is expected by the end of the month. Rachel told me: “You get politicians moving by the nation wanting something.”
Surely, we all want this for the vulnerable young people in our society.
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