Out of care, into college: ‘The cards are stacked against you’

Students leaving State care for university are at higher risk of dropping out or falling into homelessness

As third-level students return to Irish campuses, it’s a time of hope, expectation and anticipation for most. But for hundreds of students leaving the State’s care system at the age of 18, higher education can also be a time of worry and dread.

“Care leavers” are young people who spent some, or all, of their childhood in the care of the State. The length of time or reason why it was needed are as diverse as the people themselves. There are almost 6,000 children in care in Ireland.

When it comes to higher education, they face a unique set of challenges. Care leavers are confronted with adult responsibilities as soon as they turn 18 – all urgent and requiring immediate attention. Privileges that most Irish children take for granted are simply not available to them. In the absence of family support, many drop out. Research shows they are at a far higher risk of falling into homelessness or unemployment than others.

One care leaver recalls being in a “really difficult position” when she turned 18 during her Leaving Cert year.

“I was told by my foster mother, ‘You’re going to have to find someone else to drive you to your Leaving Cert.’ It was such an extra worry to have. How am I going to get to the building to actually sit my exams?”

When a care leaver turns 18, they can apply for an aftercare allowance. This involves a weekly grant of €300 and access to an aftercare worker. It lasts roughly until they complete their education.

The reality – based on interviews with five care leavers – is that these supports are often patchy, dependent on social worker caseloads, or where you live in the country.

The simple act of failing an exam can – in some cases – result in a care-leaver's grant being completely cut

Rory Brown, a soon-to-be primary school teacher graduating from Mary Immaculate College, said: "It is a geographical lottery… You could go to one area and have great aftercare workers who work their socks off and make sure that everyone is absolutely perfect.

“And they’re able to do that because they might have only two or three people to work with… But in other areas, the same person could have 20 or 30 to go through.”

For education, the aftercare allowance can open doors, though the detail puts extraordinary pressure on its recipients. For one thing, they cannot change course; if they do, it must be within a department. They cannot take a gap year, or defer a year during a course.

The simple act of failing an exam can – in some cases – result in a care-leaver’s grant being completely cut if it means having to repeat in September.

Angelika Majer, a community and youth work masters student at Maynooth University, says: "Going into exams you have the added stress of, 'If I fail this, I have nothing. I have nothing to turn to. I have nowhere to go' … All these different stresses that you just don't think about as a normal student."

Since the support finishes after care leavers graduate, many of the people I spoke to felt they had to pick a degree that would provide immediate employment prospects.

For care leavers, it seems, their destiny is etched into age milestones that they must reach whether they are ready or not.

Epic (Empowering People in Care) is an independent, national advocacy organisation that works with children in care and care leavers. Part of Epic’s work focuses on bridging the gap in policy and practice that results in care leavers facing such huge challenges when turning 18.

Marissa Ryan, Epic’s chief executive, highlights other difficult aspects of the current policy. She notes that summer holidays can result in students becoming temporarily homeless or needing to couch surf when campus accommodation finishes, as many cannot fall back on family to support them.

While juggling this, after turning 18, many care leavers find themselves confronted by the trauma of their childhood, causing them to struggle with their mental health, which may affect their aftercare allowance if they suffer academically.

The provision of support on campus varies. Rory felt the small campus of Mary Immaculate College was well placed to provide him with the support he needed.

“Throughout the four years, the access office has been very good to me in terms of support or even just general advice. It is easier to go find that support compared to a bigger college where you can get lost in the crowd,” he says.

These experiences are common among care leavers in Irish universities. Epic recently made a submission to the Higher Education Authority which seeks more data collection on educational attainment of children in care to allow better analysis and policy making, the provision of homework clubs, along with "wraparound" supports where needs such as accommodation and mental health services are linked to education support.

Aftercare allowances should not be directly linked to academic progression and last until the young person is 26

They recommend that successful local projects in the Cork Life Centre and Munster Technological University be implemented nationally.

Epic also wants care leavers to be seen as a specific cohort needing tailored support, in a similar way to groups such as Travellers or mature students.

Besides this, Epic and the young people I spoke to believe that aftercare allowances should not be directly linked to academic progression and last until the young person is 26.

This is to reduce the risk of falling into long-term unemployment or homelessness, both of which are unfortunately common among care leavers.

The word “ad hoc” was used by a number of people I spoke to when describing care-leaver supports in third-level institutions. Munster Technological University, however, in partnership with Epic, has taken a step to formalise a pilot project that will be implemented this year on their Cork and Kerry campuses.

Lecturer Dr Patrick McGarty will be leading the project on the Kerry campus. Based on international best practice, it will involve care leavers being paired up with a member of staff. They will meet weekly to discuss their progress, signpost to services, and serve as an advocate if required.

As Epic’s Higher Education Authority submission reaches the hands of decision makers, its young people hope that when they write new policies, they will remember the people behind them.

One care-leaver’s story: ‘I ended up homeless for a year of college’

Eve Shields, philosophy student at NUI Galway

“I really could have done with a gap year. I have epilepsy and it’s stress-induced. So when I left care, I actually started to get seizures because I was so stressed.

“I fell into homelessness and lived for a whole year in a youth service in Galway. I had to go into my first year of NUI Galway extremely depressed, and living in homeless accommodation.

“Within aftercare, they give you a form every three months to ensure that you are going to college.

“But with NUI Galway being a massive campus, that was a horrible ordeal that I had to go through every three months. Because I was doing a joint bachelor’s, I had to go to three different departments and expose to three of my lecturers that I was in care.

“There is always going to be an underlying element, that you’re never going to make a care experience wonderful.

"But with processes like aftercare, it's so easy to make it easier for someone. If you look at Scotland or Sweden, they have commendable ways in which they leave care. It's so rushed here. There's not enough emphasis placed on the person. It's more just placed on policy.

“I’m in a really, really good place now with my health and my mental health, but sometimes I look back on it and I’m like how the hell did I get through that?

“And even though I had the cards stacked against me, I’m really happy now that I’ve chosen philosophy and I’ve actually planned to go on and do a PhD after my masters.

“When I look back, I don’t really know how I got through, but it’s just determination and perseverance.”