Based in Merseyside, NYAS supports children in care and provides a lifeline for young people leaving the care system who have no support network. It is asking businesses to support its work. Tony McDonough reports
Many of us take our family support networks for granted but for most of the 10,000 young people in the UK who leave the care system every year, those networks simply don’t exist.
And the result of that, according to Paula Hanford who is head of fundraising at the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS), up to 86% of care-leavers will experience anxiety and loneliness.
In December, Paula addressed an audience of business leaders at an event organised by Mersey Maritime and asked for their support for a pilot project that aims to provide a support net for people leaving care and trying to make their way in the world as young adults
Wirral-based NYAS operates across the UK. It’s ethos is all about “standing up for children and young people’s rights, making sure their voices are heard and that they get the help and support they need”.
At any given time across the UK there are 90,000 children in care. NYAS provides advocacy, as well as help, advice and support, for children in the care system and young people who have left. It utilises a network of volunteers who act as long-term friends and mentors to the young people.
Paula explained: “Every adult in the life of a child in care is there because they are paid to be there. Our volunteers are not paid to be there. They are there to build up a relationship with them, to go on days out, and they will be in their lives for a long time.
“We often here talk about children ‘running away’ from the care system. A lot of the time that isn’t true. They are not running away, they are returning to familiar places, to people they have known. We speak to them and try to find out more about the challenges they are facing.”
The charity also provides advocacy for children involved in access and custody cases when the focus is often on the needs and wants of the parents. Paula added: “When parents are in conflict we are there to represent the interests of the child – to make sure they have a voice.”
NYAS currently has five different programmes on the go. One of those is a pilot project in Wirral called Side by Side which aims to support young people leaving the care system and helping them make the often difficult transition to living as independent adults.
“When I left home I had a full family support network – I could pick up the phone and ring my mum any time,” said Paula. “Young people leaving care don’t have access to those networks.
During the pandemic, NYAS appealed for volunteers in Wirral for the Side by Side programme and were delighted that 50 people came forward. Following checks and training there are now 23 volunteers helping young care-leavers across the borough.
So far, the programme is helping to transform the lives of 12 young people and NYAS is now aiming to roll it out to other parts of the North West in the next 12 months. It is asking businesses to support its work.
Each young person is matched with a volunteer mentor. They get to choose who their mentor will be and are offered a choice from three suggestions. They are also given a £500 skills and interests bursary, offered access to a helpline at evenings and weekends and can themselves train to become peer mentors.
Paula told the story of one young person, Katie (not her real name), who found herself in the care system unexpectedly when was 15 after her mum died. Paula said: “What she went through would be traumatic for any young person.
“When we caught up with her after she had left the care system she had been too afraid to leave her flat for 10 months. She could not even open the front door. Her boyfriend had to go out and get everything for her.
“She picked her volunteer. It was a 65-year-old retired woman who reminded Katie of her mother. She was able to persuade Katie to venture into the garden and then to the corner shop. Now Katie is taking regular trips into town. That has been a huge step for Katie and it is all thanks to the fantastic relationship she has with her mentor.
“We have another young person who is now writing about her experiences of living in the care system. She wants to give something back to help other young people. This is what the Side by Side programme is all about. There is a desperate need for support for care-leavers who are making the transition to adult life.”
According to research cited by NYAS, 61% of care-leavers have been diagnosed with depression or suffer with other mental health issues, 39% are not in education, employment or training and 25% of homeless people and the adult prison population have direct experience of the care sector.
It is appealing for businesses to support this vital work. There are a number of ways they can do that. It could be through fundraising activities for the charity or sponsoring a £500 bursary for a young person. Businesses who want to support NYAS can find out more by logging on to www.nyas.net