"Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable," according to the late US author Mark Twain. This is why when reading research or looking at data, I treat them with some trepidation.
Scottish Government statistics about children and young people living in and leaving care, released this week, are no different. Stats only tell us so much, and particularly when the subject matter is complicated, they should be used with caution.
At first glance, there seems little change from last year. 15,317 children are 'looked after' in Scotland, slightly fewer than last year. The proportions living with foster carers, in residential accommodation, at home with their birth parent(s), and in kinship care (with friends and relatives) appear largely unchanged.
But if we look more closely, the stats pose some interesting questions about how the looked after system is evolving:
Taking these issues together highlights the need for good quality support for families and communities, as this is where many of our children are living.
In 2015 new legislation came into effect for 'care leavers' (those who cease to be 'looked after' when or after they turn 16). One important change saw eligibility for aftercare support (including transition to independence) extended up to an individual's 26th birthday. These stats take account of this, explaining why there is a sharp increase in numbers eligible for aftercare (from 3,599 young people last year, to 4,602 now).
There are other positives within these stats too – such as increased numbers of young people going to university, and homelessness dropping. What concerns me however are the gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the circumstances of many of our care leavers.
Beyond the 'eligibility to aftercare services' number, the largest increase in the stats is young people in the 'not known' or 'not receiving a service' categories. This makes it difficult for us to understand how things are actually working for them, in terms of housing, health and education or employment. What does it tell us when so many aged 19 plus are included in the stats as 'eligible for aftercare', but marked as 'not receiving a service'? It would be interesting to know how many young people requested aftercare services, and were found not to have eligible needs.
The stats tell us messages about how the Scottish Government's Staying Put 2013 approach, advocating for a smooth transition for care experienced young people into adulthood at the right time for them, is translating into practice. There are small but encouraging increases in numbers of young people leaving care to live with former foster carers, or in residential care. Experiences and life chances are much more positive for young people when they are supported, enabled and empowered to remain in stable care placements for longer. It is concerning therefore that the numbers of 15 and 16 year olds leaving care for their own tenancies have increased.
These figures provide some insight into how Scotland's population of looked after children is changing over time. But it's only a snapshot. More data and contextual information is required if we really want to scratch beneath the surface of the issues, and begin to understand what will improve outcomes for our looked after children. The devil may be in the details, but it's in those details that we'll start to move from questions, to some answers.