Young people who aged out of State care at 18 have said that accommodation and supports should be available up to age 26 to prevent care leavers falling into homelessness and unemployment.

Over 500 young people leave foster or residential care each year and required to enroll in education to qualify for allowances. But anecdotal evidence suggests that large numbers drop out.

This September, Munster Technological University will pilot a project on its Cork and Kerry campuses aimed at supporting students from care backgrounds.

Danielle McGarry from Dún Laoghaire will always remember her 18th birthday. It is the day she went from being under the care of the State to independent adulthood, something she says she was not ready for.

"On my 18th birthday I was sitting in Dún Laoghaire dole office with my after-care worker because I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college," she told RTÉ's This Week.

Danielle believes there is pressure on care leavers to progress to further education in order to qualify for a weekly allowance to help with education costs. "At 18 you don’t know what you want to do," said Danielle.

According to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, there are 5,900 children in foster or residential care. A further 2,200 young adults aged 18-22 receive after-care services. Figures provided to This Week show that of these, 1,697 (69%) are enrolled in further education or accredited training and 511 (30%) in college or university.

Tusla does not keep exact records of graduations.

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Terry Dignan, who has long experience working with children in care, says many are poorly prepared to transition to further education.

"They don't have the family support and safety net that other young people have within their families."

Mr Dignan said that children who are moved between different care settings have disrupted secondary education and are intimidated by the college experience.

"Children placed in care are traumatised. The very fact of being taken away from your family, whatever the reasons are, is traumatic," he told This Week.

Mr Dignan is critical of the pressure on care leavers to select a course in order to qualify for the State allowance of €300 a week.

After spending her teenage years in State care, Danielle McGarry completed post-Leaving Cert courses, but dropped out of a UCD access course. Now a mother and after-school teacher, she has ambitions to further her career and believes supports, advice and accommodation should be available to care-leavers on a voluntary basis up to the age of 26.

"Up until the age of 26 would be a great year," she said. "I think there should be an opt-in opt-out option. You should be able to pick up the phone and ring your after-care worker and say something has come up, can you give me assistance."

After ageing out of foster care, Sarah O'Brien enrolled in IT Tralee, mainly to get her after-care allowance.

"I felt I was in the wrong course and that it wasn’t my thing," Sarah told This Week. "I decided I was going to leave after the first year. Pat McGarty, one of the lecturers, said 'give me a shout' before you go."

Sarah made contact with Mr McGarty, was offered career guidance and took time off before retuning to complete her course.

"If he wasn’t there I’d be gone," she said, adding that she later won an award coming top of her class. Sarah now works in a social care job that she loves.

"I feel now that I could pursue anything really," she said.

This September, Munster Technological University in conjunction with EPIC will pilot a project supporting any adult who spent time in foster care, residential care, or other arrangements outside the family.

"While successive government policy has focused on eradicating educational disadvantage, research has consistently highlighted that young people with care experience have lower educational attainment and progress through education than other socio-economically disadvantaged students," a statement from MTU and EPIC stated.

Both Danielle McGarry and Sarah O’Brien believe that in order to progress to higher education, care leavers require stable accommodation.

Sarah and her three siblings were taken into care when they were very young. After they reached 18, all four struggled with finding a stable place to live.

"It went on for years and years just trying to secure a home and the fear of ending up in homeless services. My brother did end up in homeless services," said Sarah.

Danielle McGarry also had a brush with homelessness.

"I’d say 90% of young people in there (homeless facility) were from the care system, and the system had failed them. If you’re brought up in this system and fall through the cracks you’re falling into the same situation as your family. It is sad to see. I was lucky enough I had the courage to walk away from that life."

Terry Dignan is also concerned about the outsourcing of care to private companies who are profit-driven. He said children deserve the best possible care, and as 'corporate parents', the State should be "less corporate and more parent".

Tusla confirmed to This Week that at the end of February 2021, there were 411 children under 18 years in general residential care. Of these, 279 (68%) were in placements with private providers. In Ireland, there are 36 statutory children’s residential services, 26 voluntary, 104 private and 3 special care centres.