"For Christmas, I'll be going to stay with my mum for three or four weeks. I'll be leaving here around 16 or 17 December, and I won't come back until we've taken the decorations down. My dad will be there, too. He's a DJ so he travels a lot. He doesn't live with my mum all the time, but he's coming back for Christmas. We'll just watch telly and eat and all that; I'll get my presents. I want a surprise."
The family Christmas described to me by Karen, 17, seems normal enough. It is only later, when I speak to one of the carers in the children's home where she lives, that I find out it is largely a product of her imagination. She probably won't spend more than a day with her mother, if they see each other at all, as their relationship all but disintegrated two years ago. Presents and decorations do not seem likely, and neither does a family meal. Perhaps she gave what she thought was the "right" answer to a prying journalist - or perhaps she has convinced herself it is true. After all, constructing a fantasy must be easier than facing the reality of a Christmas without anyone who loves you.
"Christmas here can be very difficult. Sometimes they think their parents are going to turn up, and then they don't. Even if they do, they might get home and find that Christmas dinner is, you know, a tin of beans," says Jane Raby, a senior worker at a residential home run by NCH, the children's charity, for six 15- to 17-year-olds in the north west. "We have to try to manage their expectations, and give them as good a time as we can here. But it is hard." Clearly she is deeply committed to her work, as are the other members of staff I meet, and deals with Karen's outbursts firmly but with patience and warmth. But she won't be around on Christmas Day this year - she has children of her own and will be spending it with them. "You hear so many sad stories, but you have to be professional," she says. "You can't take everyone under your wing."
Even the best-adjusted person would find it difficult to get through this time of year without family, but those children and young people who actually have to do so are those who are least emotionally equipped to cope. Karen, who has learning difficulties, was fostered two years ago, when her adoptive parents split up and her mother couldn't manage her. The placement soon broke down and she became homeless, sleeping in hostels and on friends' sofas. By the time she was taken into care she had been involved with serious drugs offences and was being targeted by a paedophile ring. She looks too tough for her years, with her face set in an aggressive glare and her blonde hair scraped back into braids, yet her psychological vulnerability is only too obvious. "Don't even ask me about being adopted, because talking about it makes me want to slit my wrists and kill myself," she says at one point, in an almost matter-of-fact tone.
In the absence of any stable, constant adult presence in her life, Karen is surrounded by a continually shifting array of people who are employed to support her: she has her carers at the project, a social worker, an employment adviser, a "pathway planning" adviser, a doctor - and the list goes on. She spends much of her time playing them off against each other. "My social worker is much better than you lot," she tells Raby spitefully. Raby tells me later: "She makes an appointment with the doctor about once a week, and everyone knows her in the jobcentre. She was forever telling us that her social worker had given her permission to do something, and then we'd find out she knew nothing about it. I think she feels so out of control about her own life, that she puts a lot of energy into manipulating and controlling all of the people around her."
Lack of options
Although things are difficult, Karen is doing relatively well at the moment. The three months she has spent at the project is the longest time she has stayed in one place since she left her family home. She says bitterly that she hates it and would "rather be back at my friends' - at least there I could do what I want". However, here she has her own room, three meals a week provided by staff, and access to leisure activities such as bowling and eating out, as well as services for helping her get back into education and plan her future.
"If she really hated it so much she would have voted with her feet," says Raby. "It's very difficult to know where she'll be in a year's time - she has the capability to live an independent life, but the emotional side of her will make things very difficult. But you do get surprises all the time; some people make huge progress. All you can hope is that at some point she'll want to get motivated and get her life together."
That is the hope - but the statistics for those leaving care are far from reassuring, and put Karen's prospects in doubt. Of the 6,000 children who leave each year, a quarter of the girls are pregnant before they go, and half become single mothers within two years; Karen is already obsessed with getting pregnant. Those who have been in care make up half of all prisoners under 25, and one-third of the homeless. Next year, when she turns 18, Karen will no longer technically qualify for "children's services", and may have to leave the project whether she likes it or not. She has self-destructive tendencies, no family support network, and only a fragile grip on reality; she may never theless have to fend for herself in the adult world. Her new year, in other words, does not look promising.
The dearth of suitable options for those leaving care is the biggest frustration of the job for Jeff Moody, manager of the project. "We are lucky, because we have negotiated with the Leeds authorities that if there is no suitable provision in place for housing, young people can often stay until they are 19," he says. "But far too often children in care are pushed out too soon, and to somewhere inappropriate for their needs."
Of those who have recently left the project, Moody says, the project managed to find suitable housing for only one young man. Another returned to his family, where the relationship broke down again, and he ended up in a hostel. A third was given hostel accommodation, and has now disappeared completely. "It's a big frustration because the work is validated by people coming back and saying, I'm doing OK." Moody says that the ideal transition for most young people would be into supported accommodation - independent flats with staff on hand to help and advise. "Setting them up with practical skills is the easy one," he says. "The more difficult thing is the level of emotional vulnerability. We need to address the care and support they still need, while accepting that they aspire to be adults and take their place in society as well."
Britain's failure to provide ongoing support for young people who have been in care was a key area examined in the Care Matters green paper, which was published in October. It stated: "It is time to move away from the unhelpful idea of 'leaving care' and recognise that every young person needs continuing help to make a smooth transition to adulthood." The paper proposed a raft of measures, including allowing young people to stay with foster carers until the age of 21 or beyond, and creating bursaries for those in care who want to go on to higher education. It referred to the "shocking" statistics on the education of children in care and the widening gap in "outcomes" between those in care and other young people, arguing that care should be "a bridge to a better childhood and a better future".
Consultation on the paper is still under way, after which some recommendations may be put into practice - if money is made available. "It is not impossible for looked-after children to go on to have successful lives," says Clare Tickell, chief executive of NCH. "We're delighted that the government is taking these issues seriously. But now we just have to make sure that these proposals are backed up with proper funding and that all the good intentions are translated into action."
How long will that take? Too long for Karen who, as the green paper clunks its way through the Westminster system, will turn 18 and will be making decisions that will affect the rest of her life. The government, however, now has a chance to ensure that by next Christmas, young people in care could be looking forward to a brighter new year.
Some names have been changed
Care by numbers
60,000 children are in care at any one time
85,000 each year will spend some time in care
50% of girls leaving care are single mothers within two years
25% of girls in care become pregnant before they leave
1/3 of the homeless have been in care
50% of prisoners under the age of 25 have spent time in care
63% of children in care are there as a result of abuse
77% of residential care staff are not qualified to government standard
Research by Preeti Jha
How you can help: For more information or to make a donation, visit the NCH website: http://www.nch.org.uk