Can permanent care provide a solution for the troubled child protection system?

Long-term stable foster placements can achieve similar outcomes to permanent care placements. Shutterstock

Victorian child protection law reforms due to come into effect next month will give parents two years from when a child is removed to demonstrate that the child should be returned to their care. Failure to do so will result in parents permanently losing custody.

Given the history of the forced removal of children in Australia, terminating parental rights is often viewed with suspicion. Any push in this direction may therefore be a concern for some people.

With the Victorian law reforms likely to increase the rates at which parental rights are terminated, it is timely to consider what the evidence has to tell us.

Resourcing and vulnerability

For many people, a lack of resources and access to services underpins the removal of children. There is a dearth of early intervention services aimed at assisting parents to retain care of their children. Programs such as parenting classes, anger-management classes and psychological therapies more broadly often have long wait times in the public sector.

Similarly, there is a dearth of services available for birth parents seeking to address the behaviours that led to the removal their children. The lack of such services therefore impacts the likelihood of reunification.

And it is the most vulnerable families who are potentially impacted by the lack of services. Child removal rates tend to be skewed towards particular groups of people, particularly Indigenous and/or lower socioeconomic families.

Foster care vs permanent care: the evidence

For children who are removed from their birth parents, there are two main options available. The most common is some form of foster care, either short term (in the context of reunification plans) or long term (if reunification is not viable). A second option is some form of permanent care.

A substantive review comparing long-term foster care and adoption (as one form of permanent care) found that differences between the two are not as stark as is often thought.

True, the likelihood of a placement ending, for example, remains higher in foster care than adoption. However, rates of placement termination in long-term foster care have reduced.

Differences in outcomes are often related to the age of the child. Children who are placed into care when they are older are more likely to experience placement disruptions and to exhibit poor outcomes, whether they are fostered or adopted.

It is fair to say, then, that long-term stable foster placements can achieve similar outcomes to other forms of permanent care. Importantly, when long-term foster placements fail to achieve the goal of permanency and stability, the problem is often one of resourcing.

Available models

In Victoria, legal reforms will give priority to permanent care for providing stability for children who cannot return to their birth parents.

In the case of permanent care, ongoing financial support is possible and contact with birth families is encouraged and supported. While legal guardianship transfers to the permanent care parent(s), this does not mean a change of name or birth certificate for the child. Given concerns about identity in the context of adoption, the latter is important.

Of course, the cynic might suggest that permanent care frees the state from financial obligations to a certain degree, and that an increase in permanent care orders will also reduce the high number of children in out-of-home care.

Given alarm is frequently expressed about the rates of children on care and protection orders, shifting children onto permanent care orders may give the appearance that the core issues have been resolved. Without sufficient resourcing, however, this will not change the key problems that lead to high removal rates in the first place.

Whatever the intentions behind the move towards increasing permanent care orders in Victoria, and there may be many, child protection policies must always serve the best interests of children, both now (to achieve permanency) and into the future (to have connections where possible with their birth families).

Certainly, the evidence suggests that well resourced long-term foster care can meet the needs of many children who cannot live with their birth parents. However, permanent care offers another option in a child protection system that is under-resourced and which must focus on children’s need for stability.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly claimed the Victorian law reforms were likely to result in children being placed for adoption, rather than being placed in permanent care. This has been corrected and has resulted in changes to the headline and several paragraphs.

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