When children are deemed at risk of abuse or neglect and are removed from the family home, they are placed in out-of-home care, either with foster parents, relatives or in residential facilities. The latter is the least preferred model and is often seen as a last resort.
As the number of children in out-of-home care increases, it is concerning that the number of foster care families available to support them has not followed suit. Instead, every year, 14% of foster carers cease their caring roles.
Those who do take on foster care roles primarily do so because they want to make a difference to children. And they acknowledge the positive rewards that result, both for themselves and their own children.
But they often are not adequately supported – both financially and emotionally – to care for some of Australia’s most vulnerable children.
Supporting existing carers
Structural and demographic changes have had negative impacts on the potential pool of foster carers. Women’s increased participation in the workforce and an ageing population create demands for other care activities, such as elderly parents. The need for women to contribute to family finances, along with the increasing complexity of children’s needs, has meant women are less available and less able to stay at home to care for foster children.
Foster carers cease fostering due to a combination of factors, including life events such as moving or divorce. But the most common reason cited across research studies is a lack of confidence and professional support in managing children’s challenging behaviours. This can put immense stress and strain upon families.
Many children in care have complex needs and have been affected by trauma, which requires highly skilled responses. Recent research has emphasised the importance of quality parenting in the early years to promote sound brain development and secure attachment formation. Children can sustain long-term damage if they remain in situations of abuse, or suffer continual separations and change through “foster care drift”.
Many young people who leave the care system experience a range of poor outcomes and ongoing disadvantage. This includes unemployment, homelessness, mental health issues and substance abuse. We need to ensure that children in care receive quality support that meets their needs.
Responding effectively to children in care requires comprehensive training and improved and ongoing support to carers to provide a more therapeutic environment. From the available evidence foster carers say they need: emotional support from professionals and peers; access to crisis support; respite from caring; respect and acknowledgement of the role; and adequate remuneration for medical and other costs.
Attracting new carers
A recent study by University of Wollongong marketing researcher Melanie Randle and colleagues explored why people do not consider fostering. Surprisingly, 40% of study participants said they didn’t know anything about foster care, and 22% said no one had ever asked them to.
For those who said they would consider fostering in future, the factors preventing them from becoming carers related to the extent and quality of communications between the agency and the individual. This suggests the benefit of clearly communicating information, such as what is involved in fostering, the types of people eligible to become foster carers, and the level of support offered by foster care agencies.
The same study also indicated that people who would consider fostering in the future were younger, more likely to have children of their own and more likely to be female. Although foster carers are likely to be couples in relationships, the female in the household was more likely to consider and initiate the foster caring.
The study authors argue that improved and tailored marketing strategies may attract new carers. However, attracting carers is one part of the equation: keeping the ones we have is also critical. This will require the provision of adequate ongoing support and more appropriate compensation that reflects the skills required to care children with complex needs.
Time for change?
Australian foster carers receive a relatively small payment as a partial subsidy for the expenses they incur in meeting the children’s needs. But in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, some carers are paid in recognition of the qualifications and skills required to care for children who have experienced trauma and have complex needs.
In Australia, the debate has so far been limited, although some carers engaged with for-profit services receive extra payments that recognise the skills and expertise required to care for traumatised, abused and neglected children. Maybe the time has come to acknowledge that the current model of foster care is no longer sustainable and to frame foster care as a professional career.
It may be a surprise that most children are returned home to their families after a period in care. Australia’s child protection system focuses on reunifying children with their birth parents, with most children and young people in care being placed in foster care or kinship placements.
There is also an emphasis on children in care having contact with their birth parents. The National Standards for Out of Home Care state that children need to maintain relationships with significant others, including birth parents, siblings or other family members, in order to maintain a sense of identify and sense of place in the world.
Clearly, the most effective method to deal with these issues in care and protection is to reduce the numbers of children in care. There is increased attention to implementing prevention and early intervention programs. These aim to better support parents in caring for children and to build supports around children to support their safety and well-being.
However, we must also invest in our foster carers to support those children who do enter care, to improve outcomes for those within and exiting the child protection system.
The author wishes to acknowledge Erin Barry, Communication Coordinator at Australian Catholic University’s Institute of Child Protection Studies, who helped prepare this article.
This is the seventh part of The Conversation’s series on Child Protection in Australia. Click on the links below to read the other instalments:
- Abuse and neglect: Australia’s child protection ‘crisis’
- Infographic: a snapshot of Australia’s child protection services
- Risky business: how protection workers decide to remove children from their parents
- We all have a role in protecting children: end the silence on abuse
- We remove kids from abuse and neglect, but are they better off in the long run?
- Complex trauma: how abuse and neglect can have life-long effects
- Empowering Indigenous communities to prevent child abuse and neglect
- Child protection: how to keep vulnerable kids with their families