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We remove kids from abuse and neglect, but are they better off in the long run?

People who have been in care are more likely to have children at an early age and are at greater risk of having their own child taken into care. Mika Heittola/Shutterstock

Most people reasonably assume there is evidence of good long-term outcomes for children who come into contact with child protection systems. Why else would we intervene in the lives of children and their families, and spend many billions of dollars, if not to ensure children are better off when we assist them?

Unfortunately, we don’t know.

Not all children who have contact with the child protection system end up in short- or long-term care. In 2013, there were 135,000 children receiving some form of child protection service in Australia. 50,000 of these were “in care”. Let’s focus on the latter group.

Not only do we need to understand the long-term outcomes for these children, we need to know how their families and communities fare. Indigenous children, for instance, do not live in isolation – their outcomes are intrinsically related to the outcomes for their families and communities.

There are no better examples of this link than the evidence seared into our national consciousness from various Australian Senate reports:

  • the appalling outcomes for children, parents, families and communities of the removal of Aboriginal children (the Stolen Generation);
  • the generally abysmal outcomes for the 500,000 children who were placed in care in Australia (Forgotten Australians);
  • the plight of so many child migrants who came alone to our shores;
  • the outcomes of the historic forced adoption of children; and
  • the emerging findings of the current Royal Commission about the traumatic experiences of so many children placed in care.

The problems identified in these reports testify to terrible outcomes of what were, by all accounts, well-intentioned policies aimed at protecting children. These reports amplify the calls for reforms by care leavers, families, communities and care providers and inform what Griffith University Professor of Social Work Claire Tilbury calls “the global search for improving outcomes” for children in care.

Australia is active in establishing high-quality standards and practices for children who are not able to be cared for in their birth families. Despite the attention to this important issue, and volumes of work attesting to the importance of measuring performance and outcomes of children in care, problems remain obvious. A recent Uniting Care report states:

Young people leaving care or who have left care are over-represented in the statistics on homelessness, early school leaving and contact with the criminal justice system. They are also more likely to have children at an early age and are at greater risk of having their own child taken into care.

A 2007 review of the studies on outcomes for children and young people in care across Australian jurisdictions show children in care are more likely to have “negative outcomes” compared with children not in care. These reports echo international observations and are represented in the United Kingdom’s Looking after Children Project report:

Generally children in care continue to have poorer outcomes than the wider population – particularly in relation to educational achievement, homelessness and mental health.

Children in care have already experienced disadvantages and traumas that leave them vulnerable. Removal from parents and families is often traumatic. Unarguably, some report doing well in care. Others report a litany of problems that serve only to increase their original vulnerability.

There’s no doubt we need to develop evidence-based policies and practices to reduce the number of children brought into care and provide the best outcomes for children who are in care. So why do we have such limited evidence of children’s long-term outcomes in care?

Undoubtedly there are many reasons. It may be because, as a community, we accept we have an obligation to rescue children who have been harmed or are at risk of harm and we don’t need evidence to justify this other than the guarantee of immediate safety. In other words, immediate safety is the primary outcome measure.

Additionally, the call for evidence of outcomes in relation to a lot of community service interventions is quite recent.

Finally, research in these areas has not been a priority. It is costly and difficult and longitudinal studies that take a look at longer-term outcomes are notoriously tough to justify, plan and conduct.

Internationally there are many examples of research focused on outcomes for children in care that demonstrate care can increase their original vulnerability.

Australia is at the forefront of research focused on children in care and the outcomes of that care. A large and exciting longitudinal study on children in care has been underway since 2011 in New South Wales; its first report is imminent. And there is an innovative five-year research project underway in Victoria on young people’s outcomes after they leave care.

These represent vitally important and timely projects, and incorporate what are called “multiple data sources”: they include information from children, young people, their families and other carers. It’s imperative that we listen to the voices of all of those who have experienced state care.

Additionally, other organisations such as CREATE, which is dedicated to supporting the highest standards for children in care, continue to be active in monitoring quality and outcomes.

While we know a lot in this area, we don’t have sufficient evidence to show that children who are abused or neglected and their families are better off when we intervene to protect them. But watch this space.

This is the fifth part of The Conversation’s series on Child Protection in Australia. Click on the links below to read the other instalments:

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