Extending the benefits of foster and kinship care

picture of Penny Wright

By Guardian Penny Wright

In South Australia, there are currently 3418 children and young people in foster or kinship care. This represents 85 per cent of children in care.

The benefits of family-based environments for children or young people who cannot live with their own family are well-known. They can provide a stable, safe and secure home where young people experience positive relationships with parental figures and, at their best, feel loved and nurtured.

In addition, kinship care can allow the child or young person to maintain their connections to family, community and culture. Conserving this connection to community, culture and spiritual identity is especially important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people.

This podcast from Radio National, ‘A Portrait of a Foster Family,’ captures beautifully the joy and challenges of offering kids a home…

For many years, a young person’s 18th birthday has meant an end to most of the support available to them, with the end of payments for their carer or foster parent. Frequently this has meant leaving the home they have known, although some foster and kinship carers continue to offer and provide care if they are able.

Very few young people in Australia face complete independence and an end to care and support on their 18th birthday.  It seems harsh and illogical that we currently have systems that treat young people who have lived in care so differently from those who have grown up with their own families. What might this feel like? We get a sense in this short video of Keira’s Story.

Advocates (including those from our Office) have long been calling on governments to extend support beyond 18 and now a national campaign, ‘HomeStretch’, is working to raise the age of leaving care across Australia. Last month, a symposium in Sydney brought together policy developers, service providers and academics to explore what extending care until 21 across Australia could look like.

According to Home Stretch, within one year of leaving care at 18, 50 per cent of young people will find themselves unemployed, homeless, in jail or a new parent. There is clear evidence that extending care until 21 provides vulnerable young people with extra security as they enter the workforce or further education and pave their way into adulthood. Deloitte Access Economics presented the findings from their Victorian study into the costs and benefits of extending the age of care to 21 and found extensive savings for government in housing supports, justice costs and those relating to alcohol and other drugs, welfare and hospital funding (with better outcomes in mental and physical health, employment, education, social and civic connectedness and a reduction in intergenerational disadvantage).

I attended the symposium and can see that the shift to extending care until 21 for all young people in care would be life changing.

Thankfully, in January of this year, the South Australian government introduced the Stability in Family Based Care program which extended foster/kinship carer support payments for some young people up to the age of 21. Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia have also started to take some action on this.

So far, of about 65 eligible young people in South Australia, 17 have accessed the program. A further four young people yet to turn 18 have been referred to the program and more than 100 are set to become eligible over the next three years.

This is a welcome development in South Australia but currently this option only applies to young people in foster and kinship care. At this stage there is no similar provision for young people living in residential care who often approach their 18th birthday with trepidation, uncertainty and anxiety as they face an end to the structures, support and relationships they have known up to that point.

Extending care for those in foster and kinship care is an important step but we must ensure the remaining young people in our state’s care system are not left behind.

In the words of the campaign, #letsfinishwhatwestarted and #makeit21.

Connecting Foster & Kinship Carers’ first birthday – 20 years on

Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers’ CEO, Fiona Endacott

Twenty years ago Connecting Foster Carers was a small self-help group of carers who met to exchange support and information in each other’s homes. Recently, Connecting Foster & Kinship Carers – SA celebrated it’s first year as a funded Carer Advocacy Service with it’s own offices and paid staff.

In her 2016 report The Life They Deserve Commissioner Margaret Nyland heard the calls from foster and kinship carers for an organisation that could advocate for them and her recommendation for a funded body was supported by the government.

‘Winning the funding meant we could expand what we do but we are still very much a grass roots organisation that focusses on the realities of carers,’ said Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers – SA Chief Executive Officer Fiona Endacott.

‘Carers can call us on our 1800 number seven days a week and if we are not there we guarantee to call back within 48 hours.  We provide helpful advice and support and, if it is needed, we advocate with and for them within the Out of Home Care system.

‘It’s important that we advocate firmly and respectfully so that we get matters resolved but also maintain good relationships with stakeholders within the system so we can work with them in the future.

‘Sometimes being a carer can be very isolating and the best thing we can do is to connect a carer with somebody in our Peer Support Network who understands what it means to be a carer and share their experiences.

‘The other important need for foster and kinship carers is information that is reliable and presented in a way that is useful to them.  We provide some basic information on our website but where we see a need we develop specific packages around important topics and run morning teas where we invite guests from government and non-government organisations to talk with carers.

‘We survey our members, now more than 800, every year.  In our last survey, understanding and managing children’s behaviour and helping young people to reach their potential were the top two issues.

‘Family based care provided by foster and kinship carers is still by far the best option for children who come into state care but each month the number of calls we get increases and so does the complexity of the matters that carers raise.

‘There is clearly still a lot of work for all of us to do,’ concluded Fiona.

You can find out more at the CF&KC-SA website, become a member or follow them on Facebook.

Email at [email protected] or phone 1800 732 272.

Security and stability of placement dominates requests for advocacy

picture of suitcase

The Guardian’s Office received a record 96 in-mandate[1] requests for advocacy in the first quarter of the new year, representing 127 children and young people.

This was an increase of 35 per cent in inquiries and a 24 percent increase in the number of children represented compared to the preceding quarter.

Last year the Office averaged 64 in-mandate requests per quarter.  This follows the trend of an increase in the number of requests for advocacy and in the complexity of the issues raised.

The top five people who initiated in-mandate requests in July-September 2018 were:

Adults in the child’s life                                  42

Children and young people themselves      33

Department for Child Protection staff          10

Health, education and youth justice              5

Non-government organisations                     3

The top five presenting issues (by inquiry)[2] were:

Stability and security of placement              29

Safety                                                                21

Participation in decision making                   18

Contact with significant others                      15

Appropriate care                                               24

These are also the top five issues identified in the Guardian’s 2017-18 Annual Report and substantially the same as those reported in previous years.

The 33 children and young people who requested advocacy directly were in the following care arrangements:

Residential care                                             16

Adelaide Youth Training Centre                     5

Relative care                                                    4

Foster care                                                       2

Commercial (emergency) care                       2

Unknown                                                          4

 

[1] The Guardian is mandated by legislation to promote the interests of children and young people below the age of 18 years who are living in out-of-home care.  Another 17 inquiries were determined to be not within the Guardian’s mandate and those callers were assisted to make contact with a more appropriate organisation.

[2] Young people often present with multiple, interrelated issues.  Presenting issues are counted as primary and secondary and these are added to achieve the numbers reported.

Should we extend the age of leaving state care beyond 18?

picture of girl on jettyMany communities are questioning whether young people leaving state care at their 18th birthday are fully equipped to take on all of the demands of adult life.  Birth families often provide emotional and practical support to their offspring well beyond their teens.

One solution proposed has been to extend the age of leaving care beyond the current 18 years.  Does this deserve serious consideration in South Australia? Please contribute to the conversation via the Guardian’s 30-second poll.


Take me to the poll

We will post the results next week.

Working together for children in care

photo of Penny Wright

Penny Wright Guardian for Children and Young People in Care

When the state takes over the parenting of a child, that parent has many faces, many hands and, hopefully, many hearts.

Pointing the way to a new and better child protection system, Commissioner Margaret Nyland wrote in her preface to The Life They Deserve

The new agency cannot operate in isolation. It should coordinate and collaborate with all other relevant departments and organisations, both government and non-government, to give children better outcomes.  It must also be proactive and engage the community to play its part in developing programs and systems…

Many of the good things we see happening for children in state care, and we do see many good things happening in our work, happen when the hearts and the hands of adults come together to recognise and understand a child’s needs and stay together to work through to a good outcome.  The joy for the child, but also for the adults, is palpable.  It is one of the reasons we do the work we do.

Sadly, some of the worst results we see for children are when people and organisations fail to work together closely and respectfully in the child’s interests.

Our recent survey of the state of cooperation and collaboration in child protection asked respondents to rate levels of cooperation and collaboration.   We chose 19 different relationships drawn from those identified in the work of Commissioner Nyland as being crucial to an effective child protection system.  In analysing the results, we applied the standard that cooperation and collaboration should occur either ‘frequently’ or ‘always’.  By that standard only one of those critical relationships was scored as achieving a pass mark by 30 percent of the respondents.  Most of the others were scored much lower and many were in single figures.   There were two areas that had improved since an identical survey conducted in June 2017 but it’s fair to say the improvements were small and were from a very low base.  Allowing for the limitations of the survey, it is clear that respondents thought that we are still far short of Commissioner Nyland’s ideal.

Just as useful for me, were many of the comments.  There were a few heartening stories of good and effective cooperation but there were many more of key stakeholders being omitted from case planning and decision making and important information remaining unshared.  Many attributed the failures to workload issues but others referred to organisational culture, policy and training.

My office observed a sample of the Annual Reviews of young people in state care over a period of ten years to 2017.  Annual reviews have been long mandated in the Department for Child Protection, and its earlier incarnations, in order to review the situation of each child and young person in state care.  It is a time to reflect and review and plan for the child’s future outside of the day to day pressures. It is a time to place a child at the very centre of thinking and caring. Annual Reviews occurred for up to 80 per cent of children in care in most years but attendance at the planning sessions by other than social workers and supervisors was rare.  In our report Office of the Guardian Audits of Annual Reviews 2007- 2017 we summarised:

Most offices have, over the 10 years of these audits, conducted annual reviews with only Department staff present with carers represented occasionally and birth parents and other professionals very much the exception.

If, as Margaret Nyland concluded, cooperation and collaboration are essential to an effective child protection system then major cultural and practice change is essential.  I look forward to supporting and contributing to such relationships, as my office grows into its new roles.

A place to call home for children in state care – home-based care

house and heart graaphic

31 January 2017

One of the greatest issues facing us when we remove children from their birth families is finding safe, stable and nurturing homes in which they can live.

In this three-part article we look at the problems identified in Commissioner Nyland’s October 2016 report and the Government’s response in December.

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You can also download this article as a PDF.

 In South Australia, children are cared for under three main systems, home based care  (which includes foster care and kinship care), residential care and emergency care. 

Home-based care

In this article, we will look at home-based care; what Commissioner Nyland recommended in her and how the Government is responding.

Foster care

Home-based care is thought by most authorities and researchers to be the best option for most of the children placed into state care. In recent years, however, the supply of families willing to foster children has not been able to keep up with the increasing numbers coming into care.  Changes in society in Australia and in similar countries around the world have meant that there are fewer families willing or able to foster children.

In her report, Commissioner Nyland was persuaded  that the poor treatment of foster carers by staff of the then Families SA, lack of clarity about roles and a lack of support for foster carers have dissuaded families continuing or becoming foster carers.

Commissioner Nyland made a range of recommendations designed to improve the skills, remuneration, support, rights and voice of foster carers, most of which were accepted or accepted in-principle by the Government in December 2016. These are the major changes.

  • Induction training for foster carers is to be changed to include material on managing trauma-related behaviours and on the types of support available (R112) and will include input from agency staff, children and existing carers in foster carers (R113). For consistency, all foster carer training will be co-ordinated by the Child and Family Welfare Association (R125).
  • Advocacy organisation Connecting Foster Carers will be funded to provide advocacy services for foster carers (R115) and to develop new materials making clear foster carers’ rights (R116).
  • A system for resolving carer complaints will be set up (R127) and there will be a revised process within the Department to ensure that proper consideration is given to the removal of children from long-term placements, though this is not the independent panel that Commissioner Nyland recommended (R118).
  • The right of approved carers to have access to information about the children they care for will be guaranteed in the new child safety legislation (R98).
  • The role of the NGOs that provide support for carers will be clarified (R115) and those organisations will be reimbursed more consistently (R115). The Child and Family Welfare Association will be contracted to coordinate respite services for carers (R126).
  • Placements that are at risk or under stress will be guaranteed access to therapeutic support (R84).
  • The Government has also supported a number of recommendations leading to a more flexible tiered model of foster care. Remuneration rates and structures will be reviewed (R119).  Foster carers will be able to change support agencies (R121) and to develop their skills and increase remuneration (R120) in line with the changing needs of the children they care for.
  • Pre-empting the formal response, a handbook documenting carers support payments has been produced and is publicly available (R123).

Kinship care

Kinship care has grown rapidly in recent years and it was popular within Families SA because it promised an alternative to the declining numbers of foster placements available. It also offered the opportunity for children to maintain family connections, including recognising the significance of cultural connections for Aboriginal children coming into care.

As Commissioner Nyland revealed, though, the rush into kinship care has meant a lack of careful screening of many care placements and the lack of ongoing support to kinship carers once placements are started. Many children placed under fast-track interim registration processes have not had their situations reviewed. The result has been an increase in unsuitable and, at times, unsafe placements and increased numbers of placement breakdowns.

The breakdown of home-based placements is not just a numerical problem for the system. Each breakdown represents a significant crisis in the life of children who are frequently already traumatised.

  • The Government has accepted the need for a complete overhaul and expansion of kinship care assessment processes, resources and tools to improve speed and efficiency of their response (R104,R105,R106). As part of this, there will be developed or purchased a new tool to assess the safety and appropriateness of prospective kinship placements (R103).
  • A backlog team is promised within the Department to review the placements of children who were placed under interim registration processes and not reviewed within the required three-month period (R109).
  • The Government has not accepted the recommendation to outsource to NGOs kinship care recruitment and support as is done with foster care, keeping it within the Department instead (R102).

The full paper A place to call home for children in state care is available for download.

A quality care environment – home-based care

4 October, 2016

Themes from Nyland  #5

house and heart graphicThe team from the Guardian’s office have analysed the 850 pages and 260 recommendations from The life they deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report[1].  We have extracted some themes and priorities to allow us to critique the government’s response, judge the improvements over time and to shape our own work.  Following is a description of the issues and a short list of things to watch for in the reform process.  The first four in the series are available.[2] We will post the rest of the series over the next few weeks. 3 

Commissioner Nyland placed developing home-based care at the centre of reforming out-of-home-care.  Emergency care, she said, should be short term and reserved for genuine emergencies only and residential care should be only for those children for whom home-based care was not viable.

Developing the number of home-based care placements is a key aim for a reformed child protection system. When children are removed from abusive or neglectful families they need quality, nurturing, consistent environments to help them heal.

About 80 percent of children under the guardianship of the Minister are currently cared for in home-based care arrangements, divided roughly equally between those cared for by foster carers and those cared for by family or kin.

Commissioner Nyland found to be credible foster carers’ reports about problems which included:

  • feeling that they were were not valued by Families SA staff
  • feeling that their role and contribution was not acknowledged
  • the persistent threat of arbitrary removal of children, especially if they raised issues
  • insufficient remuneration.

She identified other problems which included:

  • carers receiving insufficient information about the history and issues that a child might be facing prior to placement
  • a lack of support, including respite, in time of difficulty in a placement which could, in many cases, prevent placement breakdown.

She also noted that there seemed to be a lack of clarity about the respective roles and responsibilities of carers and Families SA in the parenting of children.

The Commission is satisfied that if recruitment and retention of home-based carers is to improve, a shift in the way they are treated is essential.

Commissioner Nyland noted that the recent growth in home-based care had been mainly in the area of kinship care.  She noted that Families SA favoured placing children with kin but that this had not been matched by the development of an assessment, training  and review process for kinship carers and appropriate regulatory arrangements.

The likelihood that kinship carers enter the caring arrangement at greater social disadvantage, with less training, and potentially more complicated family relationships to negotiate, highlights the need to provide a more, rather than less, rigorous assessment and support program.

In many cases, assessment of the suitability of provisional kinship carers had not been conducted within the required three months leaving children vulnerable.  She recommended

…amending the Family and Community Services Act 1972 (SA) to ensure that the registration and monitoring requirements apply to both foster parents and kinship carers for a child who is under the guardianship, or in the custody of, the Minister.

And

Kinship care regulation should be reformed and the assessment processes for kinship care should be brought into line with foster care.

Commissioner Nyland suggested that the difficulties in recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of safe and appropriate foster care placements would not be easily resolved.  Some possibilities involved developing a model in which potential foster carers could be offered a variety of roles, levels of skill development and remuneration to meet the needs of different children.  She was not convinced of the need to move to a full professionalisation of the current voluntary foster care model but advised keeping alert for workable solutions from other jurisdictions.

As reform progresses we look forward to seeing:

A thorough review and changes to the way foster carers and the new Department cooperate to provide the best care to children including:

  • legislation to improve access for foster carers to information related to caring for the children in their care
  • formal clarification and promotion of the respective roles of foster carers and government social workers
  • formalisation and resourcing of support, advocacy and complaint services for foster carers
  • a formal expert panel-based decision making process to consider the termination of long-term home-based care placements
  • enhancement of the initial orientation training for foster carers to include the effects and suitable responses to developmental trauma and the availability of therapeutic assistance.

An overhaul of the conduct of kinship care including:

  • an urgent program to assess and register currently unassessed kinship carers
  • alignment of the standards, processes and responsibilities for the assessment and registration for kinship carers with those applied to foster carers
  • the development of a culturally appropriate tool that captures the strengths and needs of Aboriginal families and engages potential carers to deliver better quality care.
  • a more rigorous process for the screening of kinship care placements.

Please join the discussion via the reply box leaving a name and an email address in the spaces provided.  We will remove them from the published post if you request in your reply.

1 Unless otherwise noted all quotes are from The life they deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report,

2 See also Coordination and Collaboration, The voice of the child , Emergency care and Residential care.

3 This is not intended to be a précis of Commissioner Nyland’s report which provides a very clear and readable summary.  Because of the Guardian’s mandate, our analysis will tend to focus on issues for children in out-of-home-care.