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.