The recent Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee report into institutional and out-home care highlighted the historical failure of state authorities to protect the well-being of children and young people placed in alternative care. Many of those children who were in care prior to the 1970s have subsequently experienced significant emotional and psychological problems including psychiatric illness, depression, suicide, substance abuse, illiteracy, impaired relationship skills and marriage breakdown, and incarceration. The report noted that these poor outcomes could be attributed not only to the Dickensian brutality and deprivation of many former care homes and institutions, but also to the failure of the state to properly prepare young people for leaving care, or to support them with after care services.
It is arguable that child welfare practices and policies have significantly improved since that time. Nevertheless, little has changed regarding after care support.
Young people leaving “out-of-home” care remain very vulnerable and disadvantaged. Compared to most young people, they face particular difficulties in accessing educational, employment, housing and other developmental and transitional opportunities.
First, they have already experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect before entering care. These experiences may contribute to ongoing social and emotional disturbances, developmental delay, and significant behavioural difficulties compared to children and young people from a supportive family background.
Second, state care is often inadequate involving constant shifts of placement, carers, schools and workers and sometimes overt abuse including sexual and physical assault, and emotional abuse. Conversely, children who experience supportive and stable placements are far more likely to prosper when they leave care.
Third, care leavers can call on little, if any, direct family support or other community networks to ease their movement into independent living.
In addition to these major disadvantages, except in New South Wales, state support is abruptly withdrawn between 16-18 years of age just as those receiving care must negotiate other difficult life transitions most particularly from school to work.
In contrast, most young people still live at home till their early 20s, and continue to receive social, practical, emotional and financial support. “Leaving home” generally involves a long transition period during which young people may leave and return home again on three or more occasions. And often there is an intermediate stage between dependence and independent living during which young people may reside with extended family, or in a supportive institution such as a college or hostel.
The key factor here is the continued availability of most family homes as a “safety net” to which young people can return over a considerable period of time. It is a safety net which is unavailable to young people leaving care. Graduation from care should become a far more gradual and flexible process based on individual levels of maturity and skill development, rather than the bureaucratic criterion of age. Researchers recommend use of the term “interdependence” rather than independent living in order to reflect a notion of shared care and responsibility between young people, their families, friends, workers, and the broader community.
Poor Outcomes for Care Leavers
Research consistently depicts care leavers as being particularly disadvantaged, and having significantly reduced life chances. Studies link state care and above average levels of subsequent homelessness, drug/alcohol use/abuse, poor mental and physical health, education and employment deficits, poor social support systems, juvenile prostitution, crime and early parenthood.
These poor outcomes reflect a number of factors including on-going emotional trauma resulting from experiences of abuse and neglect prior to care, inadequate support whilst in care, abrupt transitions to adulthood, and lack of guaranteed on-going financial and other assistance to help facilitate this transition. Young people leaving care do not currently receive the ongoing support that a good parent would be expected to provide for their child.
These concerns suggest that a range of supports and services are needed to ensure improved outcomes for care leavers. They include:
- the provision of stable and supportive placements with a positive attitude to education;
- maintenance of links with either family members or community supports;
- a flexible and functional process for graduating from dependence to interdependence;
- the active involvement of young people in the leaving care planning and decision-making process;
- the availability of a range of accommodation options; and
- ongoing support as required past 18 years of age.
In summary, the state should aspire to provide not only the care of a good parent but should also try to actively compensate abused and neglected children for the disadvantages produced by their traumatic pre-care experiences. We do not dump our own children when they turn 17 or 18-years and begin the transition to independence. Yet, through the state, we are all substitute parents of those in care. How can we dump those young people? We are legally and morally bound to assist them.