Children in out-of-home care

The online version of Hot Topics 81: Child care and protectionwas updated in February 2015. The update includes changes made to the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1988 and the Adoption Act 2000 which came into effect on 29 October 2014.

Removing children from their family in a transfer of parental responsibility to the Minister is the most serious form of intervention the State can take, and is increasingly a measure of ‘last resort’.

There are several reasons for this move being a last resort: the recognition that children need connection with their families of origin, and the evidence that many children return there even after some years in care; an acknowledgment that being in out-of-home care does not ensure positive outcomes for children; and a severe shortage of carers.

Only a small proportion of children who are the subject of a substantiated allegation of child abuse or neglect are found to be ‘in need of care and protection’, necessitating a court order, and even fewer are removed from their homes or have parental responsibility transferred from their parents.

What is out-of-home care?

When children enter out-of-home care, they are most likely to placed in relative or kinship care (55.8% of children in NSW compared with 47.9% across Australia) or in foster care (40.7% of children in NSW compared with 42.6% across Australia). Relative care means that children live with a member of their family or kinship group; this is often a grandparent, aunt/uncle or older sibling, or for Aboriginal children, another person in their kinship group (When Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children and young people require out-of-home care placements, these placements must be consistent with the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander placement principles (section 13 of the Act)). Foster care means that the child is living with ‘foster parent(s) who are offered a foster allowance from a government or non-government organisation for the care of a child (excluding children in family group homes)’ (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child protection Australia 2012-2013, Table A28, p. 99).

The number of children placed with relatives has increased over the last few decades for several reasons. Relative care fits with the importance of children maintaining connections with their families. It is also pragmatic – there is a shortage of foster carers which makes it difficult to find suitable placements for children in need of care. It also has particular advantages for Indigenous children and is consistent with traditional practices of caring for children within their kinship groups. While there are benefits for children living with relatives, there are also concerns that relative carers are not always properly assessed for their capacity to look after the children or given adequate support to help them do so. Many relative carers are grandmothers who are older, single and not well-off, especially in Aboriginal communities; they are often called on to care for young children with little financial and practical support.

Few children in NSW or in Australia now live in residential care – in marked contrast with the period up to 1970s. In 1961, for example, the figure was closer to 46%. Only 2.8% of children and young people in NSW are in group homes or residential care – and only 5.5% across Australia. This is lower than in other countries such as England (12% in 2012) and the USA (15% in 2011). The strong shift from residential care to family-based placements such as foster and relative care in the 1970s and 1980s occurred across the Western world, as a result of the increasing cost, the recognition of children’s needs for relationships and the exposure of abuse in many institutions and children’s homes.

How old are children when they enter care?

Nearly half the children (48.8%) who enter care in NSW are under the age of 5 years, and of those, 22.2% are under the age of 12 months. Just over 1 in 5 children (22.9%) are aged 5-9 years, and similarly 19.8% are aged 10-14 years. A relatively small number (234) but still substantial (8.5%) enter care aged 15-17 years.

How long do children stay in care?

For many children who enter care, their stay in care is short-lived and intended to be so. This is in line with the principle that children should so far as possible remain within their families, and return to their families as soon as circumstances have changed to allow them to return safely and to be cared for adequately. This is also consistent with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Where returning children to live with their parents or within their extended family is not a realistic option, the aim is to place children in a permanent ‘home’ or placement, hopefully though not often enough, with a family that can become a ‘family for life’. A significant number of children and young people remain in care until they are 18 – and ‘age out of care’ when they become adults at age 18. Over a third of children (37.3%) discharged from care during the 2012-13 year in NSW had been in care for four or more years; 21.8% had been in care for eight or more years.

In other countries such as the UK and US, adoption is encouraged as the preferred option for children who cannot return home. In Australia, adoption by carers is much less common and under-used but new policies and legislation are encouraging more adoptions. See Child Protection Amendment Act 2014. Only 89 children across Australia were adopted by 'known carers' in the year 2013-14. There are several possible explanations for why the adoption rate for children from care in Australia is very low. First, severing legal ties with the biological family is seen as inappropriate – especially within Indigenous communities, and given the history of the ‘stolen generations’. In many cases, children are in the care of relatives and adoption by a relative is neither necessary nor appropriate when the child remains in the same extended family. Secondly, it takes considerable time and skills to process the adoption and take it through the Supreme Court and this is difficult for many workers and time consuming, especially if the parents are not contactable or not willing or able to give consent.

In NSW, the Director-General may invite an authorised carer of a child who is in out-of-home care to adopt the child they are caring for. A birth parent who does not give their consent to adoption will be given the opportunity to participate in the development of an adoption plan. If parents of a child who is in out-of-home care give their consent to an adoption , consideration may be given to their wishes they express about the prefered background, beliefs, domestic relationship or living arrangements of the prospective adoptive parents.

How do children fare in out-of-home care?

Children in care face a number of difficulties, generally the most significant being their separation from their parents and family members. For some children, their time in out-of-home care is spent in a long-term stable placement, and this may become ‘home’ for them. A number of children who feel safe and secure in their foster home or with relatives do quite well in care but a considerable number who experience a series of ‘broken’ placements – numerous workers, changes of school, and little contact with their parents, siblings and other relatives – do not do as well.

When children in care are compared with children in the general community who are not in care, as a group they are significantly behind in their school performance and educational achievements, and their emotional well-being and physical and mental health are often significantly poorer. The reasons why children in care do more poorly than other children are complex and relate to their experiences – before they enter care, and also to some extent to their in-care experience and lack of emotional security in care. Key factors for successful outcomes are a stable placement and one where children feel they belong.

Leaving care

The risks for children and young people in out-of-home care continue beyond childhood and their time in care. Young people who may have had little continuity or stability in out-of-home care are often discharged from care at the age of 16 or 18, with little financial and social support, and with poor prospects for employment and good stable accommodation. By contrast, many young people in the general population living with their parents now often remain at home until they are in their mid-20s, and they may leave and return several times before they finally live independently. While increasing expectations of government suggest that parents be responsible for their children’s post-secondary education fees and living expenses into their twenties, there is minimal support from governments to assist the young people for whom the State has assumed guardianship to make their transition to independent adulthood. Young people leaving care as a group have low levels of educational attainment and high rates of unemployment, mobility, homelessness, financial difficulty, loneliness and physical and mental health problems.

Hot Tip: Pathways of Care study

An important large-scale longitudinal study that will follow children entering out-of-home care for the first time on orders is being conducted in New South Wales. Community Services, along with the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Chapin Hall, and an independent agency I-View is conducting the study. For more information visit the Community Services website.