FOSTER CARE AGENCIES FEAR SYSTEM WILL COLLAPSE AS NUMBERS OF WILLING FAMILIES DECLINE
Agencies say the foster care system is in crisis and could collapse within five years unless it undergoes a dramatic overhaul.
Non-government foster care agencies have told Lateline that the number of people wanting to take in foster children has declined in recent years, as has support for them.
Others say fostering is not the solution and are calling for the sensitive issue of adopting out children to be put back on the agenda.
Sandie de Wolf from Berry Street, a non-government organisation that has been running for 130 years, says the pressure on the system is enormous.
“The number of children who have been removed from their parents because they can’t live safely at home across Australia has increased by 27 per cent over the last five years, so nearly 40,000 children,” she said.
“The availability of foster carers has decreased as that number has increased. It’s really struggling.”
Forty-three per cent of foster children are under five years old and Ms de Wolf is concerned this shortage could lead to a return of babies’ and children’s homes.
She says Victoria has lost 225 foster carers – the equivalent of 15 per cent – in the past two years.
“We have a significant increase in cases and a significant decrease in foster carers available and willing to do the work. Clearly we don’t want to go back to institutions,” she said.
“But you do wonder in five years’ time, unless we look at new models of foster care, just what will the options be?”
Calls to put adoption back on agenda
One option on the table is early intervention to prevent neglect or abuse. It would also make it easier for children who have been repeatedly removed from their families to be adopted.
New South Wales is bringing in laws to make it easier for foster parents to adopt, and the Northern Territory chief minister Adam Giles has backed early, permanent intervention.
Jeremy Sammut from the Centre for Independent Studies says when it comes to intervention, the earlier the better.
“We don’t do enough to remove children early enough, so they end up having really high needs, not being able to live in a normal foster home, which encourages carers to drop out because they’re so difficult to care for,” he said.
“We’re at a point now where we’re going to start re-residentialising the care system, with professional carers, particularly mental health professionals, to look after these kids who’ve been damaged.”
The peak body for child welfare agencies agrees there is a growing shortage of foster carers, but argues against the early permanent removal of children, saying family is always preferable to foster care.
Andrew McCallum, chief executive of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies, says that removing children should be a last resort.
“I think that’s a very simplistic view, to say that actually where you see child maltreatment and neglect, the only course of action is to remove these kids,” he said.
“Yes, in some instances it is, but in many instances it’s actually better to address the causal factors because then you might have a chance of actually having these kids go on not to repeat the cycle.”
Some say the case for early intervention has been highlighted by the murder of Kiesha Weippeart by her mother.
The Department of Community Services, now known as Family and Community Services, had reported her abuse, but Kiesha remained in her mother’s care.
Dr Sammut says departments like this will not intervene.
“They’re wedded to this ideology of family preservation that ends up damaging children and puts the interests of parents before the interests of children,” he said.
Union, carers say lack of resources aggravates issue
While there is debate about when to remove at-risk children from troubled families, appropriate resources are also a concern.
The union representing government child safety employees in New South Wales says there is an acute shortage of caseworkers, which has resulted in many cases of abuse never being investigated.
Steve Turner, the spokesman for the Public Service Association, says there is a vacancy rate of up to 80 per cent or higher in some offices, and caseworkers struggle to get their work done.
“If only 40 per cent of children at risk of serious harm are getting a follow-up visit from a case worker, the state is letting children who are vulnerable in the state down,” he said.
The sector is struggling not only to find people to look after foster children, it is also unable to support the carers.
Foster carers are frustrated at the lack of financial support, especially for children who have needs greater than most due to what they have been through.
Vince Attaro has been fostering children for 12 years in Melbourne, most of them high-needs children.
“The financial support has changed completely. The payments have been cut by a third, cut completely right down,” he said.
“The young man we have now, the highest payment was a third less than for the previous foster child we had.”
Former foster child hails permanent care
Some former foster children back the view that had they been placed earlier and permanently with the same family, things would have been much easier.
Nigel, now 22, went into care when he was aged three, moving to more than 20 foster homes before he and his younger brother were placed in permanent care when he was six.
“When I went into permanent care I was starting to feel like I was actually having a family, a proper family,” he said.
“I was going to be loved and treated like a normal person, while in foster care it’s all just alienated – you’re there but you’re not really there.”
He says that moving from home to home affected his development and behaviour, and had an enormous impact on his ability to socialise with other children.
He has had years of counselling to deal with his issues and is now one of the foster system’s rare success stories.
He is studying engineering at Melbourne University and working to support himself, and plans to join the police force when he has finished studying.
Foster parents face reality of neglect in kids’ former home
Ian and Karen Dobby are foster carers of siblings who are in care for the third time in their young lives.
“They have a lot of potential, so if things work well for them, they’ll do very well,” Mr Dobby said.
“If they end up back with their family, unless the family changes what they’re doing, basically their lives will be written off.
“They’ll be welfare dependent, well-versed in police issues, it won’t do well for them. That’s the reality of life with them.”
The Dobbys realised very quickly how neglected their current foster children had been in their parents’ home.
“They had no bedding on their beds, so they’d pull a towel-type thing over them to keep themselves warm,” Ms Dobby said.
“We still find him under that little blanket he has, so we find him cold at night-time, blankets kicked off him but he’s got his little blue blanket because that’s all he was used to for so long.”
Parents like the Dobbys hope their homes can bring stability to young lives that have already seen too much.
“They want to be at home, which is fair enough,” Mr Dobby said.
“They miss their parents regardless of what went on in their family.
“They have nightmares from the interactions with their parents, so you just try to have them be in a safe environment, a place which everyone would call normal.”
But as the number of carers continues to decline, and more children are removed from their homes, what that safe, normal place will look like in the future is uncertain.