Across Australia, the foster care system is in a state of crisis.
Across Australia, the care of children taken from or abandoned by alcoholic, drug-dependent and/or abusive parents, and the many who run away from home, is a system in a state of crisis.
Since 2007, according to statistics cited by the ABC, the number of children in out-of-home care in NSW has increased by almost 60 per cent, from 11,843 to 18,659. More than 11,000 of these children are aged between eight and 17. And that’s only the visible bit of the iceberg.
Many are in the care of foster parents who are also working carers – but the number of foster carers is at an all-time low.
In all states, there has been a significant decrease in the number of foster carers available, partly because the financial support system has been pruned right back – by up to one-third in some states – and partly because the failures of the system are producing children who are too difficult for even the most dedicated carers to handle.
How and why has it got to this point?
In March, a NSW parliamentary inquiry into the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) reported that there were 79,814 children at risk of serious harm in NSW, but only 24,114 had received the attention of a case-worker – which is less than 30 per cent.
The department received funding for 2128 case-workers, but employed only 2001. The department had a $1.9 billion allocation in the 2016-17 budget, the inquiry found, but only $319,000 was directed to child-protection early-intervention.
The chairman of the committee, Greg Donnelly (Labor), wrote in the introduction to the report: “How can it be that in 2017, in a country as fortunate as Australia, so many children and young people are in harm’s way every day of their lives? How and why has it got to this point?”
The committee recommended an urgent injection of funding for “evidence-based protection and early intervention services.”
The NSW budget in June followed the committee recommendation and made a $63 million injection over four years into the child-protection system. FACS will employ 42 additional front-line case-workers, an additional 66 case-work supply-workers, 23 extra workers on the Child Protection Help Line and 10 more on the Joint Investigation Response Teams.
Some parents don’t deserve to have their children
Children in need of protection will now have a better chance of getting some attention and getting it sooner. The problem remains though: where, with the number of foster carers shrinking, are the children assessed as being at risk going to go if they’re taken from their families?
FACS minister Pru Goward, said. “Child protection is difficult and now we are embarking on world-class reform which will address many of the recommendations and concerns in that report.”
The ‘world-class reforms’ are based on an American model which, according to the former FACS Minister, Brad Hazzard, had reduced the number of children in care in New York City, Illinois and Tennessee, by up to 80 per cent. The key element of the program would be that abusive parents would be given two years to reform their ways or the children would be taken from them and put up for adoption.
“Currently the focus is not on the families that need to change,” Mr Hazzard said. “Children are taken when the families fail and go into care, being moved from pillar to post often until they are 18. Sadly, all too many of them end up in juvenile justice or the correctional system.
“There are some families, some parents who are just so dangerous they don’t deserve to have children, they lose that right. Whereas others just don’t get the parenting aspect. Government agencies will work with you, but if you don’t improve in two years we’re going to have to do something.”
Epidemic of ‘ice’ use to blame
Minster Goward has confessed the system is in crisis. She said the epidemic of ‘ice’ use was partly to blame for the steep increase in the number of children in care but she was hopeful the new early-intervention program would bring numbers down.
“If we could get on top of drug addiction in parents and the violence that comes with it, then I think we could get that trajectory to change direction,” she told the ABC.
Dr Jeremy Sammutt of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney told the ABC as far back as 2013, four years ago: “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.
“We’re at a point now where we going to start re-residentialising the care system, with professional carers, particularly mental health professionals, to look after these kids who’ve been damaged.”
Fostering NSW has a full list of foster-care agencies on its website: http://www.fosteringnsw.com.au.