Monday's Four Corners, 'Broken Homes' has, once again, lifted the lid on the state of out-of-home care in Australia. For those who missed the program or the uninitiated, out-of-home care is the provision of care, housing, nurture and education provided by the State for children and young people removed from their parents and families due to sustained abuse and neglect. This care is then outsourced to not for profit organisations, NGO's, foster carers and kinship carers.
I confess to having some serious skin in the game. I was adopted as a child myself: my biological mother seemingly had no other option as a single woman; my adopted family were also short term foster carers; my husband and I have been formal, and informal, foster carers. However it was after working for an NGO providing residential ‘care’ for young women that I founded the CREATE Foundation some 23 years ago with a group of young people from out-of-home care. CREATE is the consumer group and national voice for children and young people in care across the country.
At the time there were 20,000 children and young people in care in Australia. Today there are over 50,000.
It’s not only beyond our shores that children and young people face a myriad of human rights violations. I would put it to readers that similar things are happening to thousands of children and young people in Australia under another system, a system with a name which lulls us all into a false sense of security and comfort. Under the name of ‘out-of-home care’.
Of course the reasons for Australia’s 50,000 children and young people in care are clearly known, researched and, indeed, reported: violence against women, drug abuse, family breakdown and poverty are a complex web of factors that contribute to a child or young person, the victims of the behaviours and choices of those around them, ending up in out -of -home care.
These children are, without exception, the most vulnerable of us all: at the whim of a crisis driven state government system, unpredictable parents and an under resourced, ageing and exhausted community and foster care sector. Of course there are points of light everywhere; great practice embedded in not for profit organisations, areas of excellence in government departments, truly incredible, inspiring foster carers and the children and young people, themselves, the heroes of their own hellish childhoods. They survive, thrive, strive but more often than not, lose the battle to grasp the opportunities and promises pitched by the lucky country, by team Australia.
The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) has released a series of significant reports over the past 2 years regarding young people and the New Work Order. It looks at how prepared our young people are for the future of a dramatically changing economy led by automation, globalisation and collaboration in an ageing population.
After talking optimistically about this exciting, brave new world whilst simultaneously calling for reform in our outdated education system to better equip our young people, I was jolted into sharp reality on reading Anglicare Australia’s third report on how children and young people in care are faring.
41% have major emotional difficulties, only 15% saw their siblings regularly, and 30% do not finish high school education.
The reality for children and young people in care today means, through no fault of their own, many will be left behind. There is no equality of opportunity for children and young people in care. They are being set up to become young Australian refugees of the new work order. And yet, leading economists such as Philip Lowe from the Reserve Bank of Australia have clearly stated young people are Australia’s most significant, untapped resource and hope for the country’s future.
This realisation has caused me to propose we urgently devise a very different approach to Australia’s children and young people in care. That we stop using the lowest common denominator measures, dumbing down the capacity and contribution of children and young people in care with a focus on just keeping them alive until 18 when they are (generally) thrust out of the care system to make it on their own. But rather to ask the question: What do we need every young person in care in this country to have at 25 years of age and what do they need to be doing?
I propose we radically flip the care system, along with its massive resources, on its head and focus on the end game. That we boldly articulate a collective promise to every child and young person in care, and then build the system from these promises to be achieved backwards.
The first, and overarching, promise must be that their experience of childhood will not become a life sentence. In order to ensure this, I believe each young person leaving care should be given a place of their own to call ‘home’. Forever.
Secondly, every young person in care should end high school with a scholarship to further education, be that university or some other form of training. In fact, much academic research indicates the resilience young people have to acquire in care makes them some of the best potential business entrepreneurs around. We should help young people in care turn their adversity into the urgent job of creating jobs and the entrepreneurial activity we need in this country.
Thirdly, most children and young people in care want to stay connected to their family of origin. This is not always possible but it is possible to keep siblings close and connected. This should be an absolute priority.
Like many worn down systems of the past 100 years, the children protection and care sector is ripe for major disruption. The siloed approach of human and community services including child protection, domestic violence, family support alongside the other silos of education and health has spawned massive ‘industries’ and still not served the people who need them most.
It’s time to turn the debate about the care of children and young people on its head. This is not only about a system or even these precious individuals themselves, but the promise of a diverse and equitable future which lies at the heart of a healthy, thriving nation.
A pioneer in the youth sector in Australia, Jan Owen is the CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, founder of the CREATE Foundation and author of Every Childhood Last A Lifetime: stories from the front line of family breakdown (1996).