Two steps forward, one step back: young people transitioning from out of home care

Young people leaving state care are one of the most vulnerable groups in Australia. We know that care leavers frequently transition from out of home care with few of the financial, emotional and social supports they need. Many face significant challenges in accessing housing and jobs, and pursuing educational opportunities.

Following recent out-of-home care policy reforms, such as the Victorian Government Five Year Plan, it is timely to consider this often overlooked aspect of our care systems. Reflecting on more than 15 years of research, Associate Professor Philip Mendes (Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit (SISPRU) at Monash University) writes about the challenges and signs of change for leaving care policy in Australia:

I have been undertaking research on young people transitioning from out-of-home care for more than 15 years. Recently I met an academic colleague at a child welfare conference, who suggested that I must be frustrated at the glacial pace of change in the leaving care area. I responded that the opposite was true: there had been significant policy and practice improvements in Victoria and most states and territories over the past decade, and the profile of leaving care issues had increased significantly. This is evident within the government and non-government child welfare sector, as well as amongst researchers and the media.

When I first presented on this topic to an international audience in 1999, my arguments for the introduction of substantial transition from out-of-home care and post-care programs seemed radical. At that time, Victoria had few if any funding or services for transition and post-care programs, and would take another six years to pass new legislation committed to post-care supports. Most governmental representatives I spoke to – from leading public servants to the then Minister – either didn’t understand the need for post-care programs, or felt they would be too expensive. There was little awareness or interest in the extensive research from the UK, Europe and the USA showing that post-care supports not only help produce better outcomes for care leavers, but are also highly cost effective compared to crisis intervention programs.

Much has changed for the better since then. The Commonwealth Government, Victorian Government and indeed most other States and Territories have all recognised the need for improved post-care support. The non-government sector – both service providers and consumer groups such as the Create Foundation – have consistently advocated for policy and practice reform that reflects the real needs of care leavers. The media have also started to report on the challenges facing care leavers. But it is true that the best of intentions have still not been matched by serious changes to legislation and funding.

The reality in Australia is that we still have a bizarre system, whereby all young people are exited from state care at the arbitrary age of 18 years, irrespective of their developmental needs and resources. It’s a bit like the horse racing legislation that says all horses turn two years old on the one day. This is despite the fact that most other young people in the community, many of whom have experienced few of the disadvantages of care leavers, tend to stay at home with their families until their mid-twenties. To add to these issues, the Victorian Auditor General report on Residential Care Services for Children recently exposed the shocking fact that $2.8 million had been shafted from leaving care services in 2011-12 to fund additional residential care placements. Where is the outrage from the media, and the opposition parties in parliament?

Despite these issues, conducting research in this area has been anything but frustrating. All my projects have involved partnerships with some wonderful organisations, and indeed many amazing individuals who are outstanding advocates for care leavers. The Child Safety Commissioner Bernie Geary and his office have been a tremendous source of support. So have been many other outstanding leaders from a range of partners in the community and social services sector.

Other state and territory governments – most notably Queensland, the ACT and NSW – have been keen to engage with and utilise my research findings in their programs. So has the Commonwealth Government via its National Child Protection Framework. The Transitions to Adulthood for Young People Leaving Public Care International Research Group (INTRAC) has provided a fantastic ongoing forum for sharing ideas and research, as evident in a recent special issue of the journal Australian Social Work.

Most crucial to the success of our leaving care research journey has been the contributions of the amazing care leavers, who have bravely shared their experiences with our research teams. Many have commented in interviews that they hope a discussion of their needs and concerns will influence improvements in policy and practice and hence benefit other young people leaving care in the future.

Today, there are far more leaving care researchers in Australia. It is not just Judy Cashmore in NSW and myself. There have been major reports on leaving care and housing in Victoria, Queensland and WA, and at least four PhD students completed or on their way to the finish line in Victoria and Queensland. It is also encouraging to see a couple of former care leavers playing the key research role in a major pending project on leaving care and access to higher education.

There are strong signs of positive change for the future. The recently released Victorian Government Out-of-home care: a five year plan recommends some significant policy improvements in housing, employment and education. But oddly, the plan says we still need “evidence…to better understand what happens to young people when they leave care and how they can be better supported”. Well, the evidence on what works from my research and numerous studies from the UK, Europe and the USA is overwhelming. Hopefully, the author of the Five Year Plan can take one step back, and read the mountain of evidence that already exists.

Posted by Pauline McLoughlin