When leaving home means being abandoned

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Much
has been written about the apparent failure of child protection
authorities to rescue children from situations of significant abuse or
neglect, or alternatively to protect the rights of children who are
living in substitute care. But the real national scandal is arguably
the sudden abandonment of young care leavers when their protective
court order ceases between the age of 16-18 years.

 

Young people leaving out of home care are among the most
vulnerable
and disadvantaged groups in society. Compared to most young people,
they face particular difficulties in accessing educational, employment,
housing and other developmental and transitional opportunities. Care
leavers have been found to experience significant health, social and
educational deficits including homelessness, involvement in juvenile
crime and prostitution, mental and physical health problems, poor
educational and employment outcomes, inadequate social support systems,
and early parenthood.

It is often said that care leavers face
multiple disadvantages. Firstly, many have experienced and are still
recovering from considerable physical, sexual or emotional abuse or
neglect prior to entering care. Secondly, many young people have
experienced inadequacies in state care including poor quality
caregivers, and constant shifts of placement, carers, schools and
workers. Some have also experienced overt abuse including sexual and
physical assault, and emotional maltreatment. Thirdly, many care
leavers can call on little, if any, direct family support or other
community networks to ease their involvement into independent living.

In
addition to these major disadvantages, many young people currently
experience an abrupt end at 16-18 years of age to the formal support
networks of state care. The state as a ‘substitute parent’ abandons its
children, expecting them to transition directly from childhood
dependence to adult self-sufficiency without the ongoing financial,
social and emotional support and nurturing offered by most families of
origin. This ending of support crucially coincides with either the
final years of schooling or the beginning of attempts to gain
employment.

In contrast to the accelerated transition to
independence of care leavers, most young people still live at home till
their early 20s, and continue to receive social, practical, emotional
and financial support. The movement towards independence through
leaving home generally involves a long transition period during which
young people may leave and return home again on three or more
occasions.

The key factor here is the continued availability
of most family homes as a ‘safety net’ to which young people can return
over a considerable period of time. It is this safety net of extended
support which is currently not available to most young people leaving
care. For example, New South Wales remains the only state to have
introduced uniform state-wide support services for care leavers,
although Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria have made some
recent progress in this direction. The Commonwealth only provides a
select one-off transition payment to some care leavers. Graduation from
care needs to become a far more gradual and flexible process based on
levels of maturity and skill development, rather than simply age.

Affirmative
action supports and programs are needed to compensate care leavers for
the disadvantages produced by their traumatic pre-care experiences,
their lack of family support, and in some cases, their less than
supportive substitute care experiences. At the very least, State and
Territory care authorities should aim to approximate the ongoing
support that responsible parents in the community typically provide to
their children after they leave home in terms of income, housing,
health care, education, and social relationships. The aim of this
support would be to promote the effective participation of care leavers
in mainstream social and economic systems, rather than many continuing
to become reliant on adult health and welfare systems.

For example:

  • Transitions
    from care should be well-planned, undertaken in consultation with the
    young person, and reflect developmental maturity rather than solely age;
  • Care
    leavers should be provided with continued financial support to maintain
    existing foster care or residential care placements, or alternatively
    assistance with accessing and maintaining affordable and stable
    alternative accommodation;
  • Care leavers should be assisted to
    renegotiate relationships with family members, and also to develop
    wider informal support networks and friendship groups including a
    mentor or advocate;
  • Care leavers should be provided with access
    if necessary to ongoing counselling in order to address unresolved
    feelings of anger and grief from their childhood. Care leavers also
    require support to have regular medical check ups and develop healthy
    lifestyles plus ongoing assistance with the costs of their health care
    including dental care and other specialist treatment;
  • Holistic
    programs of parent support should be available to assist care leavers
    who become young mothers. There needs to be a particular emphasis on
    providing them with the skills and resources that will prevent their
    own children being placed in care;
  • Care leavers require ongoing
    support and encouragement to complete further high school education
    and/or training including specialised teaching and tutoring. They also
    require substantial assistance to undertake higher education;
  • Many
    care leavers are likely to be unemployed, and reliant on the
    independent rate of youth allowance. Those moving into independent
    living should be provided with financial assistance to access
    appropriate furniture and household items, and pay advance rent and
    bond if necessary;
  • A specialist leaving care service is
    required to address the particular needs of the disproportionate number
    of indigenous young people in care;
  • Specialized supports and
    services are needed to facilitate the participation of rural and
    regional care leavers in the social and economic mainstream.

Conclusion

Young
people leaving care experience a number of structural disadvantages as
a result of their pre-care and in-care experiences. Many face
substantial social exclusion such as lacking access to adequate income
and resources, being denied entry into employment or training, and
struggling to establish supportive social networks. The state care
parent has an obligation to redress these disadvantages by providing
care leavers with the same ongoing resources and opportunities that any
responsible parent would offer.

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