State wards: parental guidance recommended

Homeless asleep on Commercial Drive, Flickr image by dtes.peopleMost families continue to support their children when they turn 18. They provide ongoing accommodation, money, food, clothing, health care, assistance with the cost of education or employment training, and emotional support.

In contrast, young people leaving state out-of-home care are expected to transition to virtually instant independence with little if any ongoing support from their state parents.

Leaving care is formally defined as the cessation of legal responsibility by the state for young people living in out-of-home care. But in practice, leaving care is a major life event and process.

Care leavers are not a homogeneous group. But compared to most young people, they face particular difficulties in accessing education, employment, housing and other developmental and transitional opportunities.

I first came across this problem as a young social work graduate working in child protection in the late 1980s. Young people living in residential care were often subjected to a regimented rule structure which limited their individual choices and development of life skills, and encouraged dependence. Even going to a friend's house to stay overnight required a formal letter signed by a manager from head office.

Yet when these young people turned 17 or 18, they were suddenly informed that their care order had finished, and they had gained their independence.

Some welcomed their newfound freedom and moved successfully into mainstream society. But others had limited skills in areas such as reading and writing, finances, cooking, and sexual knowledge. Many ended up homeless. Others developed severe mental health issues or drug and alcohol addiction, became involved in crime or street sex work, or gave birth to children at a very young age, who also ended up in state care.

But care leavers in those days enjoyed some advantages over contemporary young people. There was at least a limited youth labour market. I remember one young man with a slight intellectual disability who was placed in an apprenticeship with a leading department store. He was not bright, but he was strong and had a good work ethic.

Affordable housing was more readily available, and there were greater resources to prepare young people for the transition to adulthood. Perhaps this reflected the much smaller numbers of children in care in the 1980s.

Care leavers today seem to have it tougher. Many of the 20 care leavers interviewed for a Monash University study by Badal Moslehuddin and myself have experienced housing instability, poor educational and employment outcomes, resulting in poverty, poor physical and emotional health, involvement in crime, and early parenthood.

A number commented that they felt confused, uncertain, lonely and rejected on leaving care. It is not surprising that the recent Green Paper on Homelessness and the National Youth Commission report Australia's Homeless Youth found an over-representation of care leavers in the homeless population.

So why the poor outcomes for care leavers?

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.

Thirdly, many care leavers receive little, if any, direct family support, and few community networks to ease their transition into independent living.

In addition to these major disadvantages, many young people experience an abrupt end at 16–18 years of age to the formal support networks of state care. Many of the care leavers we interviewed expressed an ambivalence about this early departure. They felt excited and relieved, but also scared and uncertain about facing the real world.

International research suggests that three key reforms are required to improve outcomes for care leavers.

The first is improving the quality of care, as positive in-care experiences are essential in order to overcome damaging pre-care experiences of abuse or neglect.

The second is restructuring the transition from care, which needs to become a gradual and flexible process based on levels of maturity and skill development, rather than simply age.

The third is providing ongoing support until approximately 25 years of age, including specialist services in areas such as accommodation, finance, education, employment, health, and personal and family support networks.'

Rather than treating after-care supports as add-ons to be offered separately to in-care supports (if at all), we need to plan from the beginning for the preferred outcomes for these children as they transition to independence.

This means incorporating post-care supports formally via legislation and policy, so ensuring that the state care parent provides the same ongoing financial, social and emotional support and nurturing offered by most biological families.

Philip MendesDr Philip Mendes is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and the author most recently of Australia's Welfare Wars Revisited, UNSW Press. 2008. This is an edited version of a paper he presented to a Queensland Department of Child Safety Forum in Brisbane on 4 September.

Topic tags: philip mendes, state care, burdekin report, Green Paper on Homelessness, National Youth Commission



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Existing comments

Very much support Dr Mendes' argument. My own experience was somewhat different - I was suddenly returned to my parents at age 15 having been separated from them at age 2. The man and the woman now called my parents were almost like strangers and nothing prepared me for the intimacy of family life. I know this is different from transitioning direct to independent living with its instant challenges and difficulties. However, the principle is the same: if you are to make a major transition from one status to another you need to have adequate preparation.

Of course there are some gaps that will remain unfilled perhaps forever when you've been brought up in an institution - the lack of love throughout your childhood for instance. Many of us recoil from well-intentioned intimacy and physical touching. We find it difficult to differentiate between real affection and threats to our bodies. It can take decades before we learn the difference sufficient to trust the person who loves you. Tragic.

Frank Golding | 15 October 2008  

I am reminded of a young girl from our country city who told me she was very proud of herself because she managed to complete one year at a Melbourne university. She told me many of her friends hadn't make it to the end of first year before heading home. These are the kids from stable loving families they can return to. How much more difficult for kids who don't have that advantage?

Margaret McDonald | 16 October 2008  

this chills me to my very core and i pray this doesn't happen to my kids but they won't be left with no one they will still have me.

I only wish there was some form of support for parents of those in care not all of us are evil people who abused their kids some of us are victims of the system i have mental health issues that are still unresolved to this day yet i can find no help

kirstie | 17 February 2009  

Dr Mendes, While I agree with what you have written, the main problem I myself faced while in state care, was stability. In one year alone, I was shifted 26 times, that's right, once every two weeks. Disrupted education, lack of learning life skills. When I was 16 and still a ward until I was 18, I received zero support, I had to find my own accommodation, was on unemployment benefits to support myself and still had not graduated from high school while under care.

But, because I wasn't sexual abused, or became a drug addict or criminal, there was very little if any help for me to cope with my life.

Growing up neglected by the Department continues to stunt my growth even at the age of 29, most people don't care, I am not tabloid-worthy so everything must be my fault.

People take about Wards like they have had a childhood... not many of us did, I didn't have a childhood.

Douglas | 01 September 2010  

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