Happier 21st? Victoria’s out-of-home care comes of age

The recent announcement by the Victorian government that it will invest $64 million to extend out-of-home care (OOHC) until 21 years of age is a once-in-a-generation reform.

All young people leaving care will now receive a guaranteed housing allowance, plus case worker assistance and other financial support up to that age.

This badly-needed and long-proposed reform was introduced following a Home Stretch campaign, led by Anglicare Victoria, that urged all Australian jurisdictions to offer extended care programs until at least 21 years of age.

That campaign used a range of advocacy strategies, including public forums and launches, media interviews, presentations to numerous conferences, meetings with state and commonwealth politicians, and publications of research reports presenting a cost-benefit analysis to convince the Victorian government to take action.

Wooden blocks spelling out the age 21.

It's estimated that approximately 3350 youth nationally aged 15 to 17 transition from state out-of-home care each year, including about 870 in Victoria.

They're called care leavers or care-experienced young people, and are recognised globally as a vulnerable group. Their disadvantage reflects a number of factors, including traumatic experiences involving abuse or neglect by their birth parents prior to entering OOHC, varied quality and stability of placements within OOHC, and limited access to reliable and ongoing assistance from responsible adults once they transition from care at 18 years old or younger. A disproportionate number are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth who may experience disconnection from their culture and identity

Read more Casualties of a system in crisis: Young, Indigenous and forgotten after leaving out-of-home care

Concerns about the wellbeing of care leavers date to 1989 when the National Inquiry into Homeless Children led by Brian Burdekin reported that a large number of homeless young people (estimated at more than 50%) came from state care backgrounds.

Since that time, most jurisdictions – including Victoria – have introduced some limited form of post-care support to assist with accommodation, education or training, employment, legal advice, finances, health services, counselling services, and facilitating social and community connections.

But with the sole exception of the ACT, all other legislative provisions for funding and support once young people have left the system at no later than 18 years of age are discretionary, not mandatory.

Australian government public inquiries have reported that care leavers experience poor outcomes because they:

  • lack sufficient maturity and living skills at 18 years to live independently
  • often have limited engagement in education
  • leave care directly into the homeless persons system
  • are involved in offending and the criminal justice system.

In short, governments as corporate parents have too often failed to meet their legal and moral obligation to ensure that the life opportunities for this vulnerable group of young people are better than if they had remained with their family of origin.

I've been researching leaving care policy and practice with colleagues at Monash University since 1999. This research journey has included projects on care leavers involved in the youth justice system, those with a disability, Indigenous care leavers both in Victoria and nationally, and evaluations of specific non-government support programs.

The next priority will be to assess the impact of universal extended care, and identify whether discrete groups of care leavers – those with a disability, those leaving residential care, those who are young parents, and Indigenous care leavers – may need additional or specialised assistance.

All our studies were conducted in partnership with leading non-government child welfare agencies, which then used the research findings to both inform internal service improvement, and engage in broader advocacy activities for policy reform to extend care.

We used qualitative interviews and focus groups with care leavers and service providers to identify what worked in policy and practice, and what areas needed to change. The consensus from our studies was that the existing Victorian transition from care system – whereby formal government supports ended abruptly at no later than 18 years of age – was inadequate in meeting the basic needs of the young people.

A child's hands in fingerless gloves holds a cardboard cutout of a house.

All reports recommended that state care supports continue until at least 21 years of age to facilitate better outcomes for care leavers in key areas, including housing, education, training and employment, healthcare, family relationships, and community connections.

That reform would enable care leavers to retain ongoing supportive relationships with adults – whether carers, professional caseworkers, or informal community networks – that play a key role in facilitating positive transitions from care to adulthood.

Sometimes this research pathway has been frustrating, given the slow pace of change.

Yet I always believed that the evidence was there to make the social and economic case for extending care – that it would not only benefit the young people who deserved so much better from their substitute parent, but also the wider community, given that with extra support these young people would have greater capacity to contribute productively to the wider society and economy. There would also be major cost benefit savings resulting from lower demand for crisis support services such as homelessness programs, mental health facilities, and prisons.

Evidence of benefits from further afield

My optimism was also guided by powerful evidence from other jurisdictions such as the UK and US on the benefits of extending care.

For example, England introduced the Staying Put program as a pilot in 2008-11, then as a universal measure in 2014. An evaluation of that program by Emily Munro found that the continuing support provided to young people by their foster carers ensured their housing stability, and enhanced their ongoing participation in education, training and employment.

Similarly, the US adopted the Fostering Connections Act in 2008, which enabled states via matching grants to allow young people to remain in foster care up to 21 years of age. To date, 30 of 50 states have taken up this option. Evaluations of extended care by Mark Courtney and colleagues have reported positive outcomes in a range of areas including enhanced educational outcomes, higher earnings and less economic hardship, reduced early pregnancy, lower rates of homelessness, and less involvement with the criminal justice system.

Victoria can lead the way

Victoria has now given care leavers a chance to thrive and succeed, and set a benchmark that all other Australian jurisdictions should follow.

The next priority will be to assess the impact of universal extended care, and identify whether discrete groups of care leavers – those with a disability, those leaving residential care, those who are young parents, and Indigenous care leavers – may need additional or specialised assistance.

It's likely that some care leavers will require support and nurturing until they are at least 25, which is about the average age that most young people in the community now depart the family home.

This article was first published on Monash Lens. Read the original article