Tasmania can make a simple change that will immediately improve the experience of young people leaving out-of-home care.
The Home Stretch campaign, launched in Tasmania today during Child Protection Week, called on the government to give young people in out-of-home care the option of extending their care to the age of 21. Out-of-home care includes foster care, kinship care and residential care.
“On their 18th birthday, young Tasmanians are asked to exit care regardless of whether they are ready or not, with no case worker to help them out, no services to meet their needs and no-one to turn to,” said Paul McDonald, Chair of the Home Stretch campaign. “Half will go ok, but the other half will struggle and within a year will be homeless, in prison, unemployed or have become parents themselves,’’ he said.
“Giving young people the opportunity to extend state care until they are 21 if they need more support, will help keep a roof over their head and give them the support they need to stay in education or work,” said Mr McDonald.
“It is the right thing to do and also makes social and economic sense. It’s a reform that would halve homelessness and decrease government spending in other areas such as arrests, alcohol and drug dependence and hospitalisations.”
The US, UK and New Zealand have extended care to 21 in recent years. In Britain, the measure has been described as the most significant child welfare reform in a generation. In the US, the Federal Government subsidises states to extend care because they recognise the economic and social benefits.
Many young people in out-of-home care have experienced neglect, abuse or trauma during their childhoods. On their 18th birthday, their care arrangements are terminated and they ‘exit’ care without any mandatory supports in place. “Many young people in care are fearful about what’s going to happen when they turn 18,” said Sarah Short, a Young Consultant from the CREATE Foundation, who spoke at the launch about her own experience of leaving care. “You’ve got that date hanging over your head and you’re worried about where you’ll live, how you’ll manage on your own. That’s really stressful when you’re trying to deal with school at the same time.”
Ms Short said a smooth transition to independence was important for every young adult. “Nowadays it’s common for young people to stay living at home until their mid-20s,” she said. “Lots of people come and go a few times before they settle independently and they have all kinds of ongoing financial, practical and emotional support from their family. Why can’t young people in care be treated the same way?”
Foster carer John Flack and his partner Tracey have provided care to around 40 young people over the past decade. He said it was time to provide a smoother, better supported transition to adulthood for young people leaving care.
He said children spent years worrying about leaving care. “Stressing a child to that extent is terrible…and as carers we have to mitigate that, to say ‘no, you won’t be chucked out at 18. We’ll make sure you have somewhere to go,” he said.
“But we’ve seen young people go into living situations that weren’t necessarily the best or safest place for them to be,” he said. “And when that fails, they’re in a youth shelter or homeless.”
Mr Flack said often foster carers continued to care for a young person beyond their 18th birthday – but without financial assistance from government.
“We can keep providing them with a roof over their heads but it’s the other support services that they really need,” he said. “We still have our rent to pay, our bills to pay, and there’s that horrible dread. Do we push these kids out in order to force the issue, to get the government to change its policy? That’s a horrendous thing to even have to contemplate. But the Government has no reason to change while foster carers are picking up the slack and looking after these kids informally.”
Each year in Tasmania, around 80 young people are forced to ‘exit’ care in this way.
Mr McDonald said extending state-funded care to the age of 21 was a “financial and social no-brainer”. He said a Deloitte Access Economics report showed that the Tasmanian Government would save $2.69 for every dollar spent on extending state care.
“This is an easy and effective reform,” he said. “It’s time for the Tasmanian Government to make this important change.”
ABC Hobart's Leon Compton interviewed Paul McDonald, Sarah Short and John Flack. The full interview can be heard here.