Extending Care to Age 21
Thank you, Madam Speaker.
I bring this motion before the Assembly today on behalf of young people in the care and protection system – as well as many dedicated carers, youth workers, caseworkers, and others who do their best to provide stability to these young people in the present and give them hope for the future.
The care and protection system is for children and young people who have been removed from their birth families. In the ACT, about 30 per cent of these kids are Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. Those who then exit out-of-home care are known as ‘care leavers’. Some of these young people, of course, go back to their birth families. Many, however, spend a large part of their lives in foster, kinship or residential care, and some of them will ‘age out’ of the system as adults.
A vast body of literature documents the difficulties faced by many young people who transition to independence after having grown up in out-of-home care. Across the world, care leavers are at increased risk for homelessness, failure to complete school, lack of further education or training, unemployment, contact with the criminal justice system, poor health, poor mental health, substance abuse, violence and poverty. Research in Australia suggests that 50 per cent of care leavers end up either homeless, in jail, or as new parents within 12 months. According to a Swinburne University survey, almost two-thirds of homeless youth nationwide are care leavers.
This disadvantage has several interconnected contributing factors. Many children in care and protection have a history of abuse or neglect, increasing the risks. At the same time, removal from birth families can disrupt the traditional support structures – including extended family, friends and community – that help reduce such risks. In addition, the process of transitioning to adulthood can be very different for care leavers, leaving them especially vulnerable.
As we have personally experienced, there is no magical point at which a young person becomes fully independent. Instead, it takes a gradual, natural process, with each child’s path unique. This process occurs best in a safe, stable environment that includes people who support the young person through what can often be a bumpy and sometimes strange journey. It should be no surprise, then, that according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 43.4 per cent of those aged between 20 and 24 still live with their parents.
In contrast, care and protection orders in the ACT, as in other jurisdictions, end when a young person becomes an adult at age 18. Historically, this has resulted in abrupt exits from out-of-home care. And this unnatural transition has contributed in a big way to the negative outcomes that many care leavers experience. In short, it simply does not replicate the natural transition process experienced by young people who grow up in a secure home where they can gradually enter adulthood and assume full independence, supported by one or both parents.
Aware of this reality, in 2012 the ACT Government started providing ‘a level of support’ for care leavers up to age 25. This included ‘a small team of specialist caseworkers’ and ‘brokerage funding … to assist care leavers with one-off expenses’. Two years later, however, when the government introduced its current strategy, it was clear that this service needed ‘to be enhanced’, and so an ‘extended continuum of care for care leavers up to 21 years of age’ was introduced.
This new approach included the possibility of a small subsidy for foster or kinship carers who are willing and able to continue to care for a young person after age 18 as long as a number of eligibility criteria can be met. Currently this subsidy is not quite two-thirds of what a carer receives to provide for a 17 year old and is less than what a carer receives to care for a baby, but it nonetheless certainly helps. It should be pointed out, however, that according to the government’s own strategy, this extended subsidy was never intended to be universally available but only available in, quote, ‘select cases’. It should also be noted that ACT Together provides a select list of other services to care leavers up to age 25, including help with housing applications, driving lessons and counselling. These are all good things.
The question that now arises is whether this old policy meets today’s challenges. I believe that it does not. I have twice asked the minister for data relating to the wellbeing of care leavers. In the first instance, when I asked about homelessness, I was told that this government ‘does not collect Territory level data … on the housing circumstances of young people after exiting care’. When I sought data regarding education and employment, I was told that ‘the Community Services Directorate does not routinely keep data on young people who have left care’.
To me, it is irresponsible for the government not to have these data. How can it improve old policy when it doesn’t know, for example how our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander care leavers are going? Without data to provide information and insights, the government is blind, wandering through child protection like a kangaroo in the headlights. This is astounding. Under ACT law, the legal parent of a young person in the territory’s care and protection system is the ACT Government, but the government doesn’t know anything about its kids once they turn 18. Can you imagine any other parents who, when asked how their young adult children are going, where they are living, if they are working or studying, and so forth, would say they don’t know?
This is clearly something that needs to change to meet today’s challenges. I sincerely hope that those opposite agree. A 2018 discussion paper written by the ACT Community Services Directorate repeatedly states that data collection on young people who have exited care is absolutely necessary to review ‘the progress and impact of recent policy and legislative changes to transition support’. This data-driven evaluation, the paper goes on to state, ‘will enable the development of evidence-based policy to improve outcomes for young people leaving care and ensure the best start towards independent adulthood’.
In the absence of this data, we are left with anecdotes. In preparation for this motion, I have spoken at length with stakeholders, service providers, Aboriginal elders, former care and protection workers, and young people who have exited care. The consensus is that we are failing kids and carers and clearly not doing enough. One stakeholder noted that current policies have not been fully implemented and that there are still too many barriers to outcomes being realised. Another stakeholder used the word roadblocks. One young person who recently aged out of the system but couldn’t stay with his carers reported sleeping in bus interchanges and pedestrian underpasses in addition to a youth refuge and on mates’ lounges. He still doesn’t have stable accommodation.
I share this information to bring clarity and to improve our capacity to support all care leavers. There is an important saying that we do the best we can, and following on from that, when we know better, we need to do better.
The time to do better is clearly now. Let us give care leavers better opportunities to be happy and successful. Tasmania and South Australia have made clear commitments to go beyond merely discretionary supports by extending out-of-home care to age 21. Western Australia is currently piloting this approach, and in November the Victorian Government announced that from 1 January 2021, ‘all young people turning 18 years of age and due to leave care will be able to remain with their foster carer or kinship carer supported by an allowance, case work and flexible funding, or for those leaving residential care, to transition to other housing options (e.g. private rental) supported by an allowance, case work and flexible funding’.
These important, life-changing innovations have been backed by the national Home Stretch campaign, which has powerfully made the argument for universally extending out-of-home care to age 21. Part of this campaign has been commissioned research demonstrating the cost benefit of doing so. In the ACT, the assumed ‘benefit to cost ratio of [such a] program is 1.77. That is, every dollar invested in the program is associated with an expected return of $1.77 in either savings or increased income’. The same study estimates that universal access to extended out-of-home care could be provided in the ACT for an annual cost of under $900,000.
Research indicates that extending out-of-home care halves the probability of care leavers falling into homelessness. In 2018–19, government funding for youth homelessness support in the ACT was $5,250,038. Clearly, reducing the risk that a care leaver will end up sleeping in bus interchanges and under pedestrian overpasses is not only very good for kids but will, over time, pay for itself.
The Canberra Liberals went to the election last year with a strong commitment to universally extend out-of-home care in the territory to age 21, and I am pleased to see that the agreement between ACT Labor and the ACT Greens includes a pledge to ‘improve the extended care system for 18–21 year olds in the out of home care system’. It is not yet clear, however, what exactly improving the current system for care leavers will look like. For that reason, I have today brought this motion before the Assembly to call on the ACT Government to commit in principle to support the universal extension of care to age 21, including for those exiting residential care and those who, like the young man mentioned above, are unable to remain with foster or kinship carers.
Considering what is happening in the states around us, it should be clear that merely fiddling around the edges of the current approach will result in Canberra’s kids being left behind, possibly homeless, unemployed, or with physical and mental health issues. In this important matter, we simply cannot afford to leave any young people behind. We need to walk with them. It’s that simple.
And as I sought to make very clear a few minutes ago, we desperately need to improve data collection on young people who have exited care to allow for robust evaluation of post-care support services, including any extension of care to age 21. We simply cannot afford to walk into what will be important reforms blinded by a lack of data. We need data that will inform and provide insights to a clearer way for improvement, to help make visible another reality.
Lastly, I call on the ACT Government to not just make a clear commitment but to begin this important work by creating a taskforce to review what is being done in Australia but also what has been done internationally to ascertain best practice and then propose the best way to implement an extension of care to age 21 in the ACT. For example, the UK is currently trialling a Staying Close program where those who exit residential care remain a part of the community, visiting the house for dinners, birthday celebrations, and Christmas parties whilst enjoying ongoing contact for 10 hours each week with support workers in the home.
This is a real opportunity for us to not just do what others are doing but to become a model that other jurisdictions will seek to learn from. As the taskforce takes on this important and exciting task, they should consider recommendations such as those from Monash University academics Philip Mendes and Justin Rogers: First, ‘extended care needs to be applied universally to include youth leaving all forms of care’, including residential care. Second, the system also needs to be flexible enough to allow young people to exit and enter as needed, capturing both those who move away for work or study but still need a home to return to and those who may not fully understand their future needs at age 18. Third, exploration absolutely needs to include young people with lived experience, and, fourth, it is ‘vital’ that there be ongoing monitoring and review of the effectiveness of policy and practice implementation’.
To these, I will add my own recommendation that special attention needs to be paid to supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander care leavers in culturally appropriate ways. As a dear friend Dr Bray said, it is incredibly fulfilling to one’s mental health and sense of identity to be grounded in the language, dance and culture of a person’s ancestry.
Madam Speaker, I commend this motion to the Assembly. Thank you.
 ACT Government Community Services Directorate, ‘Transition from out of home care to adulthood: mapping legislation and policy across Australian jurisdictions’, discussion paper, December 2018, p. 3. Anglicare Victoria, ‘Extending out of home care to 21 years: summary of the Australian socioeconomic cost benefit analysis’, April 2016, p. 5.  Letter from Paul McDonald to Elizabeth Kikkert, CEO of Anglicare Victoria, 16 September 2020, p. 1.  Ibid.  ‘Extending out of home care to 21 years’, p. 5.  https://aifs.gov.au/facts-and-figures/young-people-living-their-parents#:~:text=As%20young%20people%20get%20older,of%2030%E2%80%9335%20year%20olds.  ACT Government, ‘A Step Up for Our Kids: One Step Can Make a Lifetime of Difference’,  Ibid.  Ibid.  ACT Together, ‘Carer Subsidy Guide 2021/21’, p. 2.  ‘A Step Up for Our Kids’, p. 39.  QON no. 2018, notice paper 27 of 30 November 2018.  QON no. 2769, notice paper 38 of 27 September 2019.  ACT Government Community Services Directorate, ‘Transition from out of home care to adulthood: mapping legislation and policy across Australian jurisdictions’, discussion paper, December 2018, pp. 5, 15–16, 21.  Ibid., p. 21.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Victoria State Government, ‘Leaving care’, https://services.dffh.vic.gov.au/leaving-care.  Anglicare Victoria, ‘Extending out of home care to 21 years: summary of the Australian socioeconomic cost benefit analysis’, April 2016, p. 26.  Ibid., p. 27.  Ibid., p. 16.  QON no. 3031, notice paper 46 of 5 June 2020.  10th Legislative Assembly of the ACT, ‘Parliamentary and Governing Agreement’, p. 13.  Jenna Bollinger and Philip Mendes, ‘Advancing smoother transitions for those leaving residential out-of-home care’, Monash University, Lens, 1 February 2021, https://lens.monash.edu/@politics-society/2021/02/01/1382756/advancing-smoother-transitions-for-those-leaving-residential-out-of-home-care.  ‘Young people transitioning from out-of-home care’, p. 1526.