Last month the NSW Government announced it would extend the age a person can stay in foster care from 18 to 21 years old – a positive and symbolic move that recognises that we have not been treating children in Out of Home Care (OOHC) like we would our own. Supportive, caring relationships do not end on a certain birthday. This is a broader, cultural issue in OOHC that is not isolated to the ‘leaving care age’ – the system is not raising children as a good parent would.
A lot of people talk to me, as a provider of OOHC, about how the system is broken, but I don’t actually believe this to be true. The Australian OOHC system is actually deeply functional. The problem is, it isn’t functioning to meet the needs of the people that matter most, the children and their families. I’ve never met a kid that said “this risk management plan changed the trajectory of my life” or “spend less time with me, so you can write more case notes about me”…
Australia has a care problem. 14 government inquiries and reports into OOHC since the 1980s and still, the system is failing. Frustratingly, the net results of these inquiries have just been more regulation. Too many children remain institutionalised, placed in motels or group homes looked after by shift workers keeping a ‘professional distance’. While our system runs checks and fills in plans, the child is deprived of the very thing that would make them feel stable and help them heal – human connection.
People over policy
There truly is a lot to celebrate about Australia’s commitment to helping vulnerable children and this recent announcement in NSW is a great example of this. There are many people in the social sector who are deeply committed to helping birth families and children in OOHC. However, due to its current structure, workers are often spending 80 per cent of their time on paperwork and meetings to fulfil bureaucratic requirements and only 20 per cent with the people that actually need the help. This ratio needs to be reversed. We need a care system that prioritises meaningful over measured – a system about raising children, not just covering liability.
Other countries are doing it, so why aren’t we?
I first came across this idea when working as a support worker in Germany with displaced refugee children. I met social workers and psychologists who were paid a full-time wage to become foster carers for a child who was previously living in a residential group home. here were people using their professional backgrounds to establish real connections, and the outcomes spoke for themselves. I thought “of course, this is what children need!” This type of Individualised social pedagogy is what my organisation, Professional Individualised Care (PIC)’s model is based on today.
The way forward
One of the ways to help a system change is to show them that it is possible and that is what we have achieved on a small scale in NSW. This model is not perfect, however, it invests time into
what we know is most likely to work. Kids need stable, attuned adults and the fact that is almost taboo in our system is telling.
We can have a safer system for children if we are willing to orientate around a child and family’s needs and provide relational safety. To do this, we must do a better job of preventing removals and our regulatory and legislative frameworks need to recognise the centrality of relationships.
The significant announcement to raise the leaving care age is a step in the right direction but a small step in a long path we must walk to push for deeper, innovative, systemic change. That is what is truly needed to change lives.
We need to put our humanity before our bureaucracy
Jarrod Wheatley has set up multiple innovative not-for-profit organisations and is currently the founder and CEO of Professional Individualised Care (PIC) that offers home-based care for children in OOHC who would otherwise be living in hotels or group homes. PIC is a relationship-based model that offers a different cultural understanding of how to meet young people’s needs. Jarrod was named the NSW Young Australian of the Year in 2019.