Raising someone else’s kids is hard enough without penalty
Reports this past week by the Create Foundation and Anglicare Victoria have highlighted the serious challenges facing children living in out-of-home care. With growing numbers of children unable to livewith their natural parents, government and welfare agencies are questioningwhat more can be done to prevent the emergence of a generation of children who are disadvantaged in critical areas like education, physical and emotion health.
There’s no simple answer to this question - the causes are as complex as the solutions. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that in order to ensure a child’s overall life situation improves, the whole system must be well equipped to look after them.
A major part of this story is kinship care - an arrangement wherechildren who are unable to live with their natural parents are placed with a relative or close community member. As Victoria’s foster care system is overcome by a capacity crisis, kinship care is now the fastest growing form of out-of-home-care in Australia, with the number of placements increasing from 35 per cent of children in out-of-home care in 2007, to 42 per cent in 2011.
In theory, it’s the next best thing to actual parents. The benefits of keeping a child close to their family and community have been well documented. The NSW Centre for Parenting and Research has particularly noted the benefits of kinship care in terms of preservation of family, reduced separation trauma and the fostering of a child’s cultural identity.
Indeed, for children with specific cultural needs, such as Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander children, kinship care is often theonly real option. Keeping these children close to their family and community and maintaining a strong cultural connection is key to preserving their identity and preventing a repeat of the grievous errors of the past.
But if carers are unable to do their job properly, the child may bear the brunt.
The problems are fairly simple on the face of it. The typical kinship carer is older, single and female. They’re also poorer, with less education than the typical foster carer. Despite these factors, kinship carers also receive less financial support than a foster carer and little or no training.
Such a carer may be ill-equipped to deal with the monumental task of raising a child, let alone a child who has suffered the kind of emotional trauma that comes from living in an unsafe home environment. In extreme cases, placements can have the effect of throwing the household into poverty.
Kinship carers may also have the burden of a complex personal involvement with the child’s natural parents. This can create unforseen problems, for example grandparents are not always entitled to financial support unless they formalise the care arrangement, which can be an emotionally complex process in itself. Kinship carers are often conflicted in terms of their relationships with the child and his or her natural parents.
But these problems are not insurmountable. For example, appropriate training can go a long way towards preparing kinship carers for the monumental task of raising a child. Anglicare Victoria’s Parenting Again program assists grandparents who become kinship carers adjust to the shock of being a parent, bringing them up to speed with the challenges of raising child in the 21st century. The program is currently being expanded and will soon provide training to more than 350 kinship carers state-wide. It’s the kind of service that must be made available to all kinship carers.
In addition we must revisit the assessment process for kinship carers, with an aim to minimise placements where complex family relationships impact negatively on the ability of the kinship carer to perform his or her role.
Kinship carers also need significantly more financial support – at least the same level as foster carers.
These are simple changes, but the message from social workers is that addressing these key issues would bring about significant improvements on the ground.
A cynic might see the rapid increase in the number of kinship care places as a way of sidestepping this complex, emotional issue, in reality it’s not sidestepping anything, because it’s not the end of the process.
We need to take public ownership of the issue, keeping expectations high and ensuring kinship carers have the necessary tools to meet those expectations.
It’s too much to expect kinship carers to go-it-alone. It’s time to aim a little higher for these children.
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