Children in care
Children in care
This resource sheet is designed to inform service providers, practitioners and policy makers about children and young people living in out-of-home care (OOHC) in Australia. It provides a snapshot of the data on Australian children and young people who were in out-of-home care during 2016/17 and identifies current issues in providing a safe and stable care arrangement for these children and young people.
Information is current at the time of publication. Individuals are encouraged to check the currency of any information that is provided by contacting relevant departments or organisations.
What is out-of-home care?
Out-of-home care is the care of children aged 0–17 years1 who are unable to live with their primary caregivers. It involves the placement of a child with alternate caregivers on a short- or long-term basis (Department of Human Services, 2007).
Out-of-home care can be arranged either informally or formally. Informal care refers to arrangements made without intervention by statutory authorities or courts, and formal care follows a child protection intervention (either by voluntary agreement or a care and protection court order), most commonly due to cases of abuse, neglect or family violence (Campo & Commerford, 2016).
The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020 (Council of Australian Governments [COAG], 2009) states that OOHC is a last resort for keeping children safe. Providing support to families and children so the child can safely remain in their home is the preferred option. Where the home environment is not safe for children and they have to be placed in OOHC, the focus is on providing children with safety, stability and a sense of security.
However, while there is an increasing need for carers to provide quality OOHC for children, the care system faces many challenges including limited resourcing, difficulties recruiting and retaining foster carers, and challenges in providing adequate support for relative and kinship carers (Senate Community Affairs Committee Secretariat, 2015).
Box 1 provides further detail on the types of out-of-home care used in Australia.
Types of OOHC care
- Residential care: placement is in a residential building where the purpose is to provide placements for children and there are paid staff.
- Family group homes: homes for children provided by a department or community-sector agency that have live-in, non-salaried carers who are reimbursed and/or subsidised for the provision of care.
- Home-based care: placement is in the home of a carer who is reimbursed for expenses for the care of the child. There are four categories of home-based care: relative or kinship care; foster care; third-party parental care arrangements; and other home-based, out-of-home care.
- Independent living: includes private board and lead tenant households.
- Other: placements that do not fit into the above categories and unknown placement types. This may include boarding schools, hospitals, hotels/motels and the defence forces.
Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 2018a, p. 43.
National Standards for Out-of-Home Care
Where parental responsibility for care of the child has been transferred to the minister or state executive, the National Standards for Out-of-Home Care have been developed to enhance outcomes in the following areas:
- belonging and identity
- care planning
- connection to family, culture and community
- participation in decisions
- safety, stability and security of children and young people in care
- social and recreational needs
- training and support for carers
- transition from care.
The National Standards were endorsed in 2011 and support an integrated response between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments to ensure that children from all Australian jurisdictions have the same quality of care (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs & National Framework Implementation Working Group [FaHCSIA & NFIWG], 2011). The AIHW is collecting data to report against each of the 13 standards. These data are progressively updated from various sources and can be viewed via dynamic displays on the AIHW website.
How many children live in out-of-home care in Australia?
The most recent statistics from the AIHW (2018a) show that, as of 30 June 2017, there were 47,915 Australian children living in OOHC. This has increased from 7.4 per 1,000 children at 30 June 2011 to 8.7 per 1,000 children at 30 June 2017. Table 1 shows the number of children in Australia admitted to out-of-home care, by age group, in each state and territory during 2016/17. There are considerable challenges with compiling accurate information about the numbers of children in OOHC (see table notes for details).
The number of children in OOHC has risen every year over the past five years (AIHW, 2018a), with the numbers rising by 7,366 (18%) from 30 June 2013 to 30 June 2017 (see Table 2). This increase may reflect the cumulative impact of children being admitted to, and remaining in, OOHC.
What are the living arrangements of children in OOHC?
The 2016/17 AIHW statistics show that 93.2% of all children living in OOHC in Australia are in home-based care (see Table 3) (AIHW, 2018a). Of that figure:
- 47.2% are in relative/kinship care
- 37.8% are in foster care
- 7% are in third-party parental care
- 1.2% are in other forms of home-based care.
The remaining 6.7% of children are placed in alternative living arrangements such as residential care or group homes.
At 30 June 2017, the vast majority of children living in OOHC had been in care for more than one year (AIHW, 2018b). Of these children:
- 14.6% had been in OOHC for between 1–2 years
- 26.9% had been in care for between 2–5 years
- 41.2% had been in OOHC for more than 5 years.
Table 3 compares the proportion of children in OOHC by living arrangements for each state and territory. Compared with other states and territories, those with relatively high proportions in foster care were (AIHW, 2018b):
- Queensland (47.6%)
- Tasmania (46.6%)
- Northern Territory (44.9%)
- New South Wales (44.1%).
The states and territories with a relatively high proportion placed with relatives or kin were (AIHW, 2018b):
- New South Wales (51.4%)
- Victoria (49.7%)
- Western Australia (48.7%)
- ACT (47.8%).
How many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children live in OOHC?
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) population projection data for 30 June 2017 indicate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children would comprise 5.5% of all children aged 0–17 years in Australia (AIHW, 2018b); yet of all children placed in OOHC in 2016/17, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children made up 36.9%. In all jurisdictions, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on OOHC placement orders was higher than that for other children.
As of 30 June 2017, there were 17,664 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in OOHC in Australia – a placement rate of 58.7 per 1,000 children. In contrast, the rate for non-Indigenous children was 5.8 per 1,000. In other words, the national rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care was almost 10 times the rate for non-Indigenous children (AIHW, 2018a, 2018b).
There was substantial variation in rates across the states and territories, with the placement rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children varying from 29.1 per 1,000 in Tasmania to 95.9 per 1,000 in Victoria (AIHW, 2018b). Indigenous children were over-represented in OOHC across all age groups. Indigenous children aged 5–9 were 12 times more likely than non-Indigenous children of the same age group to be in OOHC (AIHW, 2018a).
What is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle?
Connection to family, culture and community is essential for the social and emotional development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (Arney, Iannos, Chong, McDougall & Parkinson, 2015). The forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by Australian Government agencies up until the early 1970s, now known as the Stolen Generations, has had devastating effects on individuals and communities (Arney et al., 2015). There are still concerns today about the high rates of removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle was created to reduce rates of child removal, enhance child–community connection and preserve cultural identity (Arney et al., 2015).
The principle has been endorsed in legislation or policy in all Australian jurisdictions. The principle states the preferred order of placement for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child who has been removed from their birth family:
- the child's extended family (kin)
- the child's Indigenous community (kith)
- with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander carers
- with non-Indigenous carers.
According to the principle, if no suitable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers can be found, as a last resort children are placed with a non-Indigenous carer, provided that connection between the child and their family, community and cultural identity can be maintained (Arney et al., 2015).
Some children are prevented from being placed in accordance with the principle due to implementation barriers such as a shortage of Indigenous foster and kinship carers, poor identification and assessment of carers, and deficiencies in the provision of cultural care and connection to culture and community (Arney et al., 2015).
For a more detailed discussion about the barriers to implementing the principle, see the CFCA paper: Enhancing the Implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (Arney et al., 2015).
Even when children are placed in accordance with the principle, they may become disconnected from their culture. This may occur when children are placed with the non-Indigenous side of the family, an Aboriginal carer who is not from the child's own cultural group, or kin who may have (because of their own removal) been disconnected from their traditional culture (Scott & Higgins, 2011).
Across Australia’s jurisdictions, the percentage of children placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in an Indigenous residential care facility varied substantially, from 32.3% of placements in the Northern Territory to 80.9% of placements in New South Wales (see Figure 1). In Australia, in 2016/17, 68% of Indigenous children were placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in an Indigenous residential care facility (AIHW, 2018a; 2018b).
For more information, see the CFCA resource sheet: Child Protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children.
Notes: This figure does not include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were living independently or for whom relationship of carer and/or their Indigenous status were unknown. Family group homes and residential care are reported under ‘Other caregiver’.
a Aggregate data were provided by NSW and the NT for this figure.
b NSW data exclude children and young people on ‘Guardianship Orders’ (finalised third-party parental responsibility orders: non-OOHC funded).
c WA data exclude children on third-party parental responsibility orders and from 2015/16 includes children placed in boarding schools.
d Tas. data exclude children not under care and protection orders placed with relatives for whom a financial contribution is made under the Supported Extended Family or Relatives Allowance programs.
e Out-of-home care data for the ACT include some young people 18 years and over whose carers receive a full carer payment. This is generally to facilitate completion of schooling without change to the placement. These young people have been included in the 15–17 age group.
Source: AIHW 2018b, Table S45
What are the experiences of children living in OOHC?
In 2015, the AIHW piloted a national survey to explore the views of children in out-of-home care and collect data to report against the National Standards for Out-of-Home Care (FaHCSIA & NFIWG, 2011). The pilot survey collected national data from 2,083 children, aged 8–17, living in OOHC. This study found that 90.6% of children reported feeling safe and settled in their current placement (AIHW, 2016b).
This has now been followed by the next wave of the survey, completed in April 2018 (Family & Community Services, 2018). The results of this most recent wave are yet to be released.
The findings from the pilot survey are similar to research undertaken in 2013 by the CREATE Foundation across Australia (excluding Western Australia) with 1,069 children, aged 8–17 years, in OOHC. This research found that over 80% of survey respondents were happy in their current placement (McDowall, 2013); however, some children were unhappy with their placement history. This may be due to a high number of previous placements or placement instability (McDowall, 2013). Children were happiest in placements when they felt loved and cared for, had a positive relationship with the other people in the household, and had some privacy and space to themselves (McDowall, 2013).
The CREATE Foundation conducted a follow-up study to the 2013 survey, with this study collecting data against the essential life domains identified by the National Standards. This follow-up study concluded in 2018 (CREATE Foundation, 2018). CREATE is planning to release two reports analysing the data from the most recent survey: (1) covering the responses provided by children in OOHC; and (2) covering the responses received from young people (aged 18–25 years) who have left care.
Research has produced varying findings with regard to children being informed and having an opportunity to participate in decisions about their lives. Approximately half of the children in the CREATE Foundation research had received little information about the reason they were in OOHC, and this was lower for Indigenous children (McDowall, 2013). Some children in OOHC felt that they were rarely consulted and that their views, if they had an opportunity to express them, were not acted on (Bessel, 2011). The CREATE Foundation and the AIHW reported similar results with regard to participation in decisions about their lives, with the CREATE Foundation reporting that 63% of children surveyed felt that they were able to contribute to decisions about their lives ‘reasonably often’ (McDowall, 2013) and the AIHW (2016b) reporting that 67% of children usually got to have a say in what happens to them.
There is limited Australian research that examines the long-term outcomes of children in OOHC. Two longitudinal studies are currently underway, Beyond 18 in Victoria and Pathways of Care in New South Wales. These will provide important information about the lives of children and young people who have spent time in OOHC. Beyond 18 released its first report, Beyond 18: The Longitudinal Study on Leaving Care Wave 1 Research Report: Transition Planning and Preparation, in May 2018 (Muir & Hand, 2018). Using data from Wave 1, the report focuses on young people’s preparations for transition from OOHC. Future reports will focus on the transition to post-care life and explore the key factors in successful post-care life (Muir & Hand, 2018). To date, Pathways of Care has released some reports describing the collection of their baseline data.
What are the key challenges of providing out-of-home care?
With the provision of OOHC children in care face a number of challenges including: placement stability, inappropriate placements, separation from siblings, transitioning from care, greater risks of abuse and poorer quality of life (including issues with housing and social supports) (Bessant & Broadley, 2016). Of these, two of the key challenges are placement stability and transitioning from care.
Many children in OOHC experience multiple placement changes (Delfabbro, King, & Barber, 2010; Rubin, O'Reilly, Luan, & Localio, 2007). Johnson, Natalier, Liddiard, and Thoresen (2011) examined the placement history of 77 young people who had been in OOHC in Victoria and Western Australia, and found that:
- 40% of the sample had experienced between two and five placements
- 14% had experienced between six and 10 placements
- 32% had had more than 11 placements.
In recognition of the benefits associated with continuous accommodation, placement stability is one of the 13 National Standards of Out-of-Home Care (FaHCSIA & NFIWG, 2011). Having a stable living arrangement helps children to maintain their relationships with friends and service providers, and remain engaged with school and community activities (Beauchamp, 2014).
In contrast, placement instability can have significant adverse effects on children. Studies have found that continued instability is associated with poor educational, employment, social and psychological outcomes (Johnson et al., 2011), as well as behavioural and emotional problems (Australian Institute of Family Studies, Chapin Hall Center for Children University of Chicago, & NSW Department of Family and Community Services, 2015). Experiencing multiple placements can also affect a young person’s capacity to develop and maintain relationships (Johnson et al., 2011).
Children in care have expressed their thoughts and feelings about placement instability in a number of studies. The CREATE Foundation’s Australian study found that children with high placement disruption had lower levels of satisfaction with their OOHC experience compared to children with fewer disruptions (McDowall, 2013). In Gaskell’s (2010) qualitative study, the instability of carers, social workers and placements diminished the capacity of children to build trusting relationships.
Recruiting enough carers to cope with the increased demand for foster care is a concern for most states and territories (Delfabbro et al., 2010; McHugh & Pell, 2013; Osborn, Panozzo, Richardson, & Bromfield, 2007). Some are advocating for the professionalisation, and the expansion of skills and training, of foster carers, in a bid to assist recruitment. This would help in dealing with the increasing numbers of children coming into the system with complex and challenging behaviour problems (Butcher, 2005 & McHugh & Pell, 2013).
With the reliance on home-based care and problems recruiting sufficient numbers of foster carers, there has been a rapid increase in the proportion of children in kinship care (AIHWa, 2016; Boetto, 2010; Delfabbro et al., 2010).
Stability of caseworker has also been suggested as an issue of concern for children in out-of-home care, with almost 35% of children in the CREATE Foundation’s study reporting that they had been allocated five or more caseworkers during their time in OOHC (McDowall, 2013). Children in residential care were more likely to report having a greater number of caseworkers (McDowall, 2013). Having continuity provides an opportunity for children to build an effective relationship with their caseworker, and high turnover of caseworkers has been linked to instability and a loss of trust for children (McDowall, 2013).
Transitioning from care
Children in OOHC in Australia are discharged from care on or before their 18th birthday or on expiration of a court order. There are no records kept on children leaving OOHC in Australia; however, local and international studies suggest that while some young people leaving care experience positive outcomes, many young care-leavers are at increased risk of a range of poor social, educational and health outcomes including homelessness, mental illness, unemployment, substance misuse, contact with the justice system, early parenthood and low education attainment (Campo & Commerford, 2016).
Australian research has found that there is a significant proportion of young people who report that on leaving care they were unprepared for the realities of living independently and did not receive sufficient support with basic necessities such as housing (Mendes, Johnson, & Moslehuddin, 2011a, 2011b). Results from the Beyond 18: The Longitudinal Study of Leaving Care show that 48% of young people reported that they were either ‘not at all prepared’ or only ‘a little prepared’ for leaving care (Muir & Hand, 2018). These young people are less likely to have independent living skills, supportive social networks and a sufficient level of emotional maturity to prepare them for leaving care (Mendes et al., 2011a, 2011b).
Research suggests that transition planning is associated with better post-care outcomes, and transition plans for leaving care are a statutory requirement in all Australian jurisdictions (Muir & Hand, 2018). However, results from Beyond 18 show that only 22% of children currently in OOHC, and 46% of those young people who had left care, could recall having a formal transition plan. Additionally, 33% of those surveyed knew of a plan but did not know what it consisted of (Muir & Hand, 2018).
Issues with accessing post-care services were also reported in Beyond 18, with only 32% of young people who had left care saying that they had been informed of leaving care services before they transitioned. Caseworkers, who were also surveyed in Beyond 18, reported issues in young people accessing these services due to limited capacity, waiting lists and restrictive eligibility criteria (Muir & Hand, 2018).
Concerns about the challenges faced by young people due to the rapid transition to living independently have informed campaigns, such as the national campaign Home Stretch, for care to be extended to 21 years. This campaign has been supported by modelling that found considerable socio-economic benefits to extending support for Victorian children in care beyond the age of 18 (Deloitte Access Economics, 2016). The Commonwealth Government is currently funding a trial in Western Australia that will support up to 80 young people in OOHC for a period of three years as they transition to independent living (Commonwealth of Australia, 2017). The longitudinal studies Beyond 18 and Pathways of Care, discussed earlier, will help to fill the research gap in this area.
For a more detailed discussion about the challenges facing young people upon leaving care and key areas of support that may help them successfully transition from care, see CFCA paper: Supporting Young People Leaving Out-of-Home Care (Campo & Commerford, 2016).
The latest figures from the AIHW show that the number of children in care continues to rise in Australia, with an 18% increase from 2013 to 2017. While surveys conducted by the AIHW and CREATE Foundation have shown that the vast majority of children in care feel safe and secure in their placement, research also shows that these children face many challenges including placement stability and the transition out of care. Additionally, despite the high numbers of children in care (47,915), there is little Australian research into long-term outcomes. Studies such as Beyond 18 and Pathways of Care are attempting to fill this research gap, with early results from Beyond 18 reinforcing the challenges faced by children in care, particularly around leaving care.
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1 For the purposes of this resource sheet when referring to ‘children’ or ‘child’, we are referring to children and young people aged 0–17 years.
Authors and Acknowledgements
This paper was updated by Nick Heyes, Senior Project Officer with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Previous editions were compiled by Jessica Smart, Brooke Walton, Kathryn Goldsworthy, Deborah Scott, Lalitha Nair and Alister Lamont.
A snapshot of child protection activity in Australia during 2015-16
Review of kinship carer surveys to identify messages for policy and practice about the characteristics and support needs of kinship care families
An overview of what we know, and what needs to be better understood, about children’s attachment needs in the context of out-of-home care
Examines Australian and international research to identify key areas of support that may help young people successfully transition from care
The Protecting Australia's Children: Research and Evaluation Register is a searchable database of 944 research and evaluation projects related to protecting children. A range of filtering options enable easy access to relevant Australian research conducted between 2011 and 2015.