Children in care
Children in care
What is out-of-home care?
Out-of-home care refers to the care of children and young people up to 18 years who are unable to live with their families (often due to child abuse and neglect). It involves the placement of a child or young person with alternate caregivers on a short- or long-term basis (Victorian Department of Human Services, 2007). Out-of-home care can be arranged either formally or informally. Informal care refers to arrangements made without intervention by statutory authorities or courts, and formal care occurs following a child protection intervention (either by voluntary agreement or a care and protection court order). This paper provides a snapshot of the data on Australian children and young people who were in out-of-home-care during 2014-15. Some of the key challenges in providing a safe and stable care arrangement are also discussed.
Types of out-of-home 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, which 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 three categories of home-based care: relative or kinship care, foster care 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, hospital, hotels/motels and the defence forces.
Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 2016, p. 48.
The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 (Council of Australian Governments [COAG], 2009) noted that out-of-home care is a last resort for keeping children safe. Supporting children within their family is the preferred option. Where the home environment is not safe enough for children and they have to be placed in out-of-home care, the focus is on providing children with safety, stability and a sense of security. Importantly, the Framework noted that while the need for carers to provide quality out-of-home care for children is rising, the availability of such carers appears to be decreasing.
National Standards for Out-of-Home-Care
The National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 (COAG, 2009) noted that while primary and secondary prevention are important to reduce the number of children affected by maltreatment and the impact that maltreatment has on them, it is equally important that children who have suffered maltreatment are afforded necessary support and services. Ultimately, the preference is for children to be safe and cared for in their own family, but where that is not possible, children require interventions to ensure their safety and stability. Where parental responsibility for care of the child or young person has been transferred to the minister or state executive, the Framework has also outlined the National Standards for Out-of-Home Care.
The National Standards have been developed to support an integrated response between all governments, and to help ensure that children have the same quality of care regardless of where they live in Australia (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs & National Framework Implementation Working Group [FaHCSIA & NFIWG], 2011). These standards influence the health, education, care planning, connection to family, culture and community, transition from care, training and support for carers, belonging and identity, and safety, stability and security of children and young people in care and aim to improve outcomes and experiences for these children and young people.
How many children live in out-of-home care in Australia?
The most recent statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW, 2016) show that, as of 30 June 2015, there were 43,400 Australian children living in out-of-home care. This has increased from 7.4/1,000 children at 30 June 2011 to 8.1/1,000 children at 30 June 2015. Table 1 shows the number of children in Australia admitted to out-of-home care, by age group, in each state and territory during 2014-15.
|Age (years)||NSW||Vic.||Qld||WA||SA||Tas.||ACT||NT||Total number|
Notes: The table includes all children admitted to out-of-home care for the first time, as well as those children returning to care who had exited care 60 days or more previously. Children admitted to out-of-home care more than once during the year were only counted at the first admission. Percentages in the table may not add exactly to 100.0% due to rounding.
The number of children in out-of-home care has risen every year over the past 10 years (AIHW, 2016). As seen in Table 2, the number of children in out-of-home care increased by 5,751 (15%) from 30 June 2011 to 30 June 2015. This increase may reflect the cumulative impact of children being admitted to, and remaining in, out-of-home-care.
|Year||NSW a||Vic.||Qld b||WA||SA c||Tas. d||ACT||NT||Total|
Notes: Some rates may not match those published in previous publications of Child Protection Australia due to retrospective updates. Rates were calculated using revised population estimates based on the 2011 Census and should not be compared with rates calculated using populations or projections based on previous census data, including those published in previous editions of Child Protection Australia. Refer to tables A47 and S2 for the populations used in the calculation of rates.
|Number per 1,000 children|
What are the living arrangements of children in out-of-home care?
The AIHW statistics show that 93.4% of all children living in out-of-home care in Australia are in home-based care. Of that figure, 40.4% are in foster care, 47.3% are in relative/kinship care and 5.8% are in other forms of home-based care. A further 6.5% of children were placed in alternative living arrangements (see Table 3) (AIHW, 2016). At 30 June 2015, the vast majority of children living in out-of-home-care had been in care for more than one year. Almost 13% of children had been in out-of-home-care for between 1-2 years, 26.5% had been in care for between 2-5 years, and 41% had been in out-of-home-care for more than 5 years.
Table 3 compares the proportion of children in out-of-home care by living arrangements for each state and territory. Of children in out-of-home care, Queensland (49.3%), New South Wales (47.1%) and Northern Territory (47%) had a relatively high proportion in foster care, Victoria (54.9%) and ACT (53.1%) had a relatively high proportion placed with relatives or kin compared to other states and territories (AIHW, 2016).
|Type of placement||NSWa
( n = 16,843)
|Vic.b (n = 8,564)||Qldc
( n = 8,448)
( n = 3,954)
(n = 2,838)
(n = 1,061)
(n = 671)
( n = 1,017)
(n = 43,399)
Notes: Percentages include children with "other/unknown" living arrangements. Percentages in the table may not add to exactly 100.0 due to rounding.
|Foster care e||47.1||17.2||49.3||41.3||40.8||40.8||36.5||47.0||40.4|
|Other home-based care||0.0||22.1||0.0||0.0||0.0||22.7||4.9||32.1||5.8|
|Total home-based care||96.2||94.3||92.2||90.8||85.2||91.7||94.5||82.3||93.4|
|Family group homes||0.1||0.0||0.0||4.9||-||2.6||0.0||0.5||0.5|
How many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children live in out-of-home care?
Australian Bureau of Statistics population projection data for 30 June 2015 indicates that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children would comprise 5.5% of all children aged 0-17 years in Australia (AIHW, 2016); yet in 2014-15 they constituted 35.6% of all children placed in out-of-home care. In all jurisdictions, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on placement orders was higher than that for other children. As of 30 June 2015, there were 15,455 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in Australia—a placement rate of 52.5 per 1,000 children. In contrast, the rate for non-Indigenous children was 5.5 per 1,000. This indicates that 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, 2016). There was substantial variation across the states and territories, with the placement rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children varying from 22.5 per 1,000 in Tasmania to 74.8 per 1,000 in the Australian Capital Territory (AIHW, 2016). Indigenous children were over-represented in out-of-home care across all age groups. Indigenous children aged 1-4 were 11 times more likely than non-Indigenous children of the same age group to be in out-of-home care (AIHW, 2016).
What is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle?
Cultural safety is important for the safety and wellbeing of all children. The right to cultural safety while a child is placed in out-of-home care is enshrined in Article 20 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989).
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle endorses this in legislation and policy in all Australian states and territories. The principle reflects the best interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and is designed to reduce rates of child removal, enhance child-community connection and preserve cultural identity (Arney, Iannos, Chong, McDougall & Parkinson, 2015). 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 preferred order is for the child to be placed with:
- carers within family and kinship networks;
- non-related carers in the child’s community; and then
- carers in another Aboriginal community.
According to the principle, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child can only be placed with a non-Indigenous carer if an appropriate placement cannot be found from these three groups, and if 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.
Even when children are placed in accordance to the principle they may become disconnected from their culture. This may occur when children are placed with the "white" 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).
For a more detailed discussion about the barriers to implementing the principle, see Enhancing the implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle.
The percentage of children placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in an Indigenous residential care facility varied substantially across jurisdictions, from 38.8% in Tasmania to 79.2% of placements in New South Wales (see Figure 1). In Australia, in 2014-15, 66% of Indigenous children were placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in an Indigenous residential care facility (AIHW, 2016).
For more information see Child Protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children.
Figure 1: Percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care, states and territories, 30 June 2015
(a) Aggregate data were provided by New South Wales and the Northern Territory for this figure.
(b) Children for whom relationship of carer and/or their Indigenous status were unknown are included in the categories “Other caregiver” and “Total not placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care” for Victoria (314) and the Australian Capital Territory (2).
(c) Data produced from the CP NMDS based on nationally agreed specifications may not match Queensland figures published elsewhere. Queensland data for 2014-15 onward are not comparable with data for previous years.
(d) Tasmanian 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. A high number of carers whose Indigenous status is unknown may affect the identification of children placed in accordance with the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle.
Source: AIHW, 2016, Table A38, p. 105.
What does foster care cost?
Recurrent expenditure on child protection and out-of-home care services was approximately $3.6 billion across Australia in 2014-15, an increase of 6.7% from 2013-14. Nationally, out-of-home care services accounted for the majority (67.3%, or $2.4 billion) of this expenditure (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2016). A study by the Social Policy Research Centre found that the cost of caring for children in foster care is, on average, 52% higher than the costs of caring for other children not in care (McHugh, 2002).
What are some of the key issues/challenges in foster care in Australia today?
Many children in out-of-home care experience multiple placement changes (Delfabbro, King, & Barber, 2010; Rubin, O'Reilly, Luan, & Localio, 2007). Johnson, Natalier, Liddiard, & Thoresen (2011) examined the placement history of 77 young people who had been in out-of-home care in Victoria and Western Australia and found that 40% of the sample had between two and five placements, 14% had between six and 10 placements, and 32% had moved between placements more than 11 times.
In recognition of the benefits associated with continuous accommodation, placement stability is one of 13 National Standards of Out-of-Home Care (FaHCISA & NFIWG, 2011). Having a stable living arrangement helps children and young people 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, & New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services, 2015, p. 93). Experiencing multiple placements can also influence a young person’s capacity to develop and maintain relationships (Johnson et al., 2011).
Placement instability can be a significant concern for young people in care. A recent Australian study found that children with high placement disruption had lower levels of satisfaction with their out-of-home care 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 young people to build trusting relationships.
Recruiting enough carers to cope with the increased demand for foster carers 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 of foster carers in a bid to facilitate recruitment and help the increasing number of children coming into the system with complex and challenging behaviour problems (Butcher, 2005); and as more carers require an expansion of skills and ongoing training to respond to these children’s complex behaviours (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 (AIHW, 2016; Boetto, 2010; Delfabbro et al., 2010). Studies have shown that children and young people are able to identify positive experiences of living in kinship care (Mason, Fallon, Gibbons, Spence, & Scott, 2002) and experience some positive outcomes such as good educational progress (Kiraly, 2015). However, at this stage, there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate whether or not kinship care produces better outcomes for children (Bromfield & Osborn, 2007a, 2007b).
For a more detailed discussion about the challenges facing foster children upon leaving care and key areas of support that may help young people successfully transition from care, see Supporting young people leaving out-of-home care.
- Arney, F., Iannos, M., Chong, A., McDougall, S., & Parkinson, S. (2015). Enhancing the implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle: Policy and practice considerations (CFCA Paper No. 34). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from < aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/enhancing-implementation-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-child>
- Australian Institute of Family Studies, Chapin Hall Center for Children University of Chicago, & New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services. (2015). Pathways of Care Longitudinal Study: Outcomes of children and young people in Out-of-Home care in NSW. Wave 1 baseline statistical report. Sydney: NSW. Department of Family and Community Services.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2016). Child protection Australia 2014-2015 (Child Welfare Series No. 61). Canberra: AIHW.
- Beauchamp, T. (2014). Young people transitioning from out of home care to adulthood: review of policy and program approaches in Australia and overseas. Parramatta: UnitingCare. Retrieved from <uniting.org/social-justice/research-matters?a=126906>.
- Boetto, H. (2010). Kinship care: A review of issues. Family Matters, 85, 60-67.
- Bromfield, L. M., & Osborn, A. (2007a). Kinship care (NCPC Research Brief No. 10). Retrieved from <aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/kinship-care>.
- Bromfield, L. M., & Osborn, A. (2007b). "Getting the big picture": A synopsis and critique of Australian out-of-home care research (Child Abuse Prevention Issues No. 26). Retrieved from <aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/getting-big-picture-synopsis-and-critique-austra >.
- Butcher, A. (2005). Upping the ante! The training and status of foster carers in Queensland. Children Australia, 30, 25-30.
- Council of Australian Governments. (2009). Protecting children is everyone's business: National framework for protecting Australia's children 2009-2020. Retrieved from <www.fahcsia.gov.au/our-responsibilities/families-and-children/publications-articles/protecting-children-is-everyones-business>.
- Delfabbro, P., King, D., & Barber, J. (2010). Children in foster care: Five years on. Children Australia, 35(1), 22-30.
- Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs & National Framework Implementation Working Group. (2011). An outline of national standards for out-of-home care. A priority project under the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020. Canberra: FaHCSIA. Retrieved from <www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/pac_national_standard.pdf>.
- Gaskell, L. (2010). 'If the social worker had called at least it would show they cared'. Young care leavers' perspectives on the importance of care. Children and Society, 24, 136-147.
- Johnson, G., Natalier, K., Liddiard, M., & Thoresen, S. H. (2011). Out in the world with no-one: A qualitative study of the housing pathways of young people who have recently left state out-of-home care. In Mendes, P., Johnson, G., & Moslehuddin, B. (Eds.) Young people leaving state out-of-home care, , (pp. 140-169). North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.
- Kiraly, M. (2015). A review of kinship carer surveys. The "Cinderella" of the care system? (CFCA Paper No. 31). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from <aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/review-kinship-carer-surveys>.
- Mason, J., Fallon, J., Gibbons, L., Spence, N., & Scott, E. (2002). Understanding kinship care. Haymarket, NSW: Association of Children's Welfare Agencies and The University of Western Sydney.
- McDowall, J. J. (2013). Experiencing out-of-home care in Australia: The views of children and young people (CREATE Report Card 2013). Sydney: CREATE Foundation.
- McHugh, M. (2002). The costs of caring: A study of appropriate foster care payments for stable and adequate out-of-home care in Australia. Sydney: NSW Association of Children's Welfare Agencies.
- McHugh, M., & Pell, A. (2013). Reforming the foster care system in Australia. Melbourne: Berry Street.
- Osborn, A., Panozzo, S., Richardson, N., & Bromfield, L. (2007). Foster families (NCPC Research Brief No. 4). Retrieved from <aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/foster-families>.
- Rubin, D. M., O'Reilly, A. L., Luan, X., & Localio, A. R. (2007). The impact of placement stability on behavioral well-being for children in foster care. Pediatrics, 119(2), 336-344.
- Scott, D., & Higgins, D. (2011). Supporting families. In Northern Territory Emergency Response Evaluation Report 2011 (pp. 245-291). Canberra: Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
- Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision. (2016). Report on government services 2016. Canberra: Productivity Commission. Retrieved from <http://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2016/community-services/child-protection>.
- United Nations. (1989). Convention on the rights of the child. Geneva: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Retrieved from <www.unicef.org.au/Discover/What-we-do/Convention-on-the-Rights-of-the-Child/childfriendlycrc.aspx>.
- Victorian Department of Human Services. (2007). The home-based care handbook. Retrieved from <www.dhs.vic.gov.au/about-the-department/documents-and-resources/reports-publications/home-based-care-handbook>.
Authors and Acknowledgements
This paper was updated by Lucy Ockenden, former Communications and Research Officer and Kathryn Goldsworthy, Senior Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Previous editions were compiled by Deborah Scott, Lalitha Nair and Alister Lamont.
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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.