Children in care
Children in care
This resource is designed to inform service providers, practitioners and policy-makers about children living in out-of-home care. It provides a snapshot of the data on Australian children and young people who were in out-of-home care during 2015-16 and identifies current issues in providing a safe and stable care arrangement.
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 refers to the care of children and young people aged 0-17 years who are unable to live with their primary caregivers. It involves the placement of a child or young person with alternate caregivers on a short- or long-term basis (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 follows a child protection intervention (either by voluntary agreement or a care and protection court order).
The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 (Council of Australian Governments [COAG], 2009) states that out-of-home care is a last resort for keeping children safe. Providing support to families and children so the child can safely remain in the home is the preferred option. Where the home environment is not safe 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. However, while there is an increasing need for carers to provide quality out-of-home care 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, 2015)
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 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, hospital, hotels/motels and the defence forces.
Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 2017a, p. 47.
National Standards for Out-of-Home-Care
Where parental responsibility for care of the child or young person 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:
- participation in decisions;
- care planning;
- connection to family, culture and community;
- social and recreational needs;
- transition from care;
- training and support for carers;
- belonging and identity; and
- safety, stability and security of children and young people in 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 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) are collecting data to report against each of the 13 standards. Although the data set is not yet complete, existing data 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 AIHW (2017a) show that, as of 30 June 2016, there were 46,500 Australian children living in out-of-home care. This has increased from 7.4/1,000 children at 30 June 2011 to 8.6/1,000 children at 30 June 2016. Table 1 shows the number of children in Australia admitted to out-of-home care, by age group, in each state and territory during 2015-16. There are considerable challenges with compiling accurate information about the numbers of children in out-of-home care, as evidenced by the notes accompanying the tables in this resource sheet.
|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 five years (AIHW, 2017a). As seen in Table 2, the number of children in out-of-home care increased by 6,827 (17%) from 30 June 2012 to 30 June 2016. 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||WAc||SAd||Tas.e||ACT f||NT||Total|
Notes: Some numbers and rates may not match those published in previous publications of Child Protection Australia due to retrospective updates to data. 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 censuses. Refer to Table S55 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 2015-6 AIHW statistics show that 93.6% of all children living in out-of-home care in Australia are in home-based care. Of that figure, 48.6% are in relative/kinship care, 38.7% are in foster care, 4.8% are in third-party parental care and 1.4% are in other forms of home-based care. A further 6.4% of children were placed in alternative living arrangements such as residential care or group homes (see Table 3) (AIHW, 2017a). At 30 June 2016, the vast majority of children living in out-of-home-care had been in care for more than one year. Almost 14% of children had been in out-of-home-care for between 1-2 years, 26.1% had been in care for between 2-5 years, and 40.4% had been in out-of-home-care for more than five 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 (48.5%), New South Wales (45.1%) and Northern Territory (47.1%) had a relatively high proportion in foster care, Victoria (56.4%) and NSW (50.9%) had a relatively high proportion placed with relatives or kin compared to other states and territories (AIHW, 2017a).
|Type of placement a||NSW b
( n = 17,800)
|Vic. (n = 9,705)||Qld
( n = 8,670)
( n = 4,100)
( n = 3,243)
(n = 1,150)
( n = 748)
( n = 1,032)
( n = 46,448)
Notes: Percentages include children with “other/unknown” living arrangements. Percentages in the table may not add to 100.0 due to rounding.
|Foster care g||45.1||15.9||48.5||41.9||38.9||41.1||35.3||47.1||38.7|
|Third-party parental care h||-||20.0||-||-||-||18.5||12.2||0.0||4.8|
|Other home-based care||0.0||2.8||0.0||0.2||0.0||4.3||0.0||31.4||1.4|
|Total home-based care||96.1||95.0||92.8||91.2||84.2||93.0||94.0||83.4||93.6|
|Family group homes||0.1||0.0||0.0||4.0||-||1.1||0.0||0.1||0.4|
How many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children live in out-of-home care?
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) population projection data for 30 June 2016 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 2015-16 they constituted 36.2% 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 2016, there were 16,846 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in Australia—a placement rate of 56.6 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, 2017a).
There was substantial variation across the states and territories, with the placement rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children varying from 27.3 per 1,000 in Tasmania to 87.4 per 1,000 in Vitcoria (AIHW, 2017a). Indigenous children were over-represented in out-of-home care across all age groups. Indigenous children aged 1-4 and 5-9 were 11 times more likely than non-Indigenous children of the same age group to be in out-of-home care (AIHW, 2017a).
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 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 Indigenous 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 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).
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 38.2% in Tasmania to 81% of placements in New South Wales (see Figure 1). In Australia, in 2015-16, 66.2% of Indigenous children were placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in an Indigenous residential care facility (AIHW, 2017a).
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 2016
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 table.
b NSW data exclude children and young people on “Guardianship Orders” (finalised third-party parental responsibility orders: non out-of-home care funded).
c Children for whom relationship of carer and/or their Indigenous status were unknown (410) are included in the category “Total not placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care” for Vic.
d WA data exclude children on third-party parental responsibility orders and from 2015-16 includes children placed in boarding schools.
e 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.
f Out-of-home care data for the ACT includes 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 2017b, Table S42
What are the experiences of children living in out-of-home care?
In 2015 the AIHW piloted a national survey to explore the views of children and young people in out-of-home care. This survey will be held every two years to collect data to report against the National Standards for Out-of-Home Care. The pilot survey collected national data from 2,083 children aged 8-17 living in out-of-home care. This study found that 90.6% of children reported feeling safe and settled in their current placement (AIHW, 2016b). This finding is similar to research undertaken by the CREATE Foundation across Australia (excluding Western Australia) with 1,069 children and young people aged between 8 and 17 years in out-of-home care. This research found that over 80% of survey respondents were happy in their current placement (McDowall, 2013); however, some young people were unhappy with their placement history, which may be due to a high number of previous placements or placement instability (McDowall, 2013). Children and young people 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).
Research has produced varying findings with regard to young people being informed and having an opportunity to participate in decisions about their lives. Approximately half of the children and young people in the CREATE Foundation research had received little information about the reason they were in out-of-home care, and this was lower for Indigenous children and young people (McDowall, 2013). Some young people in out-of-home care have felt that they were rarely consulted and that their views, if they had an opportunity to express them, were not acted upon (Bessel, 2011). The CREATE Foundation and the AIHW reported similar results with regard to participation, with the CREATE Foundation reporting that 63% of children and young people surveyed felt that they were able to contribute to decisions about their lives “reasonably often” (McDowall, 2013) and the AIHW reporting that 67% of children and young people usually got to have a say in what happens to them (AIHW, 2016b).
There is limited Australian research that examines the long-term outcomes of children and young people in out-of-home care. Two longitudinal studies are currently underway, Beyond 18 in Victoria and Pathways of Care in New South Wales, that will provide important information about the lives of children and young people who have spent time in out-of-home care. Findings have not yet been released from Beyond 18; Pathways of Care have released some reports describing the collection of their baseline data.
What are the key challenges of providing out-of-home care?
Many children in out-of-home care 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 out-of-home care in Victoria and Western Australia and found that 40% of the sample had experienced between two and five placements, 14% 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 (FaHCSIA & 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, & NSW Department of Family and Community Services, 2015). Experiencing multiple placements can also influence a young person’s capacity to develop and maintain relationships (Johnson et al., 2011).
Young people in care have expressed their thoughts and feelings about placement instability in a number of studies. 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, 2016a; Boetto, 2010; Delfabbro et al., 2010).
Stability of caseworkers has also been suggested as an issue of concern for young people in out-of-home care, with almost 35% of young people in one research study reporting that they had had five or more caseworkers during their time in out-of-home care (McDowall, 2013). Young people in residential care were more likely to report having a greater number of caseworkers (McDowall, 2013). Having continuity provides an opportunity for children and young people 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 and young people (McDowall, 2013).
Young people in out-of-home care in Australia are discharged from care on or before their eighteenth birthday or on expiration of a court order. There are no records kept on young people leaving out-of-home care in Australia; however, existing local research 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, 2011). 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., 2011). Concerns about the challenges faced by young people due to the rapid transition to living independently have informed campaigns for care to be extended to 21 years, 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 are currently funding a trial in Western Australia that will support up to 80 young people in out-of-home care 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 above, 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 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, & NSW 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. (2016a). Child protection Australia 2014-2015 (Child Welfare Series No. 63). Canberra: AIHW.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2016b). The views of children and young people in out-of-home care: Overview of indicator results from a pilot national survey. (Bulletin 132). Canberra: AIHW.
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- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2017b). Child Protection Australia 2015-16. Supplementary data tables. 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>.
- Bessel, S. (2011). Participation in decision-making in out-of-home care in Australia: What do young people say? Children and Youth Services Review, 33,496-501.
- 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.
- Campo, M., & Commerford, J. (2016). Supporting young people leaving out-of-home care (CFCA Paper No. 41). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from <aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/supporting-young-people-leaving-out-home-care/outcomes-young-people-leaving-care>.
- Commonwealth of Australia. (2017). Improving outcomes for young people leaving out-of-home care. Media release, 5 April. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from <christianporter.dss.gov.au/media-releases/improving-outcomes-for-young-people-leaving-out-of-home-care>.
- 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.
- Deloitte Access Economics. (2016). Raising our children: Guiding young Victorians in care into adulthood. Brindibella, ACT: Deloitte Access Economics & Anglicare Victoria.
- Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) & 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>.
- Department of Human Services. (2007). The home-based care handbook. Melbourne, Vic.: Department of Human Services. Retrieved from <www.dhs.vic.gov.au/about-the-department/documents-and-resources/reports-publications/home-based-care-handbook>.
- 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. 116-139). North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.
- 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., & Pell, A. (2013). Reforming the foster care system in Australia. Melbourne: Berry Street.
- Mendes, P., Johnson, G., & Moslehuddin, B. (2011). Effectively preparing young people to transition from out-of-home care: An examination of three recent Australian studies. Family Matters, 89, 61-70.
- Mendes, P., Johnson, G., & Moslehuddin, B. (2011). Young people leaving state out-of-home care: Australian policy and practice. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.
- 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.
- Senate Community Affairs Committee Secretariat. (2015). Out of home care. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Authors and Acknowledgements
This paper was updated by Jessica Smart, Senior Research Officer and Brooke Walton, former Project Officer with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. The authors thank Jade Purtell for reviewing this resource sheet. Previous editions were compiled by Kathryn Goldsworthy, Deborah Scott, Lalitha Nair and Alister Lamont.
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