Perspectives of professionals from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies, non-government agencies and government departments
Daryl Higgins, Leah Bromfield, Jenny R. Higgins and Nick Richardson
“Being a foster carer is a high risk occupation: there are allegations of abuse, psychological stress and trauma, birth families threatening foster families, risks to foster carers’ birth children, property damage, and insurance and occupational health and safety issues. These issues are not being looked at. While we are getting volunteers to work for free these issues are being ignored. The more we look at them the more we have to acknowledge the problems.” (non-Indigenous carer)
“We must look at how we can support foster carers properly if we are to expect them to attain certain standards when they are looking after children.” (non-Indigenous carer)
For carers to meet the needs of the children in their care, they need effective, comprehensive support that can enhance their capacity to provide adequate care and enable them to continue in their caring role.
In a national study, the Australian Institute of Family Studies conducted interviews with professionals from government, non-government and Indigenous agencies, as well as carers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and Indigenous young people in care (the participants). Participants were asked to talk about what type of support carers needed to continue in their caring role, and barriers that made it difficult to provide appropriate care.
When carers were asked what kind of support they needed, they most often responded that if the children in their care were adequately supported, they felt supported.
For themselves, carers told us they needed:
- adequate financial support;
- practical and emotional support;
- respectful relationships with child protection departments; and
- a need to support kinship and informal placements.
Carers want adequate financial support
Professionals and carers told us that the most pressing need was sufficient financial support for carers, as current levels were seen to be inadequate to meet the costs of caring for a child in out-of-home care. This issue, which has been confirmed by previous research (McHugh, 2002) is not unique to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers. However, it is exacerbated by the disproportionate levels of material disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (see Paper 2). In the focus groups with carers and professionals, the inadequacy of financial support was a consistent theme:
“The fostering allowance is a pittance (no carer is in it for the money). One dollar an hour is meant to cover everything: school uniforms, extracurricular activities, doctors fees.” (Non-Indigenous agency representative)
“You shouldn’t feel like you’re begging.” (Indigenous carer)
“We are only allowed one pair of sports shoes per year. Yet they should be treated as individuals.” (Indigenous carer)
A further issue that compounds the financial difficulty for many is the time it takes to receive compensation for financial outlays by carers. The following carers explain:
“We gotta go out and get into debt to get a bus when you get a big group of kids.” (Indigenous carer)
“When I ring up [the department], they’re ducking and hiding for cover. You get one school shirt – and it’s white! There’s not enough practical and material support.” (Indigenous carer)
Without appropriate financial support, placements with disadvantaged Indigenous carers are at risk of breaking down.
Carers feel like they don’t get enough practical and emotional support
Very little research has specifically focused on the support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander foster carers. Australian and international research confirms that one of the main reasons that carers cease fostering is due to a perceived lack of support in a range of areas (Aldgate & Hawley 1986; Denby, Rindfleisch & Bean, 1999). A survey by the Australian Foster Care Agency (2001) of Australian foster carers found that the majority of carers (79%) felt they get “just enough” or not enough support. The perceived level and quality of support received from government was significantly lower than that received from agencies.
Building the capacity of community agencies to support carers
An issue related to the support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers was the capacity of agencies to provide services. Focusing on building capacity within community agencies is likely to improve support for carers, and to ensure retention of current carers, but also increases the likelihood of new carers viewing the role of fostering positively. The following agency workers explain:
“Other non-Indigenous agencies are well funded, but Indigenous agencies can’t compete. We’ve been the poor cousins. In our state 2% of the population are Indigenous, but 30% of core business in child welfare involves Indigenous children and families. Only 2% of the funding comes to specific Indigenous services or programs.” (Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency representative)
“We are too stretched – to the limit. We can’t provide any additional support. You’d love to do more, and if you had the resources you could do more. You need more staff. We just don’t have the capacity to do more at this time.” (Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency representative)
Participants also highlighted the need to facilitate informal support:
“Support groups are an excellent way of meeting educational aims in a low-key way in the course of discussions over morning tea (no requirements to do reading – the oral tradition is important) and encouraging discussion in informal sessions.” (Non-Indigenous Agency representative)
Support for non-Indigenous carers of Indigenous children
Non-Indigenous carers of Indigenous children also need support in meeting the cultural needs of children in their care:
“The one-day course put on by [the Indigenous unit in the department] was great. It explained a lot of things in the culture that we don’t understand. Like, there is no word for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in some Indigenous languages. Finding this out gave us a good insight into the children. When they say ‘brother’, you can then ask: “Is that ‘cousin-brother’, or ‘brother-brother’?” Understanding family connection is difficult. But there needs to be more, we’re learning from the children, for example, learning that someone whose father was deceased, she couldn’t say her father’s name.” (non-Indigenous carer)
There were several examples where carers of Indigenous children registered with a non-Indigenous agency, the carer and the carer’s birth children were eligible for services provided by the Indigenous agency, such as training, support groups and cultural camps.
Carers (both relative and non-relative) wanted respite care. Carers and service providers believed that a more flexible model of care that included regular access to respite care would improve the situation for carers and have flow-on effects for recruitment and retention. One Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agency representative stated:
“Respite is an important component, but there is a limit; carers can only have 30 hours paid respite per year. It’s not enough! So people make their own informal arrangements. Children are placed with a baby-sitter for periods of up to 48 hours.” (Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency representative)
Carers want respectful relationships with child protection department workers
A major issue identified for nearly all carers (and many of the non-government agency representatives) was relationships with child protection department workers. This was true for Indigenous carers as well as non-Indigenous carers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Even when carers were receiving direct support from a non-government agency, they still felt the need for a more supportive relationship with the child’s caseworker in particular, and the department generally. The relationship was further strained between Indigenous agencies, carers and the department due to carers feeling that the department mistrusts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. An Australian researcher we interviewed commented:
“The department has a culture that reinforces the mistrust of the Indigenous community.” (Australian academic)
Improved sense of partnership
Carers and professionals within non-government agencies believed that greater interaction between departmental workers, carers and non-government placement support workers would increase the sense of partnership between the carers and departmental and agency workers. Carers see themselves as part of a team of people working towards the safety and best interests of the child:
“Foster parents are part of the team and you have to respect that. Be respectful, friendly, negotiate, ring them when they need you, when they’re in crisis don’t leave them hanging.” (non-Indigenous carer)
“Mutual respect. Let’s do the journey together” (Departmental Indigenous policy representative)
An important issue that concerned carers was not being respected by paid professionals involved in out-of-home care – particularly caseworkers. Within the environment of increased expectations being placed upon carers, their belief that they are not being treated with respect may be experienced as particularly unjust.
“There’s no respect there. We’re not on welfare. We never go to them for our own children. These kids are their kids. When you go to ask for them, their reply is, “You get carer subsidies, pay for it out of that”. If the money is allocated for our kids – be open and transparent. If you’ve got x amount of dollars to spend on the kids, let us know. Make it part of the care plan. Ask us how we’d like to spend it. Instead, they spend it on other kids. We should know exactly how much money they have got allocated for our kids.” (Indigenous carer)
A non-Indigenous out-of-home care service representative talked about the adversarial relationship that had developed between carers and departmental caseworkers. As a means of overcoming this, the department had initiated morning teas for carers and caseworkers at the departmental office. This was considered to be a good idea, but there was a struggle to effectively implement it because caseworkers were too busy to attend regularly.
One particular issue in which carers wanted to be consulted and respected as part of the care team was in the development of care plans. Carers told us that they wanted more involvement in the development of care plans. When asked about services for children, carers often talked about care plans as a formal means of describing what it was that children needed and who was responsible for coordinating this. Carers felt that their views were not being considered when care plans were developed for the child:
“It’s the lack of support... in actually being heard and valued. Some caseworkers don’t actually value that enough. It’s more than changing a nappy and giving a feed. It’s about being respected for offering a very valuable service.” (Indigenous carer)
They also felt frustrated when caseworkers failed to enact identified needs from within the care plan:
“The case conference is done, but nothing is done that’s on the case plan.” (Indigenous carer)
Health and personal information about children
Carers told us that prior to placement it was important that they be provided with a detailed history of the child’s health and personal information so that they could determine what services the children needed. However, privacy issues prevented carers from having adequate information to conduct their role.
“Some of the kids I’ve had from the department, I have no idea of their psychological profile. But it’s the trauma they bring with them that you have to deal with. We’re told, “Oh no, that’s all confidential”. But to help them and support them, I need to know. They should bring everything there when they bring a child. I want to know what happened. If I’m the carer—and I’m going to put up with the problems—at least give me something. I’ve got to help that child deal with it. The child is hurt inside, and you’ve got to prepare them to face it again and to face their parents.” (non-Indigenous carer)
In some cases, carers felt that not having the information, such as knowing a child had asthma or sexualised behaviours, placed the child or other children in danger:
“The carers want more background information – problems should be disclosed (behaviours; police record; allergies; medical records; blood disease). You are given responsibility for caring twenty-four seven, yet you know nothing. They all come with scabies and lice. A basic genogram, knowledge if there are other relatives living in the area, and workshops for cultural differences: If they are going to trust the child to your care, you need to know these things.” (non-Indigenous carers)
More contact with workers
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers expressed a desire to have more contact with departmental and agency workers, especially Indigenous departmental workers. Encouragingly, some agencies appeared to be trying to address this need:
“We try to visit carers once a fortnight, plus two calls a week – it’s part of how we retain carers and how we can continue to give them really difficult children. Children in care now have issues that are far more demanding than they were 10-12 years ago, which raises the issue of how do we support them to a greater extent.” (Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency representative)
“Regular personal contact for carers – regular phone calls, but also being visited by a placement support worker.” (non-Indigenous agency)
Having Indigenous case workers
Carers told us that as well as a case worker for the children they wanted placement support workers for themselves, preferably an Indigenous placement worker:
“Why can’t they allocate one Indigenous worker from the department to work with us?” (Indigenous carer)
Relationships with caseworkers
Other associated issues that carers found frustrating in working with departments included:
- Caseworkers being inexperienced:
“They should be using culturally appropriate workers: Black fellas, not social workers fresh out of uni.” (Indigenous carer)
- Caseworkers imposing Anglo-centric values and expectations on carers:
“Young white middle class kids coming in and telling families what to do. They carry their own baggage, morals and standards” (Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency representative)
- Feeling that caseworkers are too stretched to provide meaningful case management:
“It’s about making time for things to occur. The caseworkers are busy and so their priorities become the court work and the crisis work, and the therapeutic work suffers. Children who are perceived to be in stable long-term placements are just not visited by their departmental caseworkers.” (Aboriginal and Islander Agency Representative)
- A lack of “hand-over” between workers:
“Half the caseworkers wouldn’t know our kids if they walked past them on the street.” (Indigenous carer)
“Child’s caseworker left Friday, they didn’t even say goodbye to me, let alone the child.” (Non-Indigenous agency representative)
- Caseworkers “blaming” carers, and adopting an accusatory role (for example, in relation to an injury or illness):
“They’ll say ‘Explain this bruise’ - It’s a two-year old! Sometimes kids make innocent remarks. You feel very vulnerable ... It’s always having to defend yourself.” (Indigenous carer)
Managing contact with the child’s birth family
Many carers found contact with birth families challenging, and felt that problems associated with managing contact stemmed from the department’s lack of involvement in organising the child’s contact with the birth family.
“We had to send it through the Indigenous grapevine to organise contact with the family. The department didn’t do anything about it.” (Indigenous carer)
In some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, carers often knew the birth parents of the child, and this compounded the difficulties that arose in trying to manage contact when there were antagonistic attitudes or parents were harassing carers.
“We’ve had disagreements with the father of the children we look after. He wanted to be able to drop in any time and take them whenever he wanted. When we stood up to him, he’d ring up the department.” (Indigenous carer)
In one jurisdiction, non-government service providers talked about the positive role the Department was playing in managing contact:
“The department looks after contact with biological parents: picking up and dropping off. This is an expensive item. We use houses that are set up specifically to deal with contact (strict rules), but there is not enough of it. There should be more contact between biological parents and kids in care. They need structured activities. But again, this is resource intensive.” (non-Indigenous agency representative)
Support for kinship and informal placements
One of the main issues effecting the amount of support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers received was whether departments distinguish between kinship and non-relative carers in terms of the financial payments and other supports they provide.
Financial support arrangements varied in each jurisdiction, however there were several issues identified:
- Kinship carers may receive a lower carer payment than non-relative foster carers.
- Kinship carers may not automatically receive the carer payment in the way in which non-relative foster carers are provided with financial support – kinship carers may be eligible for these payments but it may only be upon application or at the discretion of the caseworker:
“The problem is that there is discretion in the department on whether they pay the kinship carer at the foster care rate or the kinship carer rate.” (Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency representative)
- Kinship carers may not be eligible for additional payments for special needs.
- Kinship carers may not be aware of their eligibility for Commonwealth benefits such as Commonwealth child-related payments under the Centrelink Family Tax Benefits:
“Most of our kinship carers are grandmothers: they don’t know their rights.” (Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency representative)
Participants advised that in most states and territories, government departments do not provide financial or other supports for informal placements, which posed a significant problem for carers by placing them under extreme financial strain, and sometimes put them in conflict with birth parents over child care payments:
“Kinship community carers get less, as without an order - and if it is an informal placement, they get absolutely no support – it is unlikely to be a long-term placement.” (Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency representative)
“Kinship carers in our jurisdiction only get a subsidy if the child is on a care and protection order. This is a huge issue. It’s about support for the family.” (Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency Representative)
The lack of financial support put these placements at risk of breaking down, in which case the child may be forced into the formal out-of-home care system.
“It’s appalling that governments are taking the cheap solution. If Aunty didn’t step forward, then there would be a care and protection order, and the child would be in financially supported foster care.” (Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency Representative)
An Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency representative describes how lack of financial support can lead to placement breakdown:
“We quite often find that families will take on additional children even though they are barely making ends meet themselves … And where it’s an informal arrangement there is absolutely no subsidy or support and so the likelihood of this placement being long-term is minimal because these families cannot take on additional children long-term without some additional supports. They are loath to go and get those supports because quite often at that point it becomes a department responsibility and then they have the additional level of the birth parent (mother or father or both in some cases) becoming quite hostile or coming and removing the children because their children’s payment is going to be stopped. And so they become hostile, the children are removed and therefore are put in danger and so for that reason the informal process continues to happen until the family are then in such dire straits that that breaks down as well, so we now have an additional family in absolute crisis.” (Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency representative)
Participants talked about the need to adequately support kinship carers, including informal kinship carers as they were seen as playing an important role in relieving pressure on the out-of-home care system and preventing children’s entry into formal foster care.
“The resources that the department has are quite often kept until a kid comes into care. Why don’t we use it with relatives to prevent the kids coming into care? This is particularly so with Indigenous families. They are already supporting a large family – so providing them with supports is important.” (department Indigenous policy representative)
Carers are often dissatisfied, as they do not feel adequately supported or resourced. A significant area of concern for carers was receiving sufficient funding to cover the costs of children in their care. This is particularly important as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers are often financially disadvantaged. In particular, kinship and informal carers may not be eligible for any financial support, yet if the financial needs of caring for a child are not met there is a risk of placement breakdown and the child having to be placed in the formal out-of-home care system. Other areas of concern for carers include being respected by departmental workers and being treated as part of the team in meeting the child’s needs, and practical and emotional support to continue in the role of caring. Encouragingly, professionals suggested ways in which they have addressed these shortcomings such as: departmental involvement in organising contact visits; support for carers such as regular telephone contact and visits by caseworkers; and shared social events for both carers and departmental caseworkers.
- Aldgate, J. and Hawley, D. (1986). Foster care breakdown. London: British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering.
- Australian Foster Care Association. (2001). Supporting strong parenting in the Australian foster care sector: A report prepared for the Department of Family and Community Services. Canberra: Australian Foster Care Association
- Denby, R., Rindfleisch, N. & Bean, G. (1999). Predictors of foster parents' satisfaction and intent to continue to foster. Child Abuse & Neglect, 23(3): 287-303.
- McHugh, M. (2002). The costs of caring: A study of appropriate foster care payments for stable and adequate out of home care in Australia. New South Wales: NSW Association of Childrens Welfare Agencies Inc.
The Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs on behalf of the Australian Council of Children and Parenting commissioned the National Child Protection Clearinghouse to undertake a project examining the strengths and barriers to the recruitment, assessment, training and support of carers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and the strengths and barriers in the provision of services to Indigenous children in care.
This paper forms part of a series discussing the findings:
- Paper 1. Why is there a shortage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Carers?
- Paper 2. Barriers, incentives and strategies to enhance recruitment of Indigenous carers
- Paper 3. Why standard assessment processes are culturally inappropriate
- Paper 4. Training carers
- Paper 5. Supporting carers
- Paper 6. Children with complex needs
- Paper 7. Voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in care
 In quotations we have replaced the terms “Aboriginal” or “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander” or “Torres Strait Islander” with “Indigenous” to protect the identity of the participants.
A promising model for capacity-building partnerships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services and non-Indigenous services
Common characteristics of the organisations’ programs and services that we profiled are outlined.
The Family Matters campaign calls for greater investments in early intervention, cultural safety and self-determination to end over-representation.
A snapshot of the rates of involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in child protection and out-of-home care during 2016–2017