Working Together to Care for Kids

A survey of foster and relative/kinship carers
Research Report – May 2018

3. Characteristics of carers

This section focuses on the demographic characteristics of the carers who participated in the survey, including their financial circumstances. Data on the number and age of children in care is also provided.

3.1 Care type and gender of carers

For the purpose of survey stratification, care type as reported by jurisdictions was used. However, respondents who were recruited from the database of NGOs did not have a care type. A small number of respondents (n = 20) were interviewed but not originally listed as a primary carer of children in the household.

For these reasons, care type in this report was derived according to the respondent's report of their relationship with the study child.8

As shown in Figure 3.1:

  • forty-seven per cent were foster carers; and
  • fifty-three per cent were relative/kinship carers.

The distribution of the two groups of carers in the study is similar to the data of out-of-home care reported by AIHW. AIHW (2015) suggests that of carer households with a placement during 2012-13, 47% were foster carer households and 53% were relative/kinship carer households.

Among relative/kinship carers:

  • the majority (66%) were grandparents to the study child in their care (including a small number of great-grandparents);
  • twenty-seven per cent were uncles or aunties to the study child; and
  • the remainder (7%) were other relatives (e.g., cousins, siblings and so on). (These results are not shown in Figure 3.1.)

The great majority of carers (88%) were female, and only 12% were male. Gender distributions were similar between the two types of carers, with 12% of males among foster carers and 13% among the relative/kinship group.

The distributions of foster and relative/kinship carers were similar between men and women:

  • Forty-five per cent of male carers and 48% of female carers were foster carers.
  • Relative/kinship carers accounted for 55% and 42% of male and female carers respectively. (These results are not shown in Figure 3.1.)

Figure 3.1: Carers by care type and by gender

Bar chart Figure 3.1: Carers by care type and by gender

Note: Percentages are based on weighted data.

3.2 Children in out-of-home care

Table 3.1  shows the age and gender of study children as well as the number of children in out-of-home care that carers were looking after at the time of interview and in the six months prior to the interview.

  • The mean age of study children was 9 years old.
    • The most common age group of study children was 5-11 years (44%), followed by under five years (23%).
    • Eighteen per cent were 12-14 years and 15% were 15-18 years.9
  • The mean ages of study children for the two groups of carers were similar.
  • There were slightly more boys than girls among study children (52% vs 48%), and this pattern applied to both groups of carers.
  • The mean age of study children cared for by male carers was older than that of study children with female carers. For example, 18% of study children looked after by male carers were 15 years old and over, compared to 14% of those children in the care of female carers, while 24% of study children in the care of female carers were under five years, compared to 17% among those who were looked after by male carers.

The distributions of the number of children in out-of-home care who were looked after by carers at the time of interview and in the six months prior to the interview were broadly similar, with one child being the most common.

  • At the time of interview, just under one-half of carers looked after one child in out-of-home care (45%) and just over one-quarter (27%) had two children in their care. One-fifth (22%) of carers had three or more children and a small proportion (7%) reported that a child had left within the past six months and they did not have any children in out-of-home care who were living with them at the time of interview.
  • Relative/kinship carers were more likely to have one child in their care compared with foster carers (50% vs 37% at the time of interview). Conversely, multiple children in out-of-home care were more common among foster carers than they were for relative/kinship carers.
  • Formally caring for a large number of children in out-of-home care (four or more) was slightly more common for female carers than for male carers (10% vs 7%) and the proportion of children who had left was slightly higher for male carers than for female carers (8% vs 7%). Nevertheless, the broader patterns were similar between male and female carers.
Table 3.1: Study child characteristics and the number of out-of-home-care children in household, by care type and by gender of carers
  Care type Carer's gender 
Foster carers (%) Relative/kinship
carers (%)
Males (%) Females (%) All a (%)
Age of study child     
0-4 22.8 23.4 17.2 24.0 23.1
5-11 42.5 46.1 47.2 44.0 44.4
12-14 19.1 16.3 17.4 17.7 17.7
15-18 15.6 14.1 18.2 14.3 14.8
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Mean 9.0 8.8 9.5 8.8* 8.9
SD (5.2) (4.3) (4.6) 4.8 4.8
Gender of study chid     
Boys 52.9 50.6 56.1 51.0 51.6
Girls 47.1 49.4 43.9 49.0 48.4
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Whether study child is indigenous    
Yes 30.7 31.9 30.2 31.6 31.4
No 69.3 68.1 69.8 68.4 68.6
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Number of children in out-of-home care currently in household ***   ***  
0 7.8 6.0 8.2 6.6 6.8
1 38.6 50.1 45.3 44.5 44.6
2 28.2 25.8 26.0 27.1 26.9
3 13.7 11.3 14.9 12.1 12.5
4+ 11.7 6.8 5.7 9.6 9.1
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Number of children in out-of-home care in household currently and in last 6 months ***   ***  
1 34.1 49.4 45.3 41.6 42.1
2 27.5 28.9 28.0 28.2 28.2
3 17.9 13.0 17.3 15.0 15.3
4+ 20.6 8.8 9.4 15.1 14.4
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Number of carers b 1,196 1,005 267 1,935 2,203

Notes: Percentages and means are based on weighted data and sample sizes on unweighted data. For each variable relating to the children, a design-based chi-square test was used to assess statistically significant difference between foster carers and relative/kinship carers, and between male and female carers (*p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001). Percentages may not total exactly 100.0% due to rounding. a Includes carers whose care type couldn't be ascertained or gender was missing. b Sample sizes varied slightly across variables due to non-responses to specific variables.

3.3 Selected characteristics of carers

The selected socio-demographic characteristics of carers are presented in Table 3.2).

  • The mean age of carers was 53 years. Nearly one-half were 50-64 years old, and less than one-quarter were aged in their 40s. There were more carers who were aged 65 years or older than there were under 40 years old (15% vs 12%). It is also worth noting that 6% of carers were aged 70 years and over (data not shown in the table).
  • The majority of carers (62%) were living with a partner.
  • The proportion of carers who were Indigenous was 12%. Whereas the percentage of Indigenous people within the national population is 3%, based on the 2011 Census (ABS, 2013).
  • One-half of carers did not have any post-school qualification and four in ten did not complete secondary school. Less than one-fifth had a degree or higher qualification, and one-third had another post-school qualification (i.e., lower than a degree).
  • Of carers under 65 years old, more than one-half (56%) were not in paid work, and part-time employment was more common than full-time employment, with 25% and 19% in part-time and full-time employment, respectively.

Foster and relative/kinship carers differed in socio-demographic characteristics.

  • Relative/kinship carers were older than foster carers (mean age: 54.5 years vs 51.4 years). Nearly one-fifth of relative/kinship carers were 65 years old or older, compared to one-tenth of foster carers. This reflects the fact that most relative/kinship carers were grandparents to the children in their care.
  • Relative/kinship carers were less likely to live with a partner than foster carers (58% vs 67%).
  • Relative/kinship carers were more likely than foster carers to be Indigenous (16% vs 8%), but slightly less likely to be born overseas (13% vs 17%).
  • Lower educational attainments (i.e., non-completion of secondary school) were more common among relative/kinship carers than foster carers. This is partly due to the differential age profiles between the two groups - foster carers being younger, on average, by about three years. There was also a lower employment rate among relative/kinship carers aged under 65 years.
  • There were also apparent differences between male and female carers in some characteristics.
  • Male carers were older than female carers (54.7 years vs 52.8 years). The proportion of those who were aged 65 years and older was 21% among male carers, compared to 14% of female carers.
  • Male carers had a higher level of education than female carers. For example, a higher proportion of male carers than female carers had a degree or higher qualification (23% vs 17%). The gender difference in education was not statistically significant, due to the small sample of male carers.
  • Male carers under 65 years old were more likely than female carers to be employed (56% vs 43%), most commonly on a full-time basis (46% vs 16%).
  • In addition, a higher proportion of male carers than female carers lived with a partner (77% vs 60%).
Table 3.2: Selected characteristics of carers by care type and by gender
  Care type Carer's gender 
Foster carers (%) Relative/kinship
carers (%)
Males (%) Females (%) All a (%)
Age          
Under 40 years 11.5 12.5 10.8 12.2 12.1
40-49 31.8 16.0 17.4 24.4 23.5
50-64 46.0 52.4 51.4 49.0 49.3
65+ 10.8 19.1 20.5 14.4 15.2
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Mean 51.4 54.5*** 54.7 52.8* 53.0
SD 10.9 11.1 11.3 11.2 11.2
Educational attainment   ***      
Degree+ 24.7 11.5 23.2 17.0 17.7
Other post-school qualification 35.3 30.1 38.1 31.9 32.6
Year 12 10.3 8.2 5.4 9.7 9.2
Year 11 or lower 29.8 50.2 33.3 41.4 40.4
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100
Employment status,carers aged under 65 years ***   ***  
Full time 21.3 17.0 46.2 15.6 19.1
Part time 27.2 23.3 10.1 27.3 25.3
Not employed 51.5 59.7 43.7 57.1 55.5
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100
Whether living with a partner   ***   ***  
Yes 67.3 57.6 77.4 60.0 62.2
No 32.7 42.4 22.6 40.0 37.8
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100
Indigenous status   ***      
Indigenous 7.7 15.8 10.1 12.3 12
Non-indigenous 92.3 84.2 89.9 87.7 88
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100
Country of birth       ns  
Australia 82.7 86.6 84.9 84.7 84.8
Overseas 17.3 13.4 15.1 15.3 15.2
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100
Number of carers b 1,196 1,004 267 1,935 2,203

Notes: Percentages and other figures are based on weighted data and sample sizes on unweighted data. For each characteristic variable, a design-based chi-square test was used to assess statistically significant difference between foster carers and relative/kinship carers, and between male and female carers (*p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001). Percentages may not total exactly 100.0% due to rounding. a Includes carers whose care type couldn't be ascertained or gender was missing. b Sample sizes varied slightly across variables due to non-responses to specific variables.

Table 3.3 depicts carers' financial circumstances. Financial circumstances were measured using annual gross household income, housing tenure, number of financial hardships experienced in the past year, and self-assessed financial situation. The number of financial hardships was measured by asking carers whether they had experienced any of eight specific events in the last 12 months due to a shortage of money, with the events including incidences such as inability to pay utility bills, car registrations, rent or mortgage on time; inability to heat the home; missing meals; selling something; or seeking financial assistance from family/friends or a welfare/community agency. The table shows the extent to which carers experienced none, one hardship or multiple hardships.

Carers' assessments of their financial circumstances were based on their responses to being asked how they felt that they and their family were getting along financially, given their current needs and financial responsibilities. Six response options were provided (prosperous, very comfortable, reasonably comfortable, just getting by, poor and very poor). The table shows responses in four groups - prosperous or very comfortable, reasonably comfortable, just getting by, poor or very poor.

  • Just over one-half of carers (54%) had an annual gross household income under $60,000, with over one-fifth under $30,000. One-quarter of carers reported that their annual gross household income was between $60,000 and $99,999, while just one-fifth had a gross household income consisting of $100,000 or more.10
  • How do carers' household income levels compare with Australian households overall? To address this question, the data collected from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey11 in 2014 were analysed. The results suggest that carers had a lower household income compared with overall Australian households.
    • Of the households in HILDA data collected in 2014, 16% had an annual gross household income under $30,000 (here called "low income"), while 37% had a level of annual gross household income of at least $100,000 (here called "high income"). By contrast, a higher proportion of carers was in the low household income group (22%) and a lower proportion was in the high household income group (21%).
  • In terms of housing, one-quarter of carers reported that they owned their home outright and 40% were purchasing. Close to one-quarter were renting privately and one-tenth were on public housing. The proportion of carers who were living in public housing was higher than for general households in Australia according to HILDA 2014 (11% vs 4%). This is consistent with the lower level of household income among carers than generally across Australian households.
  • The majority of carers reported that they did not experience any of the specified financial hardship events in the past 12 months. One-tenth of carers experienced one form of hardship while 14% reported experiencing at least two hardships. HILDA also collected this data and their results were similar to the reports of the carers.12
  • Although the results above suggest that carers were financially not as well-off as Australian households overall, few carers considered that they and their families were poor or very poor (less than 1%). Instead, the most common response was that they were reasonably comfortable (58%), followed by feeling that they were just getting by (25%). Seventeen per cent of carers said they were prosperous or very comfortable. HILDA also collected this data and the responses to this question in HILDA 2014 were similar to those by carers in this study.13

Foster carers and relative/kinship carers differed in their financial circumstances. With each measure, relative/kinship carers were less well-off financially than foster carers.

  • A higher proportion of relative/kinship carers than foster carers was in the lowest category of annual gross household income (< $30,000) (28% vs 16%), while a higher proportion of foster carers than relative/kinship carers was in the top category of household income ($100,000+) (30% vs 13%).
  • Higher proportions of relative/kinship carers than foster carers were in private rental (26% vs 20%) or in public housing (15% vs 5%).
  • Relative/kinship carers were more likely than foster carers to experience multiple financial hardships (19% vs 8%).
  • Compared with foster carers, relative/kinship carers were more likely to report that they and their families were financially just getting by, poor or very poor (33% vs 17%).

The difference in financial circumstances between male and female carers was less apparent than that between foster and relative/kinship carers.

  • Compared with male carers, a higher proportion of female carers was in the lowest category of annual gross household income (less than $30,000) (23% vs 17%) and a lower proportion was in the highest category ($100,000+) (20% vs 28%).
  • Male and female carers were similar in terms of housing tenure, their experience of financial hardships and self-assessed financial situation.
Table 3.3: Financial circumstances of carers by care type and by gender
  Care type Carer's gender
Foster carers (%) Relative/kinship carers (%) Males (%) Females (%) All a (%)
Annual gross household income ***   *  
< $30 k 16.0 27.7 17.2 22.7 22.0
$30-59 k 26.5 37.8 28.0 32.8 32.2
$60-99 k 27.8 22.0 27.0 24.6 24.9
$100+ k 29.8 12.5 27.7 19.9 20.9
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Housing tenure   ***      
Own outright 25.0 24.7 27.2 24.5 24.9
Purchasing 48.5 31.9 42.8 39.3 39.7
Private rental 19.6 26.4 19.7 23.7 23.2
Public housing 5.4 15.1 9.1 10.8 10.5
Other 1.4 1.9 1.3 1.7 1.7
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Number financial hardships experienced in the past year ***      
None 83.5 70.7 75.9 76.9 76.8
One 8.4 10.9 9.3 9.7 9.7
Two or more 8.1 18.5 14.8 13.4 13.6
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Self-assessed financial circumstances ***      
Prosperous/very comfortable 22.3 11.5 13.8 17.0 16.6
Reasonably comfortable 60.5 55.8 60.0 57.8 58.1
Just getting by 17.0 31.4 25.8 24.4 24.5
Poor, very poor 0.3 1.4 0.5 0.9 0.8
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Number of carers b 1,196 1,004 267 1,935 2,203

Notes: Percentages and other figures are based on weighted data and sample sizes on unweighted data. For each characteristic variable, a design-based chi-square test was used to assess statistically significant differences between foster carers and relative/kinship carers, and between male and female carers (*p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001). Percentages may not total exactly 100.0% due to rounding. a Includes carers whose care type couldn't be ascertained or gender was missing. b Sample sizes varied slightly across variables due to non-responses to specific variables.

3.4 Summary

Among the responding carers, a slightly higher proportion were relative/kinship carers (53%) as compared to foster carers (47%), with the great majority of carers being female in both groups (87% and 88% respectively). The majority of relative/kinship carers (66%) were grandparents to the study children. The distribution of the two care types was similar to the national data on carers in the child protection systems across Australia (AIHW, 2015).

Carers were 53 years old on average, with nearly one-half aged 50-64 years of age, and with a further 12% of carers aged 65 years or older. A small proportion of carers (6%) was aged 70 years or older. Most carers had no post-school qualifications, including four in ten who had not completed secondary education, and more than half of the carers under 65 years of age were not in paid employment. There were some differences in the socio-demographic characteristics of foster carers and relative/kinship carers, with the latter group reporting lower educational attainments. They were also more likely to be older and to be from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background but less likely to live with a partner. When considering both carer groups, male carers were more likely to be older than female carers and were more likely to live with a partner, report higher educational attainment and be in paid employment.

The mean age of the study children was 9 years, with similar mean ages for the two carer groups and slightly more male than female children among the study children. More than four in ten study children were of primary school age (5-11 years) and close to one-quarter were pre-school aged (under 5 years).

The data showed that the majority of carers had an annual gross household income of less than $60,000, while one-fifth of carers relied on less than $30,000. Carers had lower levels of annual gross household income compared to general Australian households. Furthermore, a greater proportion of carers lived in public housing compared to the general population, according to HILDA. Although the data suggests that carers were not as financially well-off as Australian households, most carers reported themselves to be "reasonably comfortable". Of note, however, compared to foster carers, relative/kinship carers were more likely to have low annual gross household incomes, to live in private rental or public housing and to report experiencing financial hardship.

8 For two carers, care type could not be determined.

9 The survey was meant to focus on carers with children under 18 years in out-of-home care; however, eight carers with a child who had just turned 18 were included in the survey.

10 Gross household income includes income from all sources (e.g., wages, pensions, income supports, allowances, etc.).

11 The HILDA project was initiated and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (Melbourne Institute). The findings and views reported in this paper, however, are those of the authors and should not be attributed to either DSS or the Melbourne Institute.

12 It should be noted that HILDA collected this data in a self-completed questionnaire from all respondents aged 15 years and older. The HILDA sample is younger than the sample of carers in this study. The mean age of the HILDA sample in 2014 was 45 years, compared to 53 years for carers in this study.

13 See Footnote 12 for differences between this study and HILDA in how this data were collected and the mean age of respondents.