Working Together to Care for Kids

Working Together to Care for Kids

A survey of foster and relative/kinship carers

Lixia Qu, Julie Lahausse and Rachel Carson

Research Report— May 2018
An image of a couple holding hands and two young children walking a dog.

Executive summary

AIFS was commissioned and funded by the Department of Social Services (DSS) to conduct the Working Together to Care for Kids: A Survey of Foster and Relative/kinship Carers (also known as the 'Working Together to Care for Kids Survey', or WTCKS). This national survey involved telephone interviews with 2,203 foster and relative/kinship carers in late 2016 and was aimed at providing a better understanding of the characteristics and needs of the carers of children who are living in out-of-home care in Australia. Participants in this survey were foster and relative/kinship carers who were registered as formal carers (i.e., had at least one child in care under 18 years of age living with them) at 31 December 2015 in all jurisdictions except the Northern Territory.1 Most questions relating to children who were placed under the carers' care were directed to one child (referred to as "study child" or "study children").

Key findings

Characteristics of carers

This study provided significant insight into the socio-demographic characteristics of the participating carers (= 2,203: relative/kinship: 53%; foster: 47%). The vast majority of carers were female (relative/kinship: 87%; foster: 88%) with a mean age of 53 years. Nearly one-half of carers were aged between 50 and 64 years, and substantial proportions were aged 65-69 years (12%) or 70 years and older (6%). Over one-tenth of carers were Indigenous, a higher percentage than there is in the general population. Most carers under 65 years of age were not in paid employment. Nearly one-half of carers had two or more children in out-of-home care at the time of the survey, with one-fifth having three or more children in their care.

The majority of carers had an annual gross household income of less than $60,000, while one-fifth of carers were relying on less than $30,000. Carers had lower levels of annual gross household income when compared to general Australian households. In addition, a greater proportion of carers lived in public housing compared to the general population, according to HILDA. While these data suggest that carers were financially not as well-off as the general Australian household, most carers reported that they were "reasonably comfortable".

Relative/kinship carers were more likely to be older, to report lower educational attainments, and to be from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background and less likely to live with a partner. In addition, relative/kinship carers were not as well-off as foster carers. Male carers were more likely to be older than female carers and were more likely to report higher educational attainment, to be in paid employment and to live with a partner.

Care experience

Most carers reported that they were approached by their jurisdictional department or agency about becoming a carer for the study child, although this was more common for foster carers than relative/kinship carers. A substantial minority of relative/kinship carers were asked by the child's parents or a family member to care for the study child.

The mean age of study children was 9 years old and the median duration that they had been living with their current carer was 3.4 years. Although just under one-half of carers reported that the study children were in their care for two years or less, over one-tenth reported a much longer duration (at least 10 years). Foster carers were more likely than relative/kinship carers to have cared for the study child for less than one year.

Most carers (86%) reported being aware that the study child in their care had experienced or been exposed to at least one of six indicators of abuse, neglect and problems at home. The most common indicators reported as experienced by study children were having lived with household member(s) who had alcohol or drug use problems (72%), followed by neglect (68%), family violence (62%) and emotional abuse (55%).

Although most carers were aware of the study child's experience of the various indicators of abuse/neglect prior to their arrival in their household, a significant minority of carers only became aware of such prior history after the study child had been in their care. In instances of sexual abuse, a majority (55%) of carers reported that they had not learned of its occurrence until after the child was in their care.

One-third of carers also reported that the study child had been diagnosed with at least one type of developmental condition - intellectual disability, a physical disability, diagnosed behavioural problems, or diagnosed mental health conditions. The most commonly reported developmental conditions were intellectual disabilities (18%) and behavioural problems (15%). Foster carers were more likely than relative/kinship carers to indicate that the study child had at least one of the four developmental conditions. In many cases, especially in regards to physical disabilities, carers were aware of these conditions prior to the study child coming to live with them, but it was also relatively common for the carer not to become aware of these conditions until or after the study child's arrival, and this was more apparent for foster carers than relative/kinship carers.

Overall, most carers (61%) reported that they were provided with adequate information about the study child's history before they came into their care, with relative/kinship carers being more likely than foster carers to believe this was the case (69% vs 52%). Importantly, however, more than one-third of carers reported that they were not provided with adequate information about the study child prior to their arrival, with this view being more prevalent for foster carers than for relative/kinship carers (46% vs 27%).

While a majority of the study children's birth parents were reported to remain alive, the degree and type of parental contact the children had varied. The study children had face-to-face contact less frequently with their father than their mother. One-third of study children had seen their mother at least once a month while less than one-fifth had seen their father at least once a month. Nearly one-third of study children had not seen their father in the past six months and over one-tenth did not see their mother. 2 Almost half of the study children had some degree of other contact with their mother, such as talking on the phone, emailing or contacting each other via social media, while just over a third of study children had this level of contact with their father.

Services and support

Access to support services

The vast majority of these carers (90%) had used at least one service for helping them look after the children who were placed in their care in the past, with over half (54%) having ever used three or more services over time. Over two-thirds of carers had received at least one type of services in the past six months. More than one-half of participating carers reported accessing carer support staff from their government child protection department and child counselling/psychologist services.

Overall, for most types of services, foster carers were more likely than relative/kinship carers to report having received support. Eight in ten foster carers had received at least one type of service support in the past six months. In contrast, less than six in ten relative/kinship carers had received at least one type of service, meaning that four in ten relative/kinship carers had not received services in the past six months at the time of their interview. Overall, carers perceived the services they had received to be "very helpful" or "fairly helpful", with only a minority indicating that the services received were unhelpful.

Overall, eight in ten carers reported that they currently required at least one service (regardless of whether they were currently using it). The number of carers who reported having current needs for at least one type of service was greater than the number of carers who reported having received at least one type of service in the past six months, demonstrating the extent of carers' needs for support. Indeed, two thirds of carers had one service need that was not met. Counselling/psychologist services were the most commonly nominated by carers as being currently needed, followed by carer support staff from a government child protection department, respite care services and carer support teams from non-government organisations and agencies. The analysis also revealed that substantial proportions of carers had current needs for these services but had not received the services in the past six months or never had. Almost half of the carers with a need for at least one type of services (nearly four in ten carers overall) said that they had some difficulty in getting the professional support they needed, with the most commonly reported barrier being long waiting lists/low support staff availability.


Participating carers were asked about how well prepared they felt for their caring role, with almost two-thirds indicating that they felt very well or well prepared. Almost two-thirds of carers also reported that they had attended some form of training course or workshop to assist them in their caring role, with 40% undertaking training in the past year.

There were, however, large differences between foster and relative/kinship carers in regards to training, with over nine in ten foster carers reporting that they had undertaken some form of training, in comparison to only just over a third of relative/kinship carers.

Among carers who had not attended any training, views were mixed about whether it would have been helpful to do so, particularly among relative/kinship carers. Together, these data suggest that relative/kinship carers may have less access to training than foster carers and that when training opportunities arise, relative/kinship carers may be taking them up less frequently than foster carers.

Contact with caseworker/carer support worker and other carer families

While the majority of carers were in contact with a caseworker/carer support worker at least once a month, foster carers tended to have more frequent contact than relative/kinship carers. For relative/kinship carers, their caseworker/carer support worker was most likely to be from a government department, while for foster carers, they were equally likely to be from a non-government organisation as a government department. Overall, carers were satisfied with the advice or assistance they received from their caseworker/carer support worker in regards to their most recent contact.

Just under one-half reported that they had met other carer families through a carer support group or on a social basis, but foster carers were much more likely to report this type of contact than relative/kinship carers.

Rewards and challenges

Most carers (i.e., over 90%) strongly agreed/agreed that they could make a positive difference in the life of a child in care, that they could provide the child with a positive family experience, and that it was a rewarding experience to care for these children. Nevertheless, carers also revealed the significant challenges they had faced in carrying out their caring role. Nearly one-half agreed that caring for children in out-of-home care was stressful, and an even higher proportion agreed that it was difficult to manage their behaviours, and that these children required more time or effort than other children of the same age.

Approximately one-half of carers agreed that the allowances received for the study child were adequate and that they were well supported by agencies/services. However, nearly one-quarter of carers felt that allowances were inadequate to care for the study child and three in ten did not feel well supported by agencies/services in meeting the study child's needs. This dissatisfaction was more prevalent among relative/kinship carers than foster carers, and was particularly evident among carers looking after the study children who had experienced or were exposed to at least four types of abuse/violence/neglect.

Although carers had a strong sense of reward, nearly one-half reported that they were unlikely or very unlikely to care for another child in the future, with relative/kinship carers being more likely than foster carers to express this view. Carers reporting higher levels of care challenges and a lack of support were also less likely to be a carer again.

Carer wellbeing and family relationships

Overall, carers reported positively on their wellbeing and family relationships. The majority of carers rated their health as "excellent" or "very good", with relatively high levels of vitality and mental health. While the majority of carers were highly satisfied with their life, some carers fared less well. Male carers rated more poorly than female carers on their general health, and male carers were also less satisfied with life, and less satisfied with family relationships. Relative/kinship carers also rated less well on their general health compared to foster carers and almost one in four relative/kinship carer had a disability or medical condition that was likely to last for six months or more.

Although relative/kinship carers provided lower ratings of life satisfaction when compared to foster carers, they were more satisfied with their own relationship with the study child, their partner's relationship with the study child, and how the study child got along with the other children in the household. This is likely to reflect the established relationships and bond with the study child.

Significant care challenges and lack of support were found to be associated with poorer carer wellbeing and family relationships for carers.


This report has examined the characteristics of foster and relative/kinship carers and of study children, together with carers' experiences of the circumstances relating to how the study children came into their care and their experience of service use, support and training received in carrying out their caring role. It has also examined the rewards and challenges of being a carer and the wellbeing of carers and their family relationships, including those concerning the study children, and the link between their wellbeing and family relationships and their care experiences.

Overall, while many carers reported that they were coping well in their caring roles despite the challenging circumstances and complexities associated with caring for a child in an out-of-home-care placement, this study identified that there is the need to better inform and prepare carers for their role and to provide more support while children are in their care, given the variety of needs that are likely to emerge over time. While service provision and support clearly remains important for both foster and relative/kinship carers, the findings suggest that more may be required to assist relative/kinship carers in particular, in order to increase availability and their participation in and/or uptake of services/training. The results from this study also highlight positives emerging from the caring experience, with carers reporting that they could make a real difference to a child's life and that they find being a carer a rewarding undertaking.

1 Note that in New South Wales the OOHC system includes NGOs, and these NGOs drew the samples following the same procedure but with the care type undefined.

2 The survey did not ask about the study child's prior maltreatments associated with parents and it is not possible to assess whether the lack of contact for some study children was linked with such a history.

Authors and Acknowledgements

This report was commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS). We are very grateful for all the support and assistance provided by DSS staff, especially Linda Pascal, Shelley Barrenger, Marianne Madden, Bridget Anyon, Sarah Ball and Melek Byrne, throughout the project. We would also like to acknowledge the valuable support we received from the Inter-Jurisdictional Working Group in providing the sample and feedback on the survey questionnaire.

We extend our special thanks to all the carers who participated in the study. This report would not have been possible without their generous contribution of time and their willingness to share their experiences.

We would particularly like to acknowledge the contribution made by Professor Daryl Higgins, former Deputy Director (Research) at the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), to the development of the project. We thank him for his advice and significant support during much of the course of the project and his insightful comments on the report. We also acknowledge the contribution made by Ruth Weston to the survey design.

Our special thanks go to Anne Hollonds, Director of AIFS, for her unflagging support, and Kelly Hand,  Deputy Director (Research), for her support provided during the course of the project. We are also very grateful to Dr Briony Horsfall for her very helpful comments.

Notwithstanding the generous assistance from many people, we are responsible for any shortcomings or errors in this report. The findings and view reported in this report are those of the authors and cannot be attributed to DSS or AIFS.

Feature image: © iStockphoto/monkeybusinessimages

Publication details

Research Report
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, May 2018.
88 pp.
Suggested citation:

Qu, L., Lahausse, J. & Carson, R. (2018). Working Together to Care for Kids: A survey of foster and relative/kinship carers. (Research Report). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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