Working Together to Care for Kids

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

1. Introduction

This report presents important findings from the Working Together to Care for Kids Survey (WTCKS), a collaborative project between the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) and the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS). The primary objective of this survey is to better understand the characteristics and needs of the foster and relative/kinship carers of the vulnerable children who are living in out-of-home care in Australia. These findings can be used to better inform government policies and practices in support of these carers.

AIFS designed, developed and implemented a national survey, in consultation with DSS, as well as the study's working group that included at least one representative from each jurisdiction. The survey was conducted during September and November 2016 and entailed telephone interviews with 2,203 foster and relative/kinship carers.3 This section first provides some background against which the study was conducted and then outlines the structure of this report.

1.1 Background

There are significant numbers of Australian children who live in out-of-home care. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), in their annual publication on child protection data, there were 46,448 children aged 0-17 years who were in out-of-home care (representing 8.6 per 1,000 Australian children) at 30 June 2016, compared to 37,648 children at 30 June 2011 (representing 7.3 per 1,000 children) (AIHW, 2017, 2012). The majority of the children at 30 June 2016 were living with foster or relative/kinship carers in home-based care arrangements: 39% in foster care, 49% in relative/kinship care (AIHW, 2017).4

The current study focuses on these two groups of formal carers: foster and relative/kinship carers. These carers have formal care arrangements that involve some form of legal or statutory child protection intervention, whereas informal care may occur in circumstances where a private arrangement is made without legal or statutory child protection intervention. Although the Australian jurisdictions vary in how these care types are defined and governed, they can broadly be described as follows:

Relative or kinship care involves placing a child or young person with a relative or someone they already know. A relative/kinship carer could be any of the following: a biological relative of the child; a person who is not a biologically related but who has a legal, social or other relationship with the child and/or birth parent(s); and/or a person from the child's or family's community (in accordance with their culture) (AIHW, 2017). In Indigenous communities, "kin" may also be someone who shares a cultural connection with the child (Bromfield & Osborn, 2007). While there may be a preference for out-of-home-care children to be placed with a family member or someone close to them whenever possible (i.e., in a relative/kinship care placement), sometimes this is not possible. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care are to be placed according to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle developed over three decades ago, which was designed to place children with carers who can maintain their familial, cultural and community connection. Nevertheless, Arney, Iannos, Chong, McDougall, and Parkinson (2015) found that the Principle guided only a minority of placements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Foster care is where a family or an individual care for other people's children in their own home and the caregiver is authorised by the state or territory to look after the children. Although the specific requirements to be a carer vary between jurisdictions, prospective carers must complete an assessment/accreditation process in order to be formally recognised as a foster carer in their jurisdiction and thereby be eligible to care for a child. For both foster care and relative/kinship care, the caregiver may be financially reimbursed (or offered financial reimbursement but decline the offer) by their state or territory (AIHW, 2017).

Much of the research on carers who look after children in out-of-home care focuses on specific states or territories. Rosier and Hunter (2016), in their audit review of research and evaluation projects on child protection between 2011 and 2015, observed that research in child protection, including that with a focus on carers, tended to be qualitative and based on small sample sizes. Indeed, more than half of the research projects between 2011 and 2015, and the majority of studies conducted earlier, were based on sample sizes fewer than 100. A study with a nationally representative and relatively large sample of carers was needed to provide a national picture of carers and understand their care experiences and needs.

The available research on foster and relative/kinship carers has highlighted a number of important issues, both in regards to the differences between these two types of carers, as well as their general views of and experiences within their caring role. An important point to note is that the perceptions and expectations of the role of carers of out-of-home-care children can vary considerably between various stakeholders - including government departments, child protection workers, the children in out-of-home care, the community in general, and carers themselves (Blythe, Halcomb, Wilkes, & Jackson, 2013). This can potentially make intervention or assistance difficult.

It has been reported that there is ambiguity about the role of the foster carer in the Australian community. The ambiguity is at least in part due to the complexity of the child protection system, including that it is administrated by government and non-government (NGO) organisations and also governed by legislation, policies and protocols that vary between each state and territory. And while there can be significant disagreement between foster carers themselves regarding their role, Blythe et al. (2013) found that female foster carers tended to perceive themselves as mothers to the long-term foster children in their care, but as foster carers for children in their short-term care. Furthermore, Schofield, Beek, Ward, and Biggart (2013) differentiated between foster carers who were able to move flexibly between being both a professional carer and a parent to a child in out-of-home care and others who struggled to manage different role expectations and demands; this again highlights the different ways in which carers can perceive their role and also the potential for this to change over time as well as issues related to the professional-personal structure of the carer role.

The foster care literature has indicated a number of challenges associated with fostering. For example, there can be emotional and psychological difficulties, particularly in regards to attachment issues with foster children after they have transitioned from their care (e.g., to a permanent placement or to be reunified with their birth parents). In addition, the complex needs and behavioural issues that are often associated with children in out-of-home care can have a negative impact on carers and their families. Some foster carers have also indicated that the role has placed them under financial strain, due to factors such as a lower capacity to engage in paid employment and inadequate state reimbursement (McHugh, 2006; Wilks & Wise, 2011). A survey conducted by Wilks and Wise (2011) of foster carers in Victoria also found a proportion of carers identified "system challenges" as a barrier in their caring roles, such as insufficient agency/department support and their frustration with the system.

On the other hand, foster carers have identified a number of rewards associated with fostering. These include feeling that they are making a difference in children's lives and seeing children in out-of-home care respond well to living in a safe and secure home. Furthermore, foster carers often view the role as an opportunity to "give back" and make a difference to the community, and may gain purpose and personal fulfilment as a result of doing so. There can also be a positive impact on the wider fostering family, by drawing its members closer together and encouraging growth and maturation in carers' birth children (McHugh et al., 2004; Wilks & Wise, 2011).

Research on relative/kinship carers indicates that economic disadvantage, stress, health issues and a lack of resources are issues commonly faced by relative/kinship carers (Bromfield, Higgins, Higgins, & Richardson, 2007; Dunne & Kettler, 2006). Economic disadvantage in relative/kinship families compared to foster care families has been consistently found in the literature - this is likely to be at least partly due to a higher proportion of relative/kinship carers being single parents and/or older. It has been suggested that these issues can negatively affect the caring capacity of these carers, in conjunction with the various and complex needs of the children in their care and managing family relationships (including with birth parents). Hence, it is important that support, interventions and training cater to the individual needs of relative/kinship carers. This could be achieved through consulting with carers and improving communication between carers and the relevant service professionals (Portengen & van der Neut, 1999; Waldman & Wheal, 1999; cf. Dunne & Kettler, 2006; Golding, 2004).

In addition, an Australian study of grandparent relative/kinship carers, which involved interviews with 55 service providers and policy-makers from New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory, found that these carers are often lacking the timely and accessible information and support they require (valentine, Jenkins, Brennan, & Cass, 2013). The study concluded that this may impact on both their material and emotional wellbeing.

There is also some research evidence to suggest that carers are able to cope better with the demands of caring with appropriate service support. For example, data from a UK study of adolescents in foster care indicated that the levels of strain experienced by foster carers can be mitigated by enhanced support; for example, the regular availability of and assistance provided by the child's caseworker (Farmer, Lipscombe, & Moyers, 2005). Training may also be an important factor for carers, both initially and ongoing, to ensure that carers' expectations are managed and they feel equipped for their caring roles (Randle, Ernst, Leisch, & Dolnicar, 2016). For example, the results from a British study of foster carers found that those who undertook a counselling skills training course had greater confidence in their ability to look after children's mental health and emotional needs (Mosuro, Malcolm, & Guishard-Pine, 2014).

Current research on carers of out-of-home-care children indicates that both foster and relative/kinship carers have different and somewhat complex needs, which may not always be consistently met from a service provision and training perspective. A national study that investigates aspects such as their support needs, and their views and experiences, has been lacking. Australia, like many countries in the Western world, has been experiencing difficulties with the recruitment and retention of carers, and is increasingly reliant on older carers and former carers (Wilks & Wise, 2011). It is important to gain a greater understanding of what motivates these individuals to become carers and what could be done to better support them in their roles. Recognising the significant role that the carers play in shaping the lives and development of children in care, the Second Action Plan 2012-2015 of the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 (National Framework) (DSS, 2011, p. 6) stated:

The provision of support that is timely and responsive to the needs of carers and the children and young people they are caring for, and ongoing quality training and development, will help carers deliver the best care possible in often complex or challenging circumstances.

Meeting carers' support needs is now part of the national standards for improving the quality of care to children and younger people in care. In this context, the current study was conducted to better understand their needs, thoughts and motivations and, ultimately, enable support to be better targeted to these individuals.

1.2 Structure of this report

The next section outlines the methodology of the survey. Section 3 depicts characteristics of foster and relative/kinship carers. Circumstances surrounding the time that children in out-of-home care came to the carer's households are discussed in Section 4. Section 5 focuses on carers' experience of service support and training support. The two following sections (6 and 7) examine carers' views on motivations and challenges in providing their care to the vulnerable children and their wellbeing. The final section summarises the key findings of this report.

This report aims to provide a national picture of foster and relative/kinship carers of children in out-of-home care and bring together the multiple and complex challenges carers face, including those around services. This report does not provide findings at state and territory levels, given all the differences in carer services between states/territories such as child protection legislation, service eligibility and provision models.

3 Responding carers were from all of the Australian states and territories, with the exception of the Northern Territory.

4 There is some limitation in data comparability due to differences in the definition of placement types and reporting between states and territories, see Figure 5.3, AIHW (2017), pp.50 & 65.