Working Together to Care for Kids

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

8. Summary and conclusion

The objective of this report was to provide broad findings from the Working Together to Care for Kids survey in order to assist in better understanding the characteristics and needs of foster and relative/kinship carers of vulnerable children in Australia who have been unable to live with their parents (and, hence, are living in out-of-home care). It was proposed that doing so would assist in informing government policies and practices designed to support these carers.

This report has examined the characteristics of foster and relative/kinship carers and of study children, and carers' experiences including:

  • the circumstances relating to how the study children came in their care;
  • their experience of service use including barriers to accessing services and support from caseworkers or carer support workers;
  • training received in carrying out their caring role;
  • the rewards and challenges of being a carer of children in out-of-home care;
  • carers' wellbeing and quality of their family relationships, including those concerning study children; and
  • the link between their wellbeing and quality of family relationships and their care experiences.

As well as considering these factors in regard to carers overall, the report also compared foster and relative/kinship carers and male and female carers.

Demographics

Among the carers who participated in this study, there were slightly more relative/kinship carers than foster carers (53% vs 47%). Grandparents made up to two-thirds of relative/kinship carers. Most of the carers were female (88%), and this pattern was consistent across both types of carers. The mean age of carers was 53 years. Nearly one-half of carers were between 50 and 64 years old, over one-third were under 50 years of age, while 15% were over 65 years of age. Over one-tenth of carers self-identified as Indigenous, higher than the Indigenous population proportion at the national level and consistent with the over-representation of Indigenous families in contact with the child protection system. Less than one-half of carers under 65 years of age were in paid work, with the majority of those who were in paid work holding part-time employment.

Foster and relative/kinship carers differed across some characteristics. Compared to foster carers, relative/kinship carers were older (by three years on average), were more likely to have lower education levels, and were less likely to be in paid work (57% vs 67% in paid work if under 65 years). Relative/kinship carers were more likely than foster carers to self-identify as Indigenous.

The study children (i.e., the randomly selected child in out-of-home care when there was more than one present in the household) were 9 years old on average, with 5-11 years being the most common age group. Approximately half of the carer households had two or more children in out-of-home care in the household, aside from the study child, with this being more common in foster than relative/kinship carer households.

The majority of carers had an annual gross household income of less than $60,000. One-fifth of carers reported an annual gross household income of less than $30,000. Compared with Australian general population households in the HILDA (2014) data, carers in this study tended to have lower levels of household income. For example, over one-third of households in HILDA had an annual gross household income of more than $100,000, while only one-fifth of carers in this study reported this household income. The proportion of carers living in public housing was 11%, which is higher than that found in HILDA (4%). While this data suggests that carers were financially less well-off on average than Australian households as identified in HILDA, most carers reported that they were "reasonably comfortable" financially. Relative/kinship carers were less well-off financially than foster carers.

Carer experiences and the study child's background

One of the key objectives of the survey was to have a better understanding of carers' experiences in looking after a child and the circumstances in which the child came into their care. For many carers (close to two-thirds), the study child came into their care after being approached by their jurisdictional department or agency, which was more common for foster carers than for relative/kinship carers (76% vs 53%). Not surprisingly, relative/kinship carers were more likely than foster carers to be asked by the study child's parents or a family member to care for the child.

The median duration that carers had looked after their study child was three to four years. However, carers' reports on the period of time that the study child was in their care varied widely. Just under one-half of carers reported that the study child had stayed with them for less than two years. However, over one-fifth had looked after the study child for at least 10 years. Foster carers were more likely than relative/kinship carers to have cared for the study child for a short duration (e.g., less than one year).

Carers were asked about their knowledge of whether the study child had experienced a number of indicators of abuse and/or neglect before coming into their care. Most carers reported being aware of the study child being subjected to at least one indicator of abuse/and or neglect. Only 14% of carers reported that, to their knowledge, the child had not had any such experience prior to coming into their care. Carers most commonly reported being aware that the study child had been exposed to family violence, household members with alcohol or drug use problems and/or neglect prior to coming into their care (62-72%). More than one-half of carers knew that the study child had previously experienced emotional abuse and a significant minority had the knowledge of the study child's prior experience of physical abuse. One-tenth of carers were aware that the study child had experienced sexual abuse before coming into their care. Given that many relative/kinship carers were related to the study child in their care, it is not surprising that relative/kinship carers were more likely than foster carers to report their awareness of any previous experiences of abuse, neglect and household problems that the study child had had.

While it is to be somewhat expected that many children who have been placed in OOHC may have experienced some form of abuse and/or violence in the past, it is interesting to know that the majority of carers (both foster and relative/kinship) who knew of the study children's prior experiences appear to have become aware of these before the study children entered their care. Nevertheless, a significant minority of carers only became aware of such prior history of their study child after the child's arrival. For sexual abuse, in particular, it appears that many carers were not aware of its alleged occurrence until after the study child had come into their care, rather than before or upon the child's arrival. Furthermore, male carers were more likely than female carers to become aware the study children's prior history before the child's arrival.

Carers' reports indicate that over one-third of the study children had already been diagnosed with at least one type of developmental condition. These conditions included intellectual and physical disabilities, diagnosed behavioural problems (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and diagnosed mental health conditions (e.g., anxiety, depression). Foster carers were more likely than relative/kinships carers to indicate that they were aware that the study child had any developmental conditions. Also, a slightly higher proportion of male carers than female carers reported that the study child had at least one type of these developmental conditions.

In many cases, especially in regards to physical disabilities and diagnosed behavioural problems, 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 to become aware of these conditions after the study child's arrival at the household, especially regarding diagnosed mental health conditions (44%). It was apparent that in significant proportions of foster and relative/kinship care placements that carers learned of their study child's prior developmental conditions after the child was in their care, especially in relation to the study child's mental health conditions.

Overall, the majority of carers felt they had adequate information about the study child's history before he/she came into their care. However, more than one-third felt the opposite, with this view being more prevalent for foster carers than for relative/kinship carers (46% vs 27%). Carers who became aware of the study child's prior experiences of abuse, neglect and household problems and developmental conditions after he/she came into their care were more likely to express that they did not have the adequate information about the study child compared to other carers.

The majority of study children maintained some contact (face-to-face or other forms) with their mother and/or father, although the degree and type of contact between study children and their parents varied. For example, one-third of study children were reported to have had contact with their mother at least once per month, but 37% had contact less often than that, and a further 30% had had variable or no face-to-face contact over the past six months. The trends were also somewhat similar for the study child's father, although the study children had face-to-face contact less frequently with their father than their mother, and no face-to-face contact was more common for fathers than for mothers (33% vs 13%).

Almost half of study children also had some degree of other (non-face-to-face) contact with their mother according to carers, such as talking on the phone, emailing or contacting each other via social media. This was also the case for just over a third of study children in regards to their father. An important trend was that parental contact declined with the increasing age of children. This suggests that there are opportunities for workers to improve the support provided to carers in maintaining contact with parents as children grow older.

Service use and support

Another important objective of the survey was to understand more about the various services and types of support available to carers and what they found to be most useful or beneficial for both themselves and the child. The majority of carers had contact with services to at least some degree - 90% of carers had received at least one service in their time as a carer and 68% received at least one type in the past six months. Those with contact with services found them to be helpful. The most common services carers had past contact with in regards to a child in out-of-home care included carer support staff from a government child protection department and child counselling/psychologist services, with over half of all carers using these services at some stage.

There was a large discrepancy between foster and relative/kinship carers in regards to service experiences, with foster carers much more likely than relative/kinship carers to report having contact with a range of services; fewer than six in ten relative/kinship carers who reported experiences with at least one service in the past had used one in the past six months, whereas the over eight in ten foster carers had used a service in the past six months. Foster carers were also more likely to indicate that they were currently using or needed specific services than relative/kinship carers were. It is possible that relative/kinship carers use services less often because they may not have the same access to them as foster carers do or access to information about them, although it may also be the case that relative/kinship carers may be more hesitant in considering or seeking help from a service than foster carers because of a variety of reasons and barriers (e.g., valentine et al., 2013). It is important to note that carers who had experienced particular services generally reported them to be helpful; hence, for services that had been undertaken during the past six months, it was relatively uncommon for carers to indicate that they were not of some benefit.

When carers were asked about service needs (i.e., services they currently needed, regardless of whether they were using them at the time or not), half of all carers identified a "need" for child counselling/psychologist services, followed by assistance from the government child protection department in the jurisdiction where the carer lived. These two types of services were also identified as the most common "unmet service need", meaning that carers currently needed these services but had not received them. Therefore, there is a demand for these essential services for children and carers that, according to carers' responses, is not currently being met. One-third of carers also currently needed carer support from non-government organisations or agencies and respite care services. Overall, eight in ten carers had a need for at least one type of service and two thirds of carers had a service need that was not met. Carers indicated that long waiting lists were the most common barrier to accessing the service(s) they needed.

A somewhat similar trend to service experiences was present for carer training; foster carers were much more likely than relative/kinship carers to indicate that they had undertaken some form of training course/workshop in the past (92% vs 35%), as well as specifically within the past year (54% vs 16%). The vast majority of carers who had participated in training reported that they found it helpful. While the four in ten carers who had not undertaken any training in the past year thought it would have been helpful to have been able to do so - foster carers were more likely to believe this to be the case than relative/kinship carers.

Therefore, it appears that relative/kinship carers may have less accessibility to training than foster carers and that when training opportunities arise, relative/kinship carers may be taking them up less frequently than foster carers. When carers who thought that participating in training would have been helpful were asked about what type of training would be valuable to them, the most common responses related to managing behavioural issues associated with the children and training that assisted carers in dealing with the trauma experienced by these children.

These findings perhaps tie in to some degree with the results presented above, indicating that carers are often not aware of study children's experiences of indicators of abuse/neglect and/or developmental conditions until after the child arrives at or begins living in the household. That is, it appears a proportion of carers may require additional services or training to help them in caring for children and the complexities/challenges it can involve. Similarly, while most carers felt they were well prepared for their caring role, some carers did not feel this way, suggesting that the training and/or ongoing support offered was inadequate and they felt they were not fully equipped for the complex "realities" of caring for a child.

There were also discrepancies between foster and relative/kinship carers in regards to carer support worker contact/support and the extent to which they had contact with other foster and relative/kinship care families. Although foster carers were more likely than relative/kinship carers to have contact with a carer support worker and another caring family, it is important to note that many carers, irrespective of care type, did not have this form of contact or support (e.g., just under half of foster carers had developed a carer development plan with their carer support worker, while only a quarter of relative/kinship carers had one).

Finally, in regards to the Grandparent Adviser Phone Line, just over a quarter of carers were aware of this service and only one-quarter of those had actually used it. Most of the carers who had contact with the Grandparent Advisor Phone Line found it to be at least "fairly helpful". Taken in conjunction with the other services and unmet service needs, these findings indicate an opportunity for services to be available, targeted or promoted to all carers more effectively, so they can be made aware of the service and its purpose, and use it when they need to.

Carer rewards and challenges

Extending on the themes already identified in regards to the challenges associated with caring for children in out-of-home care, carers also identified a number of rewards associated with their caring role. While both foster and relative/kinship carers did tend to agree that, for example, "managing a child's behaviour is difficult" and "looking after a child in out-of-home care requires more time and effort than another child of the same gender", it was also evident that the caring role was a fulfilling experience for many carers. This was reflected in the vast majority of carers who indicated that they could "make a positive difference in the life of a child in out-of-home care", "provide a child in out-of-home care with a positive family experience", and agreed that "looking after a child in out-of-home care is a rewarding experience".

Foster and relative/kinship carers also tended to have relatively similar views in regards to the rewards and challenges of their roles as carers. On some measures, however, foster carers did on occasion indicate experiencing a greater degree of challenges than relative/kinship carers. Carers reported more challenges if the children had previously experienced or been exposed to more types of abuse/violence/neglect and/or had developmental conditions.

Also related to the findings discussed for services and supports above, carers' views were somewhat mixed in regards to whether the allowances they received were adequate to care for the study child. There were also mixed reports about the extent to which carers felt supported by agencies/services in meeting the study child's needs (i.e., just over one-half of carers indicated allowances were adequate, with a similar proportion agreeing that they felt supported by agencies/services, and the remainder with mixed feelings about or disagreeing with these statements). The feelings of lack of financial and service support were more salient among relative/kinship carers than foster carers, and for carers who looked after children with a history of abuse, neglect or problems at home.

Views on how likely they were to look after another child in the future were split, with four in ten indicating they were likely or very likely, but nearly one-half reporting the opposite (i.e., unlikely or very unlikely). Relative/kinship carers were much less likely than foster carers to indicate that they would take on the responsibility of being the formal carer for another child in the future. While the majority of foster carers were likely to be a carer again in the future, the majority of relative/kinship carers felt it was unlikely they would be a carer again. This pattern was also reflected in the finding that seven in ten relative/kinship carers said that the study child came into their care because no other relatives were able to look after them.

Care experience also influenced carers' outlook of being a carer again in the future. A greater likelihood of being a carer again in the future was associated with a higher sense of rewards, a lower level of challenges, the perception of receiving adequate allowances, and feeling well supported in meeting the study child's needs.

Carer wellbeing and family relationships

Overall, carers reported positively on their wellbeing and family relationships. Carers generally appeared to be in good physical and mental health, or at least perceive themselves to be healthy. Relative/kinship carers did tend to rate their health more poorly than foster carers and reported a higher level of long-term medical conditions/disabilities. While carers' overall life satisfaction also tended to be quite high, again, it was slightly more positive for foster carers than relative/kinship carers. These findings may be at least partly attributable to the older age of relative/kinship carers, but they could also indicate that these carers are more likely to need support for their role as carers, particularly with close to three in ten reporting a long-term medical condition or disability.

Overall, carers reported relatively high levels of satisfaction across various relationships within the caregiving household, including their own and their partner's relationship with the study child, the study child's relationship with other children in the household, and their own relationship with their partner. Negative care experiences and lack of support were found to be associated with poorer wellbeing and family relationships for carers. Where the study child had experienced higher numbers of different types of abuse/neglect prior to coming into care, carers reported lower personal wellbeing.

Conclusion

Overall, this study has revealed several important and interesting findings regarding the carers of children in out-of-home care in Australia. Many carers are coping well in their caring roles despite the challenging circumstances and complexities associated with caring for the children and service gaps. It also appears that there is the capacity for better preparing carers for their role before a child comes into their care, training opportunities before and after starting as a carer, as well as continuing to provide more support while children are in their care as different needs emerge over time. The various discrepancies in findings between foster and relative/kinship carers also indicate that more may need to be done to assist relative/kinship carers in particular, in order to increase availability and their participation in and/or uptake of services/training, as they were more likely to feel a lack of support in their caring roles compare to foster carers (although improved service provision and support clearly remains important for both foster and relative/kinship carers).

Across the various issues addressed, one of the important themes was the degree of harm suffered by the study child. Consistent with previous research on multi-type maltreatment (e.g., Higgins, 2004; Price-Robertson, Higgins, & Vassallo, 2013), this study found that multiple indicators of abuse, neglect and problems at home were common. Where the study child had experienced higher numbers of different types of abuse/neglect prior to coming into care, carers faced greater challenges, reported lower personal wellbeing and were less likely to be a carer for other children in the out-of-home-care system in the future.

The results from this study also indicate that many positives emerge from the caring experience at a personal level; carers genuinely appear to perceive that they can make a real difference to a child's life and find being a carer very rewarding.