ldentifying strategies to better support foster, kinship and permanent carers: Final report
Jessica Smart, Stewart Muir, Jody Hughes, Kathryn Goldsworthy, Sarah Jones, Loma Cuevas-Hewitt, Carol Vale
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This is the final report from the research project Identifying Strategies to Better Support Foster, Kinship and Permanent Carers. This research project was undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) and by Murawin, an Aboriginal research and evaluation consultancy. The research was commissioned by the Department of Social Services (DSS) to identify the support needs and best practice support approaches for carers in Australia.
This project consisted of two components:
- a desktop review of available services and supports to carers and best practice in providing supports
- consultations with key stakeholders and carers.
Findings from the desktop review were presented in detail in the ‘Interim report and desktop review’ presented to the DSS in 2020. This final report brings together findings from the desktop review with data from the consultations. These findings are presented in this report, together with a description of the project methodology and a discussion of the implications of the project.
Carers in Australia
Chapter 3 of this report (see PDF download, above) presents key facts about carers in Australia, drawing on large-scale national data collections and studies and supplemented by smaller non-representative state- and territory-based surveys. At 30 June 2020 there were 24,578 households with a care placement. In addition, there were 1,165 children who received third-party parental care orders in 2019–20, and 334 were subject to finalised adoptions. In line with the trends in previous years, there was a decrease of 156 foster care households and an increase of 1,100 kinship care households. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continue to be over-represented in the out-of-home care system and implementation of the Child Placement Principle continues to be inconsistent.
The average Australian carer is most likely to be female, in her early 50s, not in paid work or working part-time and with no post-secondary education. She is likely to have a lower household income when compared with the overall Australian population. There are also important differences between foster and kinship carers, with kinship carers more likely to be older, single and unemployed, have a lower income, and be in poorer health than foster carers. There are very little data describing the characteristics of permanent carers or adoptive parents in Australia, and no publicly available data on the numbers or characteristics of informal carers.
Current and projected supply and demand for carers
There are no reliable data that predict future demand and supply of carers. There is a lack of data on prospective carers across all carer types but it is particularly difficult to predict the future supply of kinship carers – in part because kinship carer placements often begin at short notice and most jurisdictions do not have a register of potential kinship carers. However, stakeholders and experts almost universally identified a need for more carers and predicted that demand for carers would increase due to an increasing number of children entering the out-of-home care system. Participants in the consultations identified a particular shortage of specific types of carers:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers
- carers for children with complex needs
- carers willing to take sibling groups or children of any age or gender
- emergency and short-term carers
- carers in particular geographic regions, including regional and remote areas.
Apart from greater efforts in family finding – especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kin – suggestions for increasing the pool of carers included decreasing the amount of bureaucracy in assessment, more culturally appropriate assessment of potential Aboriginal and Torres Islander carers and increased financial and other forms of assistance.
Pathways into caring
The evidence review and consultations revealed that most carers’ entry into caring is motivated by altruism, often allied with knowledge of the care system or of other people who are carers. For foster carers, altruism was most often expressed as a general love for children and a desire to give back to the community. In contrast, for kinship carers, altruistic motivations were often more specific and driven by the needs of a known child within the family and familial obligation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers commonly become carers for these reasons but were also often motivated by cultural norms that prioritise kin caring and a recognition of the importance of keeping children connected with culture and community.
The entry into permanent care or adoptive parenting appears to be slightly different. Carers who begin their caring journey seeking a permanent placement or adoption can be motivated by a desire to start a family and/or by broadly similar altruistic ideas as foster carers. However, many permanent carers (and adoptive parents) were already in a caring role – as foster or kinship carers – and thus their entry into this role is less a form of ‘recruitment’ or entry into caring than it is a transition between roles and legal status. For many such carers, this move was seemingly driven by a desire to increase the permanency of their bond with a child and a wish to limit government intervention in their lives.
The evidence showed that recruitment into caring was also about more than the personal motivations of carers; entry into caring was enabled and sometimes hindered by the carer recruitment and assessment processes of government and carer support agencies. In particular, the process of recruiting and assessing kinship carers was identified as not always meeting the needs of prospective carers or families. Many stakeholders – particularly those representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and carers – suggested that family finding was often inadequate, and this impacted the implementation of the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle. In addition, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers and peak bodies described several barriers to becoming a carer including excessive paperwork, the need for police checks and clearances and a mistrust of the statutory child protection system. These issues can also be experienced by other potential carers, but they were understood to be especially significant for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers.
Other reported barriers to entry into caring included perceived inadequate support and the length of the recruitment and assessment process. These barriers were identified particularly in relation to adoption and permanent care. Many of these barriers to caring, and challenges associated with recruitment and assessment processes, are compounded for children, families and potential carers living in regional, rural or remote areas.
Chapter 4 also addresses some of the qualities and practices that research and key stakeholders and experts have seen as necessary for the caring role. Rather than focusing on specific skills achievable via training, most stakeholders and carers emphasised carer qualities such as warmth, openness, flexibility and being responsive to the needs of the child. Carers also identified the importance of love and a safe family environment. When skills were mentioned, stakeholders and carers most commonly noted the importance of understanding trauma, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers and stakeholders noted the importance of carers supporting a child’s connection with kin, community, culture and Country.
Key challenges for carers and exiting care roles
The evidence review and consultations with carers and stakeholders identified a number of key challenges for carers. These were identified as occurring in four (overlapping) areas:
- systemic challenges
- challenges inherent to the caring role including meeting the needs of children, and the impact of caring on the carer, including the financial impacts
- challenges nurturing a child’s connection with community, culture and Country
- challenges with family contact.
Systemic challenges and the relationship with state bureaucracy were identified as one of the most important sets of challenges and sources of carer frustration. These challenges included perceived excessive bureaucracy, the high turnover of caseworkers, inadequate communication from government or service providers, and a sense of feeling unheard and excluded from decision making about the child. Although the research literature identified family contact as a particular challenge for carers, most carers in this study reported positive experiences with family contact. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers and stakeholders, in particular, noted the importance of family contact for supporting a child’s connection to culture.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers often experience many of the same challenges as non-Indigenous carers; however, these were sometimes compounded by limited financial resources, living remotely, experiences of systemic racism and workers in the out-of-home care workforce exhibiting a lack of culturally safe practices.
Carer challenges are closely associated with carers giving up their caring roles. There were observed differences between carers in this regard, with kinship carers most often ceasing caring when a child returned to their birth parents or aged out of the placement. In contrast, foster carers tended to continue caring through multiple placements. Foster carers appear to end this role for a range of reasons that could include a change of personal circumstances – such as ageing or changed financial circumstances – but were also commonly associated with the challenges of caring. Hence, support for carers in meeting or avoiding these challenges was identified as a potentially important tool for carer retention (even if the empirical evidence for how to support carers in this way is still relatively sparse).
Supports for carers and barriers to accessing support
Drawing on the evidence review and consultation with carers and stakeholders we identified a range of carer needs and supports:
- financial support
- support with transitions
- positive relationships with caseworkers
- help with birth family relationships
- access to specialist services
- peer support
- cultural support.
While many carers already access such supports and services, and when delivered effectively they are understood to support carer retention, rigorous evidence for the effectiveness of most supports is still lacking. The consultations also revealed variance and inconsistency in the levels of support that carers in different jurisdictions, or across different care types, were eligible for. For some carers, this could lead to significant hardship and potentially to placement breakdown.
Overall, the research found that kinship carers – including many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers – often receive less support than foster carers despite commonly having fewer financial resources than foster carers. Stakeholders and carers identified a need for clear information and advice about support for all carers but especially for kinship carers and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers. Permanent carers and adoptive parents are also not eligible for government supports despite the assertions of the agencies that support and advocate that permanent carers and adoptive parents also often need support, particularly as the child in their care ages and their needs evolve over time. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers were shown to have many similar needs for support as non-Indigenous carers; however, these needs could be intensified due to higher levels of socio-economic disadvantage, geographic location and challenges accessing government systems. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers are likely to benefit from assistance in navigating statutory and support services, the delivery of services by ACCOs, and support from an out-of-home care workforce that is culturally safe.
Many carers also experience barriers accessing support. These were often interrelated and included difficulties accessing support or services in regional or remote areas, issues with using technology to access services, long wait times for services, a lack of knowledge of available supports or inconsistent advice about eligibility, and a lack of time to attend training or appointments. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers were also described as sometimes being hesitant accessing government and carer support services due to the legacy of past child removal practices, current high rates of child removal as well as experiences of systemic racism or culturally unsafe services.
COVID-19, carers and out-of-home care services
As a result of COVID-19 there was a significant and visible shift to increased remote provision of services and/or training via video conferencing or telephone. Although remote service delivery meant that services could continue to be delivered, some services reported challenges supporting carers who lived in rural and remote communities, had limited access to technology or who simply preferred or needed face-to-face contact. However, for many carers, remote service delivery had many positive benefits and reduced barriers to service access by allowing for greater flexibility, bringing services to areas that may not have had them and by increasing a sense of cultural safety for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers. COVID-19 also reportedly affected services’ ability to recruit new carers due to a reduced ability to conduct in-person recruitment and assessment.
The effects of COVID-19 on carers and children are still to be fully understood and experiences of the pandemic also varied significantly across Australia and thus had varying effects. There is as yet limited research on this topic and a particular lack of peer-reviewed literature. The evidence review and consultations also identified challenges for carers associated with:
- financial hardship
- home schooling
- social isolation
- job loss
- disrupted routines
- decreased access to services
- challenges with family contact.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kinship carers, have been reported to have disproportionately experienced the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic due to their social and economic disadvantage as well as difficulties maintaining contact with their birth family, community or taking part in cultural activities due to travel restrictions.
Carers and stakeholders consulted for this study were located in areas with very different experiences of the pandemic (and of associated government responses), and they also expressed a wider range of views about the effects of COVID-19 than were found in the existing literature. In particular, several carers consulted for this study reported that they were not overly affected by COVID-19 or even enjoyed home schooling.
Discussion and considerations
There were a number of themes that emerged from the evidence review and consultations that cut across the specific research questions. These included:
- recognition of the challenges and contribution of carers
- the role of child needs in carer support
- the differences between kinship care and other more planned forms of care
- the inconsistency of supports provided
- the overall lack of evidence for the effectiveness of carer supports.
The evidence review and consultation for this study identified a number of practice principles and promising practices linked to carer satisfaction, carer retention and the provision of support for carers. These included:
- carer voice and involvement in decision making
- family-led decision making
- early support for kinship carers
- trauma-informed care
- responsive caseworker practice
- peer support
- delegated decision-making power
- Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce
- cultural support
- family finding
- respite care
- intensive support for carers of children with complex needs and challenging behaviours
- ongoing and accessible training for carers tailored to individual needs
- information provision.
Key priority actions to support carers
This study identifies a small number of key priority actions for providing high quality and consistent support for carers. These actions have been identified by key stakeholders and/or identified within the research literature.
- Develop national minimum standards or national guidance for carer support. Stakeholders suggested this could include:
- what information should be provided to carers when taking on a placement (including information about the child’s needs)
- a specified time frame (e.g. within six weeks of placement) for an assessment of child support needs
- a specified time frame for assessment of carer training and support needs
- minimum standards of support and training for foster, kinship and permanent carers as well as adoptive parents.
- Review carer payments for adequacy, consistency and accessibility. Consider the development of national guidance for assessing and structuring carer payments.
- Support increased involvement of ACCOs in the care and protection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and in supporting carers.
- Support national minimum data standards.
The desktop review used a quick scoping review approach and was undertaken in several iterative phases. The aim of the review was to outline the nature and extent of research activity about carers in Australia. The review found that the body of research on carer needs and effective supports is limited, particularly in the Australian context.
A program of consultation and interviews was undertaken across several jurisdictions. The consultations aimed to add depth and context to the review of existing literature and provide important lived experience views on how carers can best be supported. A total of 29 stakeholder interviews and 26 carer interviews was conducted over six jurisdictions. Half of the carer consultations were with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander carers.
Through the evidence review and consultations, we identified a number of data gaps and areas where further research is required:
- the relationship between carer satisfaction and placement stability
- the impact of carer satisfaction on child outcomes
- definition of a good quality placement
- best practice or ‘what works’ to support carers
- support needs for carers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
- recruitment and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers
- experiences and support needs of informal carers
- experiences and support needs of permanent carers and adoptive parents
- experiences and support needs of different carer groups including grandparent carers, CALD carers and LGBTQI+ carers
- stressful and critical events, including care transitions.
This research study was commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS).
The authors were: Jessica Smart, Stewart Muir, Jody Hughes and Kathryn Goldsworthy of the
Australian Institute of Family Studies; and Sarah Jones, Loma Cuevas-Hewitt and Carol Vale
The authors are grateful for the support of the project team at the DSS throughout this project.
The authors would like to acknowledge and thank everyone who participated in and assisted with the research study. In particular, we would like to thank the carers, service provider staff and representatives of peak body, advocacy and government who participated in and supported the consultations.
Views expressed in this report are those of the individual authors and may not reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Family Studies or the Australian Government.
Smart, J., Muir, S., Hughes, J., Goldsworthy, K., Jones, S., Cuevas-Hewitt, L., & Vale, C. (2022). Identifying strategies to better support foster, kinship and permanent carers: Final report. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
ISBN (online): 978-1-76016-251-1 ISBN (PDF): 978-1-76016-252-8