Foster Carers – Introduction
Foster carers are the first placement preference for children in need of emergency and short-term care. The Committee was also told that, compared with other Australian states, South Australia relies more heavily on foster carers to accommodate children. Foster carers also provide long-term care for children in state care including those under a GOM18 order. In recent years, there has been a steady decline in the proportion of children in foster care. Despite the large increase in children needing care, the number of foster carers in South Australia has remained static. According to the evidence, the family-based foster care system is in crisis, with severe consequences for children within that system.
Professor Scott who is also national patron of the Australian Foster Care Association, reported that foster carers are under enormous pressure and, on average, are aged in their 50s and caring for double the number of children they were caring for 10 years ago.
The Committee further heard that many of the more experienced carers have dropped out over the last 10 years. Ms Nina Weston, past President of the South Australian Foster Care Association and founding member of Children in Crisis Incorporated, stated:
“We are at a point where the foster care system is collapsing before our eyes, and may well be almost extinct in the next 10 years.”
Difficulties Experienced by Foster Carers
9.7.1 Inadequate Training and Support
Carers reported their training was inadequate and came too late. One carer asserted:
…the training was wholly inadequate to deal with a placement of this nature – wholly inadequate for carers of our limited skill.
…we took placement of the children before we were halfway through training; it was that urgent to the department.
These carers said they were not taught how to manage a child affected by abuse or neglect and that they, underwent no psychological assessment except a personality profiling.
Ms Weston told the Committee:
Until authorities wake up and realise that they cannot expect families to provide placements for traumatised and needy children on a voluntary basis, we will continue to see a decline in numbers.
Nowhere else in the child-care industry do we allow minimally trained and unskilled care givers to provide child care on a voluntary basis—nor should we. However, when it comes to providing care for the most vulnerable and needy children in South Australia, the government and the community are prepared to leave them with minimally trained and minimally supported volunteers.
9.7.2 Given Insufficient Information
A foster carer told the Committee that the Department did not adequately inform her about the severe extent of the child’s behaviour problems and did not give her sufficient training and support in ways of dealing with extreme problems:
…the Department’s internal memo providing the child’s history failed to mention the child’s sexualised behaviour (at age seven years)…there was no way I wanted to give up on her…but one time she bounced me off the passage walls, kicking and punching me. She was taller and stronger than me when she was 13…I was becoming desperate for some help…[worker] asked me if I was aware a report had been written about me stating that I was mentally ill and a danger to foster children…at first I thought that it was some sort of joke…
A number of other carers claimed that the Department generally gives insufficient information to carers about the prior history of children placed in their care and that this can put carers at risk. It was stated on numerous occasions that the Department used the excuses of “privacy and confidentiality” to exclude foster parents from important information. Others said they suffered disrespectful treatment, lack of services and support, inappropriate decisions and inadequate case planning and reviewing for children in their care.
9.7.3 Poor Treatment by Departmental Staff
A carer expressed her frustration when she explained that the Department criticised her for providing a foster child with a poor standard of care. She said she felt “put on” by the Department as she agreed to provide only a weekend of emergency respite care but ended up caring for the child for at least a month. She stated:
If the agencies concerned had respectfully listened to me and acted to find an alternate placement earlier, this situation would not have occurred.
She explained that she was asked to work under difficult circumstances; she was told the child had no emotional difficulties but, in reality, the child was grieving the death of a brother and separation from the mother at such a painful time. There had been no official meeting by all parties to discuss the child’s needs and she was provided with no case plan and no alternative care placement agreement.
A foster carer claimed that, when she was endeavouring to negotiate with Families SA to have ongoing contact with a foster child, social workers documented what was said at meetings poorly and to their advantage. She said that the social workers inadequately understood matters such as attachment, the effects on children of trauma and abuse and did not know how to support foster parents. She suggested that the Social Work degree be revamped to cover attachment disorder and the effects of trauma and abuse on children, as well as how to properly support foster carers in their role.
Foster carers report that Departmental workers vary in the way they treat foster carers. One carer said:
Under the [District Office], at all times the workers listened, advised, suggested, shared, assisted and supported us with every requirement needed by [foster child]…we all worked collaboratively, respectfully and as a team. It was a pleasure. With [worker] from [a different District Office] we cannot have a say in matters affecting us…[The worker] will not hear our point of view…We feel as though we are treated as volunteers of no account…we have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 56 months of care for this child…we are very qualified to comment on the needs and fears of this child…we feel that [worker] is taking over without the necessary information to know what is best for this child.
These carers claimed that the officer who was involved with this case discriminated against the carers, breached confidentiality, communicated poorly, talked over the carers, invalidated their perspective, typed up case plans with no carer consultation and acted with secrecy.
Ms Julie Hallifax, member of the Care Worker’s Coalition, stated that Departmental staff have an ad hoc and inconsistent interpretation of legislation and lack knowledge and understanding of the Acts.
…a social worker moved to stop me having any contact [with a previous foster child, now in Magill]. I sought reversal, quoting all the relevant Acts…a letter came from the District Office quoting regulations that did not exist…as soon as they are challenged about certain rules in the department, they invent their own to cover their backs and certainly in their own interests and not in the interests of the young person…
One carer said, “I was forced out by the system and a lack of trust of the people in it”.
Another stated that:
Nothing in the system has significantly changed to ensure that foster families and the children placed in care are receiving the support that they need.
That carer claimed that workers sometimes place children in ways that avoid workers being scrutinised:
…when foster carers provide full time 24 hour care in a family placement for a child [for some 2 years], they generally have more knowledge about the child’s needs and a greater emotional attachment to the child, and therefore have more expectations than the workers who come and go in a residential environment…[and] it is possible that case-workers may actually prefer that a child be placed in a residential care facility…where they can avoid the day to day scrutiny and expectations of a foster ‘parent’.
9.7.4 Capricious Removal of Children
One long term carer stated that two children, who had been in her care for substantial periods of time—one for six and a half years and another for three years—were “virtually kidnapped”. She said that a social worker returned one child to the biological father and his new wife without considering how “being cruelly torn away” would impact on the child. The worker provided no ongoing counselling for the child or continuing contact with the foster family. Another child was reunified with relatives that the child had not met and the foster mother was not consulted regarding the child’s needs.
Another carer whose six year-old foster child was removed unannounced claimed:
They went to school at lunch-time and took her away. I didn’t get to say goodbye…I cannot make sense of this and do not understand why we are being treated this way…Families SA have no accountability and each individual that you deal with has a different set of rules and the goal posts keep shifting.215
Another carer asserted that the Department did not listen to her side of a story, did not offer her help with caring for two teenage girls and unfairly deregistered her as a foster carer. She recounted:
One girl had behaved very badly at home, screaming and shouting, because she thought she was not going to get her way (we had had lots of problems with her behaviour). This started the other girl swearing, screaming and shouting, her behaviour could be equally bad for different reasons. I…told her I was not going to put up with this behaviour again…she rang Families SA and told them she was not happy and wanted to move out…[a worker] interviewed them and removed them the next day.
At no time did anyone ask myself or my husband what had happened or if they could offer any help with the situation. It appeared [worker] had made up her mind before she came to our home that she was going to remove the girls.
A foster carer reported that the Department removed from her care a boy with an intellectual disability and reactive attachment disorder without considering what was best for him. She explained:
…he [was] taken away from my placement…by FSA saying that I was ‘too burned out’ to continue caring for the child. Instead of putting in extra supports like a couple of weekends respite or some counselling or a support group or something else, they terminated the placement against [advice from his psychologist] and further traumatised the child. I hadn’t been provided with regular planned respite for over 12 months and my foster child was only in attendance at school for approximately 50 days for the whole year…
Dr Delfabbro stated that there is a lack of consistency regarding the Department removing children from foster carers. Sometimes they are moved too quickly. At other times they are left too long in dangerous positions. He said that, based on what these young people have said, sometimes their placements have been working quite well but they were moved for bureaucratic reasons. Also, he said that there have been cases where a carer was classified as short term, where it was working, and it could have worked long term, but they were told without warning that they were moving on. Often this contravened the wishes of the carer as well.
He said that one of the problems with the whole system is inconsistency. Risk assessment methods have been developed but workers have not always been informed about these developments. This accounts for the inconsistency.
9.7.5 Carers Branded as Trouble-makers
Dr Delfabbro reported that foster carers can develop a certain stigma and be seen as trouble makers.
Some carers can be quite competent but can be truculent towards the case workers because they do not necessarily agree with everything they are being told and they are seen as troublemakers and often will receive the rough end of the stick when it comes to decision making regarding children in their care…[they]…do not fit the model of a good carer—and, even though they have done nothing wrong, they have lost children. He recommended that foster carers be allowed to make basic decisions. He also suggested that pseudo-adoption may assist the retention of carers.
Ms Hallifax expressed similar sentiments:
…as a carer, if you do not accept the decision from the district office and you query it, and eventually seek a hearing from a higher level, you are labelled as a trouble maker…Success of a placement does not depend only on the skills of a carer and the challenges or behaviour of the child: success depends on social worker support…some are always available to aid and assist, it is team work…others take over and all the decisions are made behind the carers back…Decisions about the daily care and child support should be done by the carer.
9.7.6 Lack of Psychological and Other Services
Others complained that the Department fails to provide psychological and other services for children in need thereof. One foster couple asserted that the Department wrongly labelled the children in their care as intellectually disabled, probably autistic, and incapable of learning. However, the Department had not assessed the children nor provided them with appropriate services. These carers said:
…there needs to be a mechanism to make the department accountable for denial of service, that it has a duty of care to the children for whom it is the guardian, yet it has the power to deny service to those children with impunity. If that could be changed, I think a lot of children could be helped within the system. Denial of service with impunity does not exist anywhere else in society.
Dr Delfabbro argued for more psychological services for young people in care. He said, “even those fairly stable kids in care have very high levels of psychological problems”. Professor Scott argued:
I would like to see post-placement support services, particularly coming out of the Child and
Adolescent Mental Health Service, because the children have got child and adolescent mental health needs.
Commissioner Mullighan recommended that there be a review of therapeutic services for children and young people including the ability to provide, and the structures required to increase, therapeutic service provision so that at least 60 percent of the children and young people in care, who have been abused, can receive an appropriate level of counselling and services. For children and young people in out-of-home care in NSW, Commissioner Wood recommended that they have a comprehensive multi-disciplinary health and developmental assessment within a month of entering care. He proposed this be repeated six monthly for children aged five years or less, yearly for older children and also be monitored, evaluated and reviewed against achievement outcomes developed by the State health department and DoCS. Wood also recommended that the departments for health and education each appoint an out-of-home-care co-ordinator in each health and education region.
One witness asserted that foster carers are inadequately funded for necessary items such as mattresses and that case workers respond to carers in a much delayed fashion. Another complained that they are not sufficiently supported with funds—e.g., petrol for taking child to school—are unfairly (due to their not being paid) expected to attend foster care education sessions and are labelled by FSA staff as trouble makers if they complain.
9.7.7 Lack of Funding
Payments to foster carers have increased in recent years. The Department claims that, in 2007-08, financial support for foster, relative and kinship carers increased by an average of 26%. In the 2008-09 Budget, $4.6m was allocated to increase carer payments and “restructure the alternative care payment system”. However, as the allocation is over four years, it is unlikely to make a significant improvement.
9.7.8 Birth Family Issues
Another area which provides a further example of the difficulties experienced by foster carers arises where a birth family is given access to a foster child in inappropriate circumstances.
One foster couple claimed that the Department was allowing birth family access to young children to a degree that constituted systemic abuse of the children. This was worse than the birth family abuse that the children were being saved from in the first place. The carer stated:
[the children] rarely experienced a week at home with the carers…they lived from the arrival of one government car to the next and with every removal their behaviours deteriorated.
The carers claimed that staff justified the amount of access saying it was court ordered but the court had not ordered specific access but simply ordered the Department to make arrangements that were in the best interests of the children. These carers claimed that the Department commonly used the “court order” as a strategy to deny carers requests to alter access arrangements. The carers claimed that:
The extreme difficulty of raising any child when they are so often removed from their familiar home environment and routine should be obvious to anyone…but these children were no “ordinary children”, either in terms of the life they were required to lead or in their behaviours and emotions…the carers were not only required to meet the needs of these severely traumatised children…to impose such utterly disruptive and undefined access arrangements on the family, and then expect the carers to reverse this harm and raise happy and well-adjusted children was…absurd.
The carers said:
…foster carers are bullied into providing nothing more than a motel service for the State. There can be no meaningful family life when a family knows not, from one day to the next, what its members will be required by the State to “agree” to. The Minister need look no further for clues as to why this State has lost two-thirds of its foster carers in the past couple of years…and is still losing them.
The same carers also claimed that there is a lack of policy and direction for birth family access to foster children and that it is not always in the children’s best interest for family to have unfettered access. They recommended that there be more flexibility around birth family access, with carers allowed to make some alterations to access. They suggested that access sometimes take place in the carer’s home so that children did not always have to go somewhere.
9.7.9 Vulnerable to False Allegations
The vulnerability of foster carers to false accusations of abuse is another major difficulty. This topic will be dealt with in a later section of this Report relating to Special Investigations and Care Concerns.
9.7.10 Lack of Respect
One foster carer stated:
The reason quoted in the media as to why the minister or government representatives are not participating in this inquiry, in that it would further harm foster parents, shows only contempt by the minister for us as foster parents…This government has failed in its responsibilities.
9.7.11 Carers Exposed to Violence
Based on research, Professor Briggs reported that:
Over 70 percent of carers reported significant damage to property. Over a third reported being threatened/intimidated by adolescent foster children; 83 percent described intimidating behaviour from children or their parents; 56 percent experienced ongoing harassment, obscene phone calls or obscene correspondence; 48 percent of carers said they had been physically assaulted; 20 percent of assaulted carers record to 12 or more violent incidents and another 10 percent refer to it being between six and nine.
9.8 Recruiting and Training Foster Carers
Ms Weston told the Committee:
…many who have considered fostering are no doubt reluctant to enter a system which is at crisis point and which is unable to adequately support foster families and the children for whom they care. How can we expect to recruit new foster families when we cannot resolve the issues for those who are currently in the system. People are not stupid—many of them know the system is in crisis and will not come near it.
The Department itself acknowledges its failure to recruit foster carers and, as always, has in mind
“processes to improve…recruitment of [both] foster and relative carers”.
Dr Delfabbro told the Committee that foster carers are difficult to recruit. He said that an $800,000 promotional campaign using television, radio and newspaper advertisements over a 12-18 month period in 2005 and 2006 received more than 700 calls but fewer than 20 foster carers were actually recruited. He said that a diversity of factors accounted for the low number of foster carers being recruited. They included:
Pettiness of Departmental workers regarding role delineations with Departmental workers being territorial about their role and not allowing carers to traverse the worker’s perceived territory
The recruitment process was too drawn out
People feared being falsely accused of abuse
Lack of consistency in role and expectations—new practice manual still has inconsistencies
Wanting more standardised procedures for reimbursements
Wanting more access to information about the children in their care
Carers wanting/needing more responsibility and greater sharing of information.
Delfabbro suggested that foster carers be recruited through existing foster care networks and be initially engaged via day care, respite care and play groups to give them a taste for foster caring. He also suggested there be different types of recruitment processes, faster approval to get them into the system and more follow-up with careful checks.
With regard to recruitment, Ms Weston stated:
…The significant problems regarding the recruitment and retention of foster families have been explored many times over many years, yet little has been done to adequately and promptly address these problems…
Authorities must recognise that foster carers are frustrated and fed up…in reality, they are treated very poorly. Most foster carers just want to get on with the job, have access to the support and services they need and be treated with respect—they are not interested in being patronised. When all foster carers are treated well and are able to enjoy working in a positive rewarding, respectful environment, they will tell others, and others will come, and then more will follow, until we have a robust foster care system we can be proud of and, most importantly, that will meet the needs of our most vulnerable children.
Dr Delfabbro referred to research conducted in Queensland which indicated that carers divide into three main groups:
One third had no interest in professional foster care training and wanted to be like a parent to a foster child.
Another third wanted additional training.
A final third, who tended to be younger and more highly educated people, wanted a formal professional foster carer qualification and to look after children with more demanding needs.
He further reported that:
…not all foster carers want to do it for money but there is a certain proportion who would be willing to be paid more on the assumption that they take on more training and were willing to take on more challenging children.
Commissioner Mullighan recommended that it be mandatory for all carers of children and young people in care to undergo comprehensive training about child sexual abuse and in children and young people with disabilities. He also urged that adequate resources be directed towards recruiting and retaining foster carers including providing them with adequate support such as respite care and ongoing consultation. He also proposed providing carers with therapeutic support when a child or young person in their care makes a disclosure of sexual abuse.
One witness stated that the Department should support foster carers with counselling, medical backup, full background information about their foster child, sufficient funding to cover the child’s food and clothing, education and other reasonable expenses and be subjected to checks to ensure that the funds are being used as intended.
The Report of the Guardian for Children and Young People acknowledges the Department’s difficulty in recruiting and retaining foster carers.
Ms Vardon, Chief Executive, stated that the Department put foster carers:
“front and centre of our business”.
…foster carers who have looked after a child for three years can make all the decisions (just about) in relation to those children; and we are bringing that up into much more focus than it has been. Part of the whole of our reform is to value carers more and to make sure they are seen to be valued.
The Committee agrees with these sentiments but the overwhelming evidence is that it does not occur.
In May 2009, the Department prepared a new Foster Carers Charter. This colourful publication pays lip service to the government’s gratitude to foster carers, describing them as “valued partners”. The evidence presented to the Committee demonstrates the hollow nature of the so-called Charter.