Why Should We Keep Caring? Care Leavers, Homelessness, and Extending Care to 21
by Liana Buchanan, The Commission for Children and Young People’s Inquiry into Leaving Care
This article was originally published in Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity magazine including how to access full editions.
Extending care in Victoria
Last November, in an Australian first, the Victorian Government committed to give all young people leaving out-of-home care (16 and over) an allowance to support their accommodation until they turn 21.
This welcome, if overdue, extension of the Home Stretch program means that all young people exiting care can get support to continue living with their foster or kinship carer or can access financial assistance to transition to independent living. It means that in Victoria, at least, the state has recognised it cannot and should not simply walk away from young people in care on the date of their eighteenth birthday.
As the Commission for Children and Young People, we have been working alongside Home Stretch advocates since that vital campaign was launched. We also conducted a major inquiry into outcomes for care leavers and used it to formally recommend this extension of Home Stretch to all young people leaving care. While focused on Victorian data and practices, the final report Keep caring: Systemic inquiry into services for young people transitioning from out-of-home care, is relevant across Australia.
It highlights just how needed this Victorian investment is, and the further actions that should be taken to support young people leaving care. It uses young people’s voices and views, child protection file reviews and previously unpublished data to give a full, harrowing account of how badly we have been letting care leavers down, and the impact this has had on too many lives.
Care leavers and homelessness
Care leavers in Victoria face an unacceptably high risk of homelessness. About one third of young people access homelessness services within three years of leaving care in Victoria. For young people leaving residential care the figure is higher still; half are homeless within three years.
This mirrors the endemic levels of homelessness among care leavers across Australia, with a 2015 study — conducted by Swinburne University of Technology — finding that almost two-thirds of homeless young people in Australia had spent time in out-of-home care. Our inquiry found these high levels of homelessness could be directly attributed to the lack of homes set aside for young people leaving care.
In 2019 there were over 2,500 young people under 21 eligible for leaving care supports in Victoria, yet there were only about 300 housing options (including reserved housing, supported accommodation or allowances) available to them.
Without family to fall back on for accommodation, the years after leaving care can be very precarious. One young person told the Commission:
Leaving care planning started at 16 — the plan was for me to move in with my dad in [another state]. I thought that would be fine. It fell through when I was about to turn 18 and there was no back-up plan.
The Victorian Government’s recent budget commitment is a bold step towards solving the problem of homelessness among care leavers. Several recipients of Home Stretch praised the program:
I can’t thank [my Home Stretch agency] enough for all of the help they have given me … It has been great for my gran. [My Home Stretch agency] has been such blessing. It was a smooth transition for me a bit before I was about to leave care… I remember the day they came to my house and were explaining the program. My gran was so happy.
Challenges of leaving care
However, the challenges faced by care leavers extend far beyond homelessness. While some care leavers thrive in adult life, our inquiry found they are too often held back by intersecting forms of disadvantage and understandably anxious about their futures.
One young Aboriginal woman told the Commission:
You turn 18 and everything just goes, you just shit yourself. Hard transition being an adult after being in that system for so many years.
Of the young people who left care in Victoria between 2006 and 2014, more than half had presented to or been admitted to mental health services. Our inquiry found that more than two-thirds (67 per cent) of young people leave care without the supports they need for their mental health.
One young person with an experience of leaving care told the Commission:
For trauma, your brain does not process it until you feel safe which is when the mental health issues arise when you are in your own environment. The funding for mental health for children with a care experience needs to extend a lot further.
Our inquiry found that almost half (44 per cent) of all young people on the verge of leaving care are no longer studying or in any kind of vocational training — a scathing indictment of the out of home care system. Most of these young people had experienced the social dislocation of multiple placements or unresolved challenges with their mental health, which made staying at school incredibly challenging.
Many young people shared with the Commission their aspirations for further education, training and meaningful work after care. Yet, our Keep caring inquiry found the limited support these young people typically receive to get back to school or start vocational training contributes to poor educational outcomes and high levels of unemployment among care leavers.
All young people need the support of family, friends and community as they make their first forays into adult life. Yet, our inquiry found few young people in care get enough support to repair relationships with parents or siblings before leaving care, or to make positive connections with the community around them.
Conversely, some young people told us that a mentor or a supportive family member could really help:
A mentor from Whitelion really made a difference. He did not take any money to do it. He could have got reimbursed but he would always just reach into his own pocket. He really helped me out and was always introducing me to new food and new experiences.
The hardships and disadvantage endured by care leavers are disproportionately borne by Aboriginal young people, who make up about one in six of all young people leaving care in Victoria. These young people need extra support from culturally safe services to build and maintain connection to culture in a stable home.
In Victoria, about a quarter of these young people still miss out on the support of an Aboriginal Community-Controlled post-care support program when they leave care.
The inquiry also found that young people leaving care with a disability — who make up about a third of all care leavers — also face distinct challenges securing appropriate accommodation and continuity of disability supports. These young people often find themselves on the verge of leaving care without suitable accommodation.
Post-care planning and support
Historically, across Australia, post-care supports to respond to care leavers’ entrenched disadvantage have been piecemeal and discretionary. In fact, Victorian law specifically denies young people an enforceable right to support after they leave care.
Following the lead of the United Kingdom and the United States, our inquiry calls on the Victorian Government to guarantee every young person who leaves care a base level of support including the right to a stable home, help to recover from trauma, and education and training.
The extension of Home Stretch is an unprecedented step in this direction. But for many young people with unresolved trauma, this allowance (of about $14,000 a year) will not be enough to help them maintain a stable home. Consequently, our inquiry recommends significantly expanded housing options — which includes housing stock and support services — tailored to the diverse needs of young people leaving care.
Unfortunately, improved post-care supports on their own will not suffice to drive improved outcomes for care leavers without parallel reform to the care system. Our inquiry found that the challenges faced by care leavers can often be traced back to their experience of the out-of-home care system itself, a system that does too little to support them or to prepare young people for their lives after care.
The Commission’s 2019 inquiry, In our own words: Systemic inquiry into the lived experience of children and young people in the Victorian out-of-home care system, highlighted that for many children and young people, their experience of the out-of-home care system is one of constantly moving between homes, constant changes in workers, poor safety and having no say in the decisions made about them.
These long-known shortcomings in care, which are all too common throughout Australia, are further magnified by poor leaving care planning for young people still in care. Local and international research suggests that young people in care who benefit from early and collaborative leaving care planning, tend to have a smoother transition to adult life.
Our inquiry reviewed what planning is actually occurring for young people in care in Victoria. While all young people in care aged 15 and over in Victoria must have a plan to help guide their transition to independence, our inquiry found that less than half (43 per cent) of young people in care have one of these plans.
Also, most young people did not have an opportunity to take part in planning about their own future. Keep caring found this lack of planning indicative of an out‑of‑home system so overwhelmed by managing crises that it has little to no regard for helping young people prepare for life after care.
One young woman who was still in care told the Commission:
Child Protection didn’t talk to me about leaving care … [My aunty] says that we will still have a home here with her [after we turn 18]. No workers have spoken to us other than to say that we can leave when we are 18.
Giving care leavers the best start in adult life means transforming the out-of-home care system to become the bedrock for a positive transition to independence. It means all young people in care need to be supported to keep learning or return to study or training and develop independent living skills in a stable and caring home.
Transforming care also requires those working with young people to help them develop aspirations for their future and work out the steps to get there.
Finally, we need to do much more to measure the life trajectories of care leavers in Australia. Keep caring recommends that the Victorian Government gather and publish data every two years on the life outcomes of care leavers along such critical domains as health, employment, education and housing.
This should be happening across Australia. Until we start giving the life outcomes of care leavers more visibility, we have little hope of driving the policies and system‑wide reform necessary to move the needle in the right direction. Young people deserve nothing less.
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