Care leavers: the vulnerable and unrepresented survivors in society

Victoria’s out-of-home care system has been the subject of scrutiny for many years now, without much change. Many within the sector believe it is time to change the way the system works, to ensure vulnerable young people leaving care aren’t disadvantaged.

When Dante* turned 18, he was homeless and was sleeping in an abandoned mill he knew from his route to school.

“There’s like a bed, someone left it there, it’s not clean but it’s alright.”

After being forced out of foster care due to his age, Dante was left with little other options but to find some type of shelter, no matter how unsuitable it was.

“At the beginning, I stayed with a friend, but left because after a while it’s hard to stay at friends. You kind of drain of them, so you don’t want to do that,” he explains, “You don’t want to burn your bridges.”

This story is typical of the young people who leave the out-of-home care system in Victoria. Under the current system in Victoria, when a person in out-of-home care turns 18-years-old they are removed from the system. This process is referred to as being ‘aged-out’ and means that the vital support provided to the young person is taken away. While the prospect of leaving home and living independently is challenging for all young people, it is especially difficult for care leavers due to their unstable upbringing with abuse, trauma, inconsistency and abandonment. This abrupt end of support has been identified as a major problem of the Victorian out-of-home care system.

Fortunately for Dante, he became involved with Berry Street, an organisation that offers support to people in a range of different situations, such as leavers of out-of-home care. Dylan Quinnell from Berry Street says that situations like Dante’s are not uncommon, with around half of care leavers ending up homeless in their first year.

“The statistics around young people leaving care are terrible. The possibilities of them going on to be successful adults is very low and that’s something that really concerns Berry Street,” Dylan says. He believes that the abrupt end of funding and support is a significant factor in the poor outcomes care leavers face.

“We’ve got these disadvantaged young people, who from age 18 are basically on their own, and that’s something we find that’s just really unfair.”

Another person who is well aware of the problems within the out-of-home care system in Victoria is Katie Hooper, Executive Officer at Foster Care Association of Victoria. Foster Care Association of Victoria (FCAV) is the peak body and voice for foster carers, which works to support foster carers and advocate for them. Like many others involved in foster care, Katie believes that people in care should be able to remain in the system beyond their 18th birthday.

“We believe government need to provide funding and carer reimbursements to support the young people staying in foster placements as long as they can, up until 25-years-old ideally,” Katie says, “Children with a trauma history need more support, not less. None of us would throw our own child out at 16, 17 or 18, so it’s not alright for young people with a history of trauma to be asked to leave the system.”

While it is clear that being ‘aged-out’ too early is negatively impacting a care leaver’s transition, this is not the only contributing factor. Michelle Gardiner is a community facilitator from CREATE Foundation, the peak body for representing the views of those within state care. She works hands on with young people transitioning out of care and sees how a lack of preparation can lead to poor outcomes. Gardiner agrees that increasing the age at which a young person leaves the system would be a positive step, but she says there are other things that need to be done to better prepare care leavers for life on their own.

Gardiner says that preparation for leaving care needs to start much earlier, “You’ve got this young person in front of you, what is it that they need? What will they need long term? We need to make sure that all those things happen as soon as possible, rather than somewhere down the track. We need to think long term, if something is an issue now, what’s it going to be like 7 years when this young person is looking at living on their own. What is it that they need now to set them up for their future?

“We need to start having conversations with them over the years about what they want to do in the future and what kind of life they want to lead. To think long term and to set them up, like parents would do. Doing this over the years builds in their minds that they can have successful lives after care, rather than them looking at leaving care as a bad thing. Help them to look at leaving care as them starting their new life, and from the get-go they’ve been prepared and taken all these steps to get them to that point, rather than, six months before they leave care, teaching them all this stuff, which can make it big and daunting and scary.”

Both adequate funding and preparation for care leavers are vital in fixing this cycle. Deb Ireland from Anglicare Victoria, the largest foster care agency in the state, believes that while these improvements are important, the best way to fix the problem is to stop it before it becomes one. She thinks the key to this is greater consistency within care and during the transition to independent living. Deb is the creator of Breaking the Barriers, a program she says offers this consistency to young people, such as Mary*.

20-year-old Mary has dealt with a staggering amount of troubles and hardships. At the age of 15, she left an unstable home. Without any other options, she survived for a time on the streets. While normal teenage years are filled with the expected tribulations of growing up, Mary experienced much more than that. Abusive relationships, unsafe accommodation and stints in foster care became her normal.

“It was a big struggle,” says Mary. “It was something I thought I would never get through – moving from place to place and not knowing where I would end up.”

With the help of Breaking the Barriers, Mary’s life is getting back on track. Breaking the Barriers is run by Anglicare Victoria and has helped Mary find suitable and stable accommodation, and helped pay her rent. This allowed Mary to return to studying, and focus on finding work and her emotional healing.

Deb Ireland says for the three years the program has been running, it’s been doing “great things for those involved”. Like Mary, every young person involved is offered a sense of stability they’re not used to but so desperately need.

“The great thing about the Breaking the Barriers program is that it allows the young person to stay with the same case worker. There’s no shifting around like they’re use to, and it offers some consistency. It allows them to build a relationship with the caseworker and develop a sense of trust they haven’t had before and they can learn to talk about their problems,” she says.

After working hands on with care leavers, Deb understands that one of the hardest aspects of easing their transition into independent living is helping adjust their worldview. “They don’t know how to be social, or what a normal social life is. They think friends are people who you do drugs with, not sit at home and watch a movie with,” Deb explains, “They don’t understand that life isn’t meant to be one big drama. They don’t understand what a normal life consists of, and they won’t learn this overnight.”

Unfortunately for the vulnerable care leavers and other disadvantaged young people that the program hasn’t yet helped, Breaking the Barriers is going to close in July. Deb says the closure is due to a lack of funding and resources, and that it highlights the chronic lack of investment in vital programs like Breaking the Barriers. Her disappointment could only be expressed with, “It just sucks.”

The problem stretches further than this still. With a large proportion of young people ending up homeless within their first year of leaving care, it is clear suitable and affordable housing is hard to come by. Sarah Toohey is from the Council to Homeless Persons (CHP), and says there is a need for more affordable housing and greater support for care leavers. The CHP have proposed to the State Government a ‘leaving care housing guarantee’ designed to bridge the gap between a care leaver’s income and their rent. Sarah says the average gap is $80.

“It wouldn’t matter if that were $20 or $5, if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. So we have proposed a leaving care housing guarantee that will provide $80 a week to every young person who has left care, up to the age of 25 to help meet their housing needs,” she says. If a young person doesn’t have something as fundamental as stable housing, every other aspect of their life suffers, “If you don’t have anywhere to study or keep your books, if every morning you’re packing up your entire life into a backpack and taking it to school with you, eventually that’s going to fall apart.”

Sarah says that this initial cost of supporting care leavers is far less than the costs of long-term homelessness. But she believes that the Government’s concern should be more than fiscal.

“It’s a no brainer,” she says, “The Government has taken responsibility as the corporate parent of these young people, so if you’re the parent, you’ve got an obligation to that person after the age of 18, like any good parent would. And even more so for these children because they’ve had particularly traumatic lives up until this point, so we need to invest everything we can to make sure they can go on to have good lives after they leave care.

“This should be at the top of the list. I think if the Government has got any obligation, it’s to the people it takes into its care.”

 

*some of the names in this article have been changed for privacy reasons

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