Lessons of the past can unlock a better future for foster kids | By Paul McDonald, Anglicare Victoria Chief Executive

Please note that the following opinion piece contains sensitive content, including themes of suicide and the Victorian Premier’s apology to those who experienced abuse and neglect while living in state care.

Just days before the Victorian Premier’s apology to the state’s care leavers last week, I attended the funeral of a young woman who had tragically taken her own life. She was one of a small group that lived together, supporting each other after years in state care. Like all children in the foster, kinship and residential care system, the state had stepped into the role of parent after it was deemed too unsafe for her to remain at home.

It’s a life these young people did not sign up for. And when these children become young adults, carving out a future is too often a lonely and overwhelming struggle.

More than half of the state’s care leavers will find themselves homeless within the first 12 months of leaving care, about 40 per cent will be unemployed and many will be ill-equipped for the emotional and financial pressures they face as an adult. Studies suggest as many as one in three will attempt to take their life within four years of leaving state care.

Premier Jacinta Allan’s apology this month to those who suffered abuse and neglect in state care is vital for healing. It was a welcome declaration of how governments and their providers failed many of those they were supposed to be protecting. But now that we have looked back on this history, we need to consider how to improve the lives of those growing up in state care today.

It has only been in the last three years that governments have recognised the plight of care leavers and committed to extending the end of state support from the age of 18 to 21 through the Home Stretch campaign. In response to this reform, Victoria, along with all other Australian states, has now formally committed to this essential support for three further years, and all the positive outcomes that go with it.

Yet while this reform was an important step forward, it was never the complete answer to the ongoing struggles care leavers experience. It was always intended as a foundation to build on, rather than a set-and-forget solution.

The role of a parent doesn’t stop when a child turns 18, or even 21. It continues, just as crucially, in these young adult years. The state as a parent is no different. It must continue to promote and support those it had legal care over, like any parent does, if we are going to shift the life trajectories of young people who have endured the double whammy of family breakdown and a childhood in state care.

There are already a few models for this that cost little but do require government will. Just recently I was talking to a friend who has a rare form of cancer; the good news is he’s a military veteran who qualifies for a Veteran Gold Card from the Commonwealth Government. This gold card offers free, priority access to a wide array of health and other services he never thought he could have or afford.

Could the state government think along these lines when it comes to supporting a care leaver? This would give them priority access to the wide array of services the state – as parent – has at its disposal.

 These young people haven’t been to war like a veteran, but they have done their own tour of duty which can leave an equally lasting effect on their life.

Internationally, some countries have already recognized the struggles of this group and moved to use their ‘gold card’ powers to provide opportunity and services for them well into adulthood. In the UK more than 60 governments have given care leavers a protected status both in policy and service delivery.

What could this look like? Opportunities such as preferencing care leavers for jobs on government funded infrastructure projects, or free tertiary education. Or, at the other end of the scale, proactive access to mental health services, drug and alcohol treatments and social housing allocations, without being just another number in the peloton of needs in the community.

Such an approach is also good financial policy by saving government coffers in significant downstream costs in hospital, mental health, homelessness or welfare.

Last week, care leavers I spoke to welcomed the Premier’s apology, but said what they really wanted is for those in care today to have a better start in life than what they experienced.

A very simple reform, and a government doing what any parent would do, would change the course for many of the young care leavers in the system today. It would save lives. And the Victorian Government would show that it has indeed learned the difficult lessons of the past.

Paul McDonald is national chair of the Home Stretch campaign and CEO of Anglicare Victoria, the state’s largest out-of-home care provider.

Thanks very much to the Australian Community Media (ACM) network, which first published this piece across its regional newspaper network.



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