1st June 2020.
National approach urgently needed to extend state care during pandemic
By Paul McDonald, Chair of The Home Stretch campaign and CEO of Anglicare Victoria
It’s hard to imagine many parents telling their 18-year-old son or daughter it’s time to move out of home right now, as everyone continues to struggle with our new reality of lockdown and social distancing. But as stand-in parents for young people in state care, that’s essentially the message from many governments across the country in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
For most young people in state care, turning 18 is no cause for celebration. Research shows that even at the best of times, 18-year-olds exiting state care are at much higher risk of unemployment and homelessness than other young people of the same age. Right now life is obviously far from normal, as the devastating economic impacts from COVID-19 affect hit home.
The Victorian Government is the first in the country to recognise the importance of this issue, announcing this month that care for young people will be extended until the end of 2020. This will apply whether a young person will turn 18 in the coming months or has a child protection court order that is due to expire. This interim measure is a responsible way to fulfil our duty of care to this vulnerable group. The Home Stretch campaign has written to all state and territory governments, calling on them to follow suit as part of a national approach.
In the COVID-19 environment, states and territories terminating foster care, kinship care and residential care for young people as their orders expire will have catastrophic knock-on effects. We owe it to this vulnerable group to respond with urgency, because with every month that passes, more and more young people are facing the very real threat of no job, few prospects and perhaps no home in the middle of a health emergency. It’s hard to follow the advice of the government to stay at home when you don’t have one.
Currently the state provides care for children and young people aged to 17 who are unable to live at home with their parents. Some are cared for by foster parents, some by family members in kinship care arrangements and others by staff in residential care units, where staff do their best to play the role of absent parents. The best option for all children is to grow up with their family wherever possible, but this is often not realistic.
While young people may be considered ‘lower risk’ in this pandemic, they are one of the hardest hit. Consider this list now eradicated from the lifestyle of a young person: all community sport, clubbing, music festivals, skating, surfing, gigs, parties or even hanging out with more than one friend. All places of connection, identity or belonging, so important to the world of a young person, gone. While Netflix and a bottle of wine might be a great night in for an adult, it’s a lot less appealing for a teen. As we go further with this crisis, authorities will need to show more tolerance than usual for this group.
If you add the uncertainty of whether you will have a home in a few months or an adult carer to look out for you, you can probably understand the importance of this situation for someone who is facing the prospect of the state’s care arrangements ending during 2020. Already other countries have recognised this during COVID-19, and acted to put a moratorium on young people being forced to leave care for at least the rest of this year. Nationally we need to follow the lead of Victoria – and countries such as Canada – to do the same.
While the care system is primarily overseen by the states and territories, there is a role for the Morrison Government to insist on this as a national approach and act as a partner with each Premier and the relevant Ministers. This won’t be easy, as some state governments are largely unmoved on the plight of young people whose care orders will expire during this pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis has led to a renewed sense of community, compassion and wellbeing across all parts of our society. For the thousands of young people across the country who face the threat of homelessness in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, extending their state care arrangements feels like the least we can do.
Paul McDonald is the CEO of Anglicare Victoria and Chair of The Home Stretch, a campaign aimed at extending state care to the age of 21 for young people in foster, kinship and residential care.