Leaving care

17.88 Children leave care for a number of reasons including

    • the child turns eighteen

    • the care and protection order expires

    • the child is adopted

    • the child returns to the family

    • responsibility for the child is transferred to a different government agency (for example, to an agency within the juvenile justice system).

17.89 A NSW study indicated that about 100 children between the ages of 16 and 18 leave care each year in that State.[169] One of the obligations of the state as ‘parent’ to children in care should be to ensure that the transition from care, whether to their family or independence, is as smooth as possible. This transition could require training and preparation for independence while the child is in care and continuing support once the child leaves care. The NSW study noted that wards making the transition from care to independence

vary considerably in their circumstances, including their age at entry into out-of-home care, how many placements they have had, who they are living with when they are discharged and what sources of support they have. Their needs will therefore vary and they generally also change over time. The need for preparation and ongoing support beyond discharge, however, is common, and may include financial support, emotional support, and advice and information about their background.[170]

The Commonwealth is significantly involved in this aspect of children and the care and protection system, as it is responsible for many of the services available to young people who have left care. These services include income support, occupational or other tertiary training, housing and health care.

17.90 There is little information about children’s access to these and other services available for children who have left care, but the HREOC report Our Homeless Children demonstrated that relevant departments were doing little, if anything, to assist in the transition.[171] Research has shown that children leaving care face homelessness, unemployment, loneliness, depression and poverty.[172] The National Children’s and Youth Law Centre has pointed out that

[w]hen our children grow up and leave home, they are not just left high and dry by their parents. The state, as a parent, fails dismally to provide appropriate follow up and support.[173]

This perception was supported by submissions.[174] One young woman told the Inquiry

[w]hen I left care, I didn’t get a letter. Some people do. I know that’s something I was going to mention but I forgot, is when – there’s a letter that the minister sends out to all new people coming into care and it says who he is and what it means for him to be their legal guardian. So I’d say he’s probably got a letter that goes out for people who are leaving care, but I never got one. I know some people do, but it’s almost like: see ya. You know: good luck with your life. I think I got $200 to buy a fridge or something.[175]

Australian care and protection systems, and associated service delivery agencies at federal, State and Territory levels, are currently failing to adequately assist children in care in their transition to independence.

17.91 Research suggests that many children in care may ‘leave’ care because they have drifted into the juvenile justice system.[176] Systemic factors contributing to this drift include systems abuse, inadequate service provision for children while in care and a routine use of the juvenile justice system as a treatment, punishment and holding mechanism for children in care who may be difficult to manage. They combine with other social and personal factors to create an alarming flow of children in care into the juvenile justice system.[177]

Recommendation 181 The national care and protection standards should ensure that the case plan for a child who is leaving care is reviewed by the family services department at least 6 months prior to the child’s 18th birthday or planned exit from care. A transitional case plan should be developed at that time directed towards assisting the child in the transition to independence or family reunification. It should designate the support necessary for this transition both before and after leaving care.

Recommendation 182 Research should be conducted into the causes of and ways of preventing the drift of children in care into the juvenile justice system.

Implementation. OFC should co-ordinate this research on the basis of information provided by the State and Territory family services departments, juvenile justice departments and DPP agencies.

Recommendation 183 The national care and protection standards should require that caseworkers, particularly staff in residential care settings, receive specialist training in identifying children and young people at risk of juvenile justice contact and in implementing early intervention and prevention strategies. Children in care should have access to intensive support, therapeutic and rehabilitation programs where appropriate.

[169] J Cashmore & M Paxman Wards Leaving Care: A Longitudinal Study Social Policy Research Centre & NSW Dept of Community Services Sydney 1996, i.

[170] id ii.

[171] HREOC Our Homeless Children: Report of the National Inquiry into Homeless Children AGPS Canberra 1989, 112–3.

[172] See para 4.49.

[173] National Children’s and Youth Law Centre IP Submission 12.

[174] eg National Children’s and Youth Law Centre IP Submission 12; Law Institute of Vic, Family Law Section IP Submission 173.

[175] E Travers, Future Echoes Public Hearing Submission Adelaide 1 May 1996.

[176] See paras 4.43-44.

[177] See NSW Community Service Commission The Drift of Children in Care into the Juvenile Justice System: Turning Victims into Criminals NSW Community Services Commission Sydney 1996, 16–17.