Why children in institutional care may be worse off now than they were in the 19th century
National apologies for abuse are important, but children in institutional care also need better support transitioning to adulthood.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s national apology to the victims of child sexual abuse was a moment of reckoning for the government – an admission of the country’s failures to protect children from abuse in institutions ranging from churches and schools to orphanages and foster homes.
We too often hear about child protection when there is a scandal or crisis. For young people who grow up in out-of-home care, however, we need to go beyond simply reacting to terrible incidents like these and focus more attention on whether our systems are delivering the outcomes they should on a daily basis and for the long-term benefit of young people.
Rectifying failures of the system time and again
A series of national inquiries has found that hundreds of thousands of children have suffered lifelong consequences due to the failures of the country’s child protection policies.
The Bringing Them Home report in 1997 examined the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, and the enormous impact this had on these communities.
Similar testimonies of lifelong sorrow emerged from the 2001 inquiry into child migration, the 2004 inquiry into out-of-home care abuse and neglect and the 2012 inquiry into forced adoptions.
Then, of course, there were the shocking stories of abuse that emerged from the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
All of this was hard for Australians to hear, but as a nation we bore witness. The federal government developed a National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 and we enjoyed a moment of optimism and hoped that recognising past injustices might put us on a path to a better future.
But reality returned. Indigenous children are still over-represented in the child protection system. Advocacy groups like CREATE are still helping young people leaving out-of-home care to overcome stigma and shame, educational disruption and difficulties establishing secure, independent lives.
The South Australian Child Protection Systems Royal Commission concluded in 2016 that the risk of sexual abuse in out-of-home care “has not diminished” and action to address it is “long overdue”. And the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse acknowledged the extent of abuse in out-of-home care nationwide remains unknown.
A widening gap for foster care kids
Worryingly, things may actually be getting worse for young people leaving out-of-home care and trying to transition to adulthood. Let’s take three snapshots from the past 150 years: the mid-19th century, the mid-20th century and today.
By the 1860s, most Australian colonies had government-run systems to take guardianship of children through court orders. These systems were less concerned with social justice than they were with preventing children from growing up to become criminals.
This meant preparing children from ages 12 to 15 for work placements. Most girls were sent to work as domestic servants, most boys were placed as general servants or farm labourers. Importantly, welfare departments took responsibility for finding them employment after their training.
Although many children were unhappy with their situations and had little power to change their lives, they were at least entering work around the same age as their working-class peers and had long-term prospects for employment.
By the mid-20th century, the comparison looked different. Children in government systems were typically given the minimum legal education and then funnelled into the same types of jobs they had entered in the 19th century – domestic servants, farm labourers, and other low-skilled work.
However, on leaving their arranged work placements, these young people had to compete for work with their more-qualified peers, who were increasingly staying on longer at school. The long-term stability offered by these fields was no longer guaranteed.
The result was a widening gap between those who had grown up in out-of-home care and those who hadn’t.
How does this compare to today?
Our research into the history of foster care has shown that children who grow up in the system continue to suffer educational disadvantages with lifelong consequences. There are, of course, complex reasons for this.
The former foster kids we spoke with in our study said that movement between foster homes caused massive disruption to their educations. There has been more attention in recent years on bringing stability to young people in out-of-home care, including a reconsideration of adoption as a preferred alternative to foster care.
But our research subjects had mixed feelings about permanent care schemes because they often provide less financial support than foster care and fewer support services. An inquiry into local adoption by SNAICC also found that adoption can pose serious issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, including loss of culture and family connections.
Another systemic factor – one we could more easily address – is the problem of “aging out” of the system.
The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children recognised that young people need the state to act as a “good” parent for a few years after they leave care at age 18. After all, young Australians everywhere are continuing to live longer with their families to help ease their transitions to further study or long-term employment.
Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania have committed to extending payments to foster and kinship carers until young people turn 21. The royal commission in South Australia has also recommended that some aspects of government support should continue to age 25.
But the National Framework made no reference to supporting university attendance for young people leaving care. A few universities – such as La Trobe and Federation – provide bursaries, scholarships and dedicated support staff to these young people, but there is no national commitment to extend this support across the country.
National apologies for the travesties committed in institutional care are important, but it’s also vital we recognise other severe deficiencies in the system. The gap between what the state delivers to care leavers and what a typical family might provide its own children is wider now than it has been in 150 years.
Extending financial aid and other services into young adulthood, and helping care leavers at university, are two direct ways the government can demonstrate its ongoing commitment to some of the most vulnerable people in society.