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Secrecy, "lack of respect", driving foster carers away

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Foster carers are dropping out of the system at a far higher rate than they can be recruited, according to a new study due to be published later this year.

The paper, co-authored by UniSA emeritus professor Freda Briggs and Monash University child abuse prevention researcher Susan Hunt, collated national research documenting significant frustration with the foster care experience.

Several respondents consistently reflected on their decision to foster children with language such as “crackers”, “crazy” or “mad”.

Briggs told ABC891 today there were several factors behind the high attrition rate.

“The reasons generally revolve around the lack of respect, the lack of support that they receive and of course they are caring for usually the most traumatised children who have been removed not just from parents, but often been in multiple foster care placements,” she said.

Briggs said she was concerned that despite such research being well documented, “nothing seems to have happened to have improved the system”.

“Foster carers really are the cornerstone of the child protection system, they are extremely important because children need stability, they need one person … one reliable person to care for them, especially young children,” she said.

“We’ve known for years what damage can be caused by multiple placements, but it’s still happening.”

Briggs said foster carers not just in the Families SA system but across Australia had reported frustration at the lack of transparency about the case histories of children coming into their care.

“Foster parents were not told, for example, that a child had a tendency to set fire to things or that a child had displayed inappropriate sexual behaviours, and of course if you’ve got other children in the house … your own children are at risk,” she said.

However, Connecting Foster Carers SA board member and lawyer Kelly Ryan told InDaily complaining about a systemic lack of support was generally “unhelpful”, because “I don’t think anything is going to change unless the legislation changes”.

“Under the child protection act, foster carers are not mentioned, they are not defined…they have no rights,” she said.

“We have less legal rights that people in prison to appeal decisions that affect them…Unless the legislation changes to actually recognise and provide rights to carers, I can’t see how anything else is going to change.”

Education and Child Development Department figures show there were 655 foster care households last year and 760 kinship care homes. That had grown from 551 and 504 respectively in 2009.

But the increase is subsumed by growth in the number of children in alternative care placements, which ballooned from 2016 to 2631 over the same period.

Families SA chief Etienne Scheepers told InDaily in a statement the agency “works very hard to support (foster and kinship carers) to provide a caring, stable home environment for a vulnerable child”.

“We are always looking at ways we can improve support, and regularly speak with foster care agencies and carers on how best to do that,” he said.

“While we readily acknowledge that we don’t always get it right, on the whole the experience of the majority of foster carers is positive and they acknowledge that caring enriches their lives.”

He said children in care have often undergone “significant trauma”, and service agreements with department-funded agencies “stipulate that carers receive training on issues including bonding and attachment, abuse and trauma and responding to challenging behaviours”.

The Government last week issued a public call for carers, to coincide with the state’s Foster and Kinship Carer Week.

“In South Australia there are nearly 3000 children and young people who for one reason or another have had to be removed from the care of their parents,” Minister Susan Close said at the time.

“We would love to be able to place these children in a home environment to give them the best opportunity in life … I strongly encourage anyone who feels able to open their home to a vulnerable child to contact one of (our) foster care agencies.”

But the public appeal was overshadowed when a disgruntled carer, Jacqueline Bowden, took the minister to task over the 2011 removal of her foster child. The Bowdens were given just an hour’s notice that the child would be relocated; they had cared for her for seven years, since she was 10 months old.

Briggs said the swiftness of the upheaval in that case “constituted child abuse, quite frankly”, arguing “children are just not being recognised in relation to their needs”.

“They’re being treated like objects and, of course, regarded as children of the minister,” she said.

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