I’ve written about the ongoing skills shortage in Australia before
Outside of the world of work, there are plenty of fields where we are running out of crucial humans too. Today we will be exploring the severe shortage of foster carers in Australia, look for opportunities and, ultimately, can’t but argue for systemic change.
What exactly is foster care? For starters, it’s not adoption. Foster carers take temporary care of children under 18 who for various reasons can’t stay in their birth family.
Obviously, the state doesn’t give you children in distress without providing you with training and accrediting your capabilities.
The goal is to get kids back to their parents or wider families once they’ve sorted out their issues. Foster carers are one part of the child’s care team, which also includes foster care agencies, government departments and the child’s birth family.
You can care for one child or more at any one time, for just a few nights a month, or up to six months and longer. Foster carers have a say in who they are comfortable caring for (age, gender, number of kids).
Since the preference is always to have children with their parents or wider family, a lot of things must have happened before foster care is even considered.
Even though we are seeing massive population growth in Australia, we are running out of foster carers. Are we a meaner, less caring society? Does the marketing of Australian foster care agencies simply stink? If only it were so simple.
The problem is systemic in nature. Various demographic factors dry out the pool of potential foster carers. To be considered as a foster carer you need to fulfil a few criteria. These differ somewhat from state to state, but you will get the idea if we look at the Victorian criteria.
How to be a foster carer
You must be over 21. No problem, we see huge population growth in Victoria in the coming decade (plus one million people, plus 19 per cent). Since we only grow the 0-17 cohort by nine per cent, finding more foster carers doesn’t sound all that hard.
Wait, I’ve got more good news. Fewer Victorians smoke – that’s another box you must tick. Great stuff. Foster carers also must have a police check and be declared emotionally and physically fit to care. We have become neither more criminal nor crazier (you might disagree on the last bit).
With all this good news, why are we running out of foster carers? Even if some trends point in the right direction, a few negative trends can easily cancel them out.
You need to have a spare bedroom for your foster child.
With rising housing costs, fewer people can afford the luxury of paying for a spare room. The ABS Census actually offers a calculation about spare bedrooms in Australian households. This is only so useful as it doesn’t take into account the large number of spare bedrooms that have been converted into home offices in recent years and now aren’t available to house a potential foster child.
The story is this: simple expensive housing isn’t good news for the foster care sector. If you don’t have a spare bedroom, it doesn’t matter how clean your police record is, how emotionally stable of a non-smoker you are – you just won’t be able to foster.
Even if you have a spare bedroom there are more criteria that might disqualify you. Foster carers must have enough time available to care for children.
Spare time is rare time
That is becoming increasingly rare as more households rely on two full-time incomes to pay all the bills. Due to our national cost of living crisis and prolonged skills shortage, we can expect workers to be stretched as much as possible. Spare time is rare time.
Foster carers don’t get paid, but they are also not meant to incur any financial expenses.
Your state pays an allowance to cover food, accommodation, and education-related costs. Here are the allowance dollar values for Victoria – note that you don’t need to pay tax for these allowances.
While carers don’t need to carry the expenses related to care, financial stability of the household is another criteria for becoming a foster parent. The goal is to filter out people who take on foster children purely as a source of income. More folks under financial stress means more people unable to foster.
While not a hard criterion, the boom in fertility treatments also has an adverse effect on the pool of foster carers. Expensive and uncertain treatments discourage rather than encourage couples to foster.
Also, Australians have children much later in life. It’s only in our mid-30s that we start families. In a sense that’s when we ultimately grow up.
My favourite definition of adulthood states that you become an adult when you take responsibility for someone other than yourself. We do not tend to choose to grow up, but we are being forced by life to grow up.
Young men sent to war grow up mighty fast. An older sibling taking care of the younger siblings when the parents struggle is forced to grow up. A new parent is forced to grow up. Foster care is a choice and if people on average “grow up” later in life, the age window in which you can provide foster care narrows.
So far this is utterly depressing news and yet another example of how in crisis the most vulnerable people get hit the hardest.
The seniors solution
To at least raise the mood a tiny bit let’s focus on a few demographic opportunities.
A cohort that is extremely well suited to foster is freshly retired Baby Boomers.
There are plenty of them, they tend to be empty-nesters with plenty of spare bedrooms, they have time, as a generation they own the majority of Australia’s cash savings and are least impacted by the rising cost of living crisis.
In their 60s and 70s now, many are still young and healthy enough to foster.
Fostering might even be a great way of reminding their own kids to finally give them some grandchildren. But in all seriousness, Baby Boomers are the biggest potential growth cohort in the foster care system as it operates now.
Truth be told, the system needs some sort of systemic overhaul.
The first thing that comes to mind is paid care leave. Allow workers to reduce their hours without negatively impacting the stretched family budget.
Funding might be best utilised in preventative measures. This requires a severe shift in political thinking. Finding money in a stretched budget is hard enough. Spending this money on an existing crisis, kids in the foster care system is easier than spending it on preventative measures.
You never ultimately know if a preventative measure actually succeeded.
One of my oldest and best friends from Germany taught me that banks and governments are obsessed with CMA (cover my arse) and would rather not do a potentially great thing if failure might be attributed to them – here’s to hoping that this new generation of public servants is willing to embrace evidence-based preventative programs.
The current shortage of foster carers is not the result of poor marketing or cold-hearted Australians, it’s driven my macro drivers and requires system change.
Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher is a co-founder of The Demographics Group. His columns, media commentary and public speaking focus on current socio-demographic trends and how these impact Australia. His latest book aims to awaken the love of maps and data in young readers. Follow Simon on Twitter (X), Facebook, LinkedIn for daily data insights in short format.
This story first appeared in our sister publication The New Daily.
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