Senate debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Matters of Public Interest

Foster Carers

1:25 pm

Photo of Lin ThorpLin Thorp (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to acknowledge the hard work of Australian foster carers. These individuals truly are an inspiration and deserve the most sincere acknowledgement for their commitment to provide love, care, support and safety to children and young people in need. As a community, we know it is not always possible for children and young adults to live with their biological parents. This may produce death, abuse, neglect, addiction or other issues. Foster carers dedicate their time, their home and their love to children who are unable to live with their immediate family members. Foster care is often used to provide temporary care for young people while their biological parents are getting help sorting out their own problems. Foster care may also be a way of providing role models for children or young people to assist them through difficult periods in their lives.

Being a foster parent is not like other volunteer service. It is not a volunteer service that ends at the end of the working day or that can be measured in hours of service. Being a foster parent is a 24-hour a day, seven days a week, commitment. This commitment may last for many years or, in some cases, even decades. It is a whole-of-community duty to protect children who are unable to live with their immediate family members. When it comes to supporting these children, our responsibilities are clear and indisputable. When unfortunate family circumstances arise, foster carers selflessly step into parenting roles to ensure that our children are raised in supportive and understanding environments.

In Australia there are thousands of dedicated men and women who provide guidance and support to children and young adults in out-of-home care every day. In 2009 it was reported that there were over 34,000 children living in out-of-home care in Australia. This number has since increased, creating additional demand for out-of-home care. Foster carers are invaluable citizens who come from many walks of life. They may provide care for the duration of one night or for up to 18 years under arrangements such as permanent guardianship orders. The care provided will depend on the child's needs and family situation, as well as the personal circumstances and availability of the carer.

Foster carers may live in the city or the country, may be single or in a relationship, and may have biological children already in their care. However, one thing all of our foster carers have in common is a shared commitment to our children, a commitment to better the lives of the children in their care and give them the best possible outcomes and opportunities in life. Regardless of their own personal circumstances, foster carers have decided that they have enough time and space in their own life and home to welcome a child or young person in need of their support. I am proud to note that there over 270 foster homes in my home state of Tasmania. I honour and hold immense respect for all carers who make this commitment.

Today I would like to share Clyde's story, courtesy of the Raising Children Network. Clyde is a foster parent who lives in Victoria. Clyde and his wife have been committed foster parents for over 25 years. Over this time, Clyde and his wife have cared for not just tens of children in need but over 250 children and young people. Clyde considers all of the children and young people in his care to be part of his family. He and his wife open their home to children of all ages and from all backgrounds. Many of the children in Clyde's care have come from homes where incidents of domestic violence, neglect and drug abuse are a common occurrence. Clyde commits to caring for these children and continues to support these young people even after they become independent adults.

Carers such as Clyde and his wife are truly inspirational. These volunteers contribute a valuable service to our community that is too great to measure. Individuals like Clyde, along with all other foster carers, directly better the lives of others each and every day. But, sadly, we know that the number of individuals willing to become foster carers is decreasing. We are also aware that many foster carers who are currently contributing their support to children in need are ageing. Finding enough foster carers to support children in Australia who are not able to live with their birth parents is a major challenge we face as a nation. It is often a difficult task to attract new foster carers to volunteer their time and support.

There have also been increases in the number of children placed in out-of-home care, placing further pressures on demand. It is clear that we need to do more to promote and endorse campaigns which enhance the public's ability to locate information about providing foster care and the options that are available with regard to short- and long-term care arrangements. While providers of foster care have traditionally placed an emphasis on providing quality care and directing their resources accordingly, resources must also be directed towards recruitment. It is apparent that effective communication is the key to recruiting future foster carers. The issues surrounding foster carer recruitment and retention have been voiced by Tasmanian Child and Family Services. Child and Family Services received information in 2008 from carers suggesting that at least 20 per cent of existing carers will cease being foster carers over the next few years. The challenge and need to recruit new foster carers in Tasmania has now become a reality. A much greater effort is required by state departments to recruit and train additional foster carers.

The increasing demand for foster carers is a nationwide trend. Real Carers, Really Needed was a successful campaign, run in Tasmania, which noted the need to recruit new foster carers. This campaign represented a significant investment by the Tasmanian government and featured television and print advertising, as well as bus and taxi advertising, through 2009, 2010 and 2011. The campaign was initially run in Queensland and the Queensland government very generously shared those resources with Tasmania. While this campaign was successful in attracting a large number of inquiries and increasing the number of ready and willing foster carers, it is clear that more needs to be done.

Providing support to foster carers in our community is primarily the responsibility of state governments. In my home state of Tasmania, foster carers receive non-taxable regular payments to reimburse them for the costs associated with their role as carers. The state also provides appropriate training for carers such as after-hours emergency advice and assistance. However, as in many other states, the funding and support available from the state system is inadequate and fails to resource carers appropriately. This creates a heavy reliance on the community sector and volunteers, who by acting selflessly have often already placed themselves in difficult circumstances physically, emotionally and financially.

In Tasmania, foster carers are the primary caregivers for approximately 52 per cent of children in out-of-home care. The majority of children and young people who enter out-of-home care are between five and 14 years of age. Research compiled by Child and Youth Services Tasmania indicates that potential carers generally spend two to three years weighing up the idea of becoming a foster carer before they lodge a formal application. Support services provided by the Tasmanian government through recent reforms such as Gateway Services and the Integrated Family Support Service are crucial in assisting vulnerable families and children. Since these services have been implemented the Department of Health and Human Services, in partnership with Child Protection Services, has already noted a decrease in instances of reported child abuse and neglect.

In 2008, a paper produced by Child and Family Services noted many issues of concern in respect of payments and reimbursements available to foster carers. Many of these issues persist today and include payment guidelines too difficult for foster carers to understand; inconsistency in the payment of reimbursements and additional allowances; and standard payments that are considered inadequate—only just covering the basic costs of caring for a child; and these payments have not increased with the rising cost of living. Foster carers are not always aware of departmental policies and allowances such as additional allowances for children experiencing temporary physical conditions or disability.

The Foster Carers' Association of Tasmania was formed by a small group of carers and has since consistently continued to provide support to foster carers in Tasmania. The association was established with the support of the Department of Health and Human Services. The association acts as a resource for many carers providing information and training, events and conferences, and support services such as a 24-hour support hotline. It also ensures there is support for families and children in areas that are lacking the support of the department due to restraints and frameworks that must be adhered to. The association ensures that all members are informed of current government policies and relevant law. It holds regular meetings in all regions of Australia, releases regular newsletters informing members of upcoming events and up-to-date advice, and has built strong partnerships with national bodies as well as Child and Family Services.

A recent grant from the Department of Health and Human Services enabled the association to purchase the FAST program from Foster Care Queensland—once again, Queensland is helping Tassie. This initiative enabled the state committee to establish this valuable program in Tasmania and allowed the director of Foster Care Queensland to travel to Tasmania to work with foster carers who will become trained delegates. The initiative involves a group of trained carers who volunteer their time to individuals to provide support, advice and information. In particular, I must acknowledge the hard work of John Flanagan of the Foster Carers' Association of Tasmania and others including Maggie Phillips, Tammy King, John Flack, Molly Arming, Roxy Moulder, Maureen Flanagan, Ken Abery and Anne Bailey for their enduring commitment to protecting and supporting Tasmanian children.

The association has also recently worked in partnership with DHHS to introduce a new model of carer payment system. The implementation of this new system was linked to the new child protection information management system to ensure that payments are made in a timely manner and with fewer errors. What is achieved by the Foster Carers' Association of Tasmania is quite significant, considering as an association they get less funding than any of their counterparts in other states. No staff are paid—all of the time and effort committed by these individuals is voluntary.

I understand that to raise a child is one of life's most rewarding experiences. However, as many other parents, grandparents caring for grandchildren and foster carers understand, many challenges exist. It is important to recognise that children who enter care often have complex needs. For children who have been placed in foster care arrangements due to abuse, neglect or addiction, the ability of foster carers to provide a secure and stable environment is vital. Therefore it is important that training is provided wherever appropriate.

Bryan Jeffrey, the keynote speaker at the National Foster Carers Conference 2010, posed the question: what training should foster carers receive? His answer was:

As much as they need; as much as they want; as much as they deserve; and as much as we can afford.

The Foster Carers' Association of Tasmania are to be congratulated for the training events they organise and oversee. Training initiatives conducted in recent months have included seminars on understanding the trauma caused by abuse, briefings on how to communicate with children about their sexuality, along with providing first aid training courses to foster carers.

Whilst fiscal and primary responsibilities may fall on state governments, there is much that can be done at a federal level. Within organisations and state agencies, there is considerable support for consistent and informed national reform to take place. In 2010, the Australian government released draft national standards for out-of-home care. These guidelines essentially recognise the need to provide support and care to children and carers. National standards are a step in the right direction. I am pleased to report that we are also currently on track to implement the plan for the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children. Within this plan, increasing the levels of support for carers is noted as a key national priority.

I must also endorse the work of the CREATE Foundation which represents all Australian children and young people in out-of-home care. CREATE Foundation is Australia's peak body representing the voices of all children in out-of-home care. The once small, volunteer-driven group founded in 1993 by Jan Owen is today a national organisation with offices located in every state and territory of Australia. CREATE plays a vital role in organising programs and events, and is a loud and influential advocate for children and young people.

We must acknowledge that foster carers are a vital part of our society. The support and services foster carers volunteer to our communities are truly significant not just in my home state of Tasmania but Australia wide. All foster carers and volunteers must be supported by government to ensure that the best outcomes for our children and young people are achieved. For their ongoing commitment to supporting and protecting children, foster carers are worthy of our greatest praise and appreciation.