Jane’s eight-month-old grandchild arrived unexpectedly on her door in a wet nappy and in the arms of a child protection worker.
The worker, at Jane’s request, dashed across the road to buy formula, a bottle and baby wipes. Then she drove away.
“They left me with nothing – with an expectation that I would just pull things out of a magic hat to give this child all its needs,” says Jane, who did not want her real name published.
The Victorian First Nations mother of four is one of thousands of family or relative carers, known as kinship carers, across the country for children unable to live with their parents due to safety concerns.
Australia has experienced an increase in the number of kinship and foster carers, amid soaring rates of children in out-of-home care.
But in Victoria and Western Australia, the numbers tell a different story.
In the 2020/21 financial year, Victoria had the highest number of foster carers – 580 – leaving the sector, according to the latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. With 315 foster carers commencing, it represents a net loss of 265. However, state government data suggests the overall number of carers has been relatively stable for five years.
In the same time period, Western Australia had a net loss of 60 carers. For kinship carers the exit rate is lower, due to the familial link to children. During this time, WA had a loss of 63 kinship carers, while the Northern Territory had 33 and Victoria recorded 22.
Kinship and foster carers are facing increasing financial pressures amid the cost of living crisis and only marginal rises in government allowances. Advocates say the exit rates mean more children are placed in institutional care homes, considered a last resort.
Since 2019, Jane has cared full-time for her two grandchildren, aged eight and four, after she spent two decades as a foster carer. Her grandchildren are the 64th and 65th children she has opened her home to.
“I wanted to give children a better chance than the one I’d had. I wanted to give them a safe haven,” she says.
Jane says despite begging for monetary support from the Victorian government, she was only provided with one single bed, despite caring for two children. She says support to nurture the children’s First Nations culture was limited to a pencil case printed with Indigenous artwork.
Compared to her time as a foster carer, Jane says being a kinship carer is akin to being “the poor cousins” of the protection system.
“They expect kinship carers to give up everything,” Jane says, adding she has had to draw from her superannuation to help cover costs.
Kinship – which accounts for three in every four of Victorian placements – and foster carers are both eligible for a care allowance. The allowances are the same for both groups and based on the needs and ages of the children.
But a 2017 report from the Victorian ombudsman revealed kinship carers were receiving significantly less financial support than foster carers, with 96.8% receiving the lowest level of allowance, in contrast to 40% of foster carers.
The chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, Deb Tsorbaris, leads the peak Victorian body representing about 100 child and family services. She says the financial pressure facing kinship and foster carers is concerning.
“If we keep going like this, in five years’ time we’ll have almost no foster carers left. Other states are also commenting on concerning trends,” she says.
Data collected by the Foster Care Association of Victoria in March recorded a 26% fall in the number people going through the accreditation process, leading to 50 fewer carers entering the sector this year compared with last year. The association says Victoria has one of the lowest care allowances in Australia, which rose by just 2% last July.
But with persistently high inflation, the carers are losing money – in real terms – and paying for essentials like schooling out of their own pockets, the association says. A carer of a six-year-old in New South Wales or Queensland receives approximately $95 more a week than a carer in Victoria, it says.
A spokesperson for Western Australia’s Department of Communities said the government was committed to providing a stable and safe environment for vulnerable young people.
A Victorian government spokesperson said it appreciated the outstanding job carers did to support children who could not safely live at home.
“Since 2020 we’ve invested $3.1bn in the child protection and family service system to improve access to support services for Victorian children and families,” the spokesperson said.
The Victorian government’s latest budget includes $895m for the child protection and out-of-home care sector, including funds to reduce the over-representation of Indigenous children in child protection and providing therapeutic support for children in residential care homes.
Tsorbaris says she regularly received reports of significant drops in the number of foster carers signing up. She attributes this to cost-of-living pressures, the children’s trauma backgrounds, and the need for more respite and around-the-clock support for carers.
“We need to look at what’s working and scale these responses. This issue is a problem across Australia and around the world. We need to come together to work on this as a matter of priority,” she says.
Tsorbaris says the system is reliant on volunteer care workers who receive a low allowance. Her centre is calling for the federal government to invest in tax incentives and superannuation for foster carers and argues state governments must also increase their support.
“If they’re a great carer and they can’t afford their mortgage and day-to-day expenses, we should be supporting them more,” she says.
Tsorbaris says allowances and greater support should be based on the carer and child’s needs.
“Our foster carers are so vitally important to the most vulnerable children and to our community. We have to look after them.”
The CEO of Victoria’s foster care association, Samantha Hauge, says current funding is inadequate and put carers in an impossible situation.
“Either they pay for services out of their own pocket (with the hope that they might be reimbursed at some stage in the future) or let the children go without,” she says.
The association praised the state’s budget providing a one-off $650 supplementary payment for each child for all foster and kinship carer households, but says there is no funding to increase the care allowance.
Kinship Carers Victoria says the budget initiatives would not allow carers to “lift themselves out of poverty.”
Kinship carers often get little notice that a child will be brought to them. Their family ties to the children often adds additional emotional complexities.
Jane has a complicated relationship with her son, whose children she cares for.
“There’s another grief level as a kinship carer, you’re relating to these adults whose children are in your care,” she says.
“There’s a grief about letting go of the hopes you had that those people were going to be able to step up [to care for their children].”
Jane, who is applying to become her grandchildren’s permanent carer, says the children have struggled with abandonment and sleep issues, leaving her isolated.
“I constantly educate myself on how I can help these kids make sense of their world.”
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