Foster care shortage hurting children living in regional and rural Victoria

Updated April 10, 2019 12:30:19

Rivers Watson was five years old when he and his three siblings were placed in foster care by child services.

Key points:

  • The number of Victorian kids in out-of-home care has almost doubled over the last five years
  • Regional children are twice as likely to need foster care compared to children from the city
  • Rivers Watson, who went into foster care as a 5yo, says it wasn’t easy but it provided many opportunities

“My parents weren’t able to look after all four of us children — I’m the youngest of four,” Mr Watson said.

He described his memory of the experience as horrifying.

“These strangers came out of nowhere and they said we had to get in their car and we just wanted to be with Mum and Dad,” he said.

Mr Watson, now 19, said while it was initially daunting he now believed he has grown into a better person because of his three foster families.

“Growing up in foster care, first of all you hear some pretty shaky things, but that’s not at all the case I [found],” Mr Watson said.

“There’s a lot of memories to look back on, I still have a good rapport with my foster carers who I actually call my grandparents.

“I still talk to them pretty much every day, I try to see them every week.”

Mr Watson admitted that foster care was not easy but it provided many opportunities.

He completed the Kokoda track in 2015, became school captain, and is now living independently and working in hospitality.

“I was able to go on school excursions, I was able to have clean clothes on my back every day. They raised me pretty much,” Mr Watson said.

“They taught me right from wrong and they really helped me become a better person.”

But Mr Watson’s stable upbringing is becoming harder to replicate.

Lack of foster carers a ‘statewide issue’

Foster carers have been in limited supply with 45,000 children requiring foster care last year.

Foster care support officer of the Mallee Accommodation Support Program, Sam Rodgers, said the amount of families registered as foster carers was not meeting the demand.

“Some agencies might have 30 carers on their books, and a placement request comes in and they just actually don’t have carers available for those children to be placed,” she said.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the number of Victorian kids in out-of-home care had almost doubled over the last five years, and regional children were twice as likely to need foster care compared to children from the city.

The report also showed that 375 new households joined the foster care program in Victoria last year, but more than 600 families pulled out.

“There wouldn’t be a day or a week go past that there’s not a request for a foster placement,” Ms Rogers said.

Victoria’s Hume region feels the pinch

In 2018, community service organisation Berry Street received 244 enquiries about foster care from community members in northern Victoria’s Hume region.

Of those that enquired, only three became registered foster carers but 10 carers pulled out of the system.

“It’s a statewide issue. We know amongst all foster care agencies that we don’t have the number of carers to meet the placement demand,” Janene Ingram said, team leader of Foster Care Recruitment Assessment and Training at Berry Street.

The organisation managed to place 25 children with a foster care family last year but another 61 youths were not placed.

Ms Ingram said placement disruption was, lamentably, rife.

“Unfortunately children can experience a lot of placement disruption and it’s certainly not what we strive for,” she said.

“We want to maintain stability and security once they enter out-of-home care, but for various reasons, children can experience multiple placements.”

The Department of Health and Human Services agreed that there had been a steady increase in demand for foster carers across the state, but the trend was beginning to stabilise.

“As a result of two Royal Commissions and increased community awareness of issues surrounding family violence, child abuse and neglect, there has been significant growth in reports to child protection and the number of children living in out-of-home care in recent years,” a spokesperson said.

“We are now starting to see this increase in demand slow and stabilise.”

The department said the bigger pool of foster carers it had to call on meant better placement matchings between carers and the children or young people that need to be placed.

The highs and lows of foster care

Mooroopna’s Wendy Dow has been a foster carer for almost 30 years and during that time has fostered more than 300 children.

She admitted that being a foster career has had its challenges.

“We only keep in touch with a couple of them because a lot of families move away, circumstances change within the family, and sometimes it’s difficult to maintain the contact between them,” Ms Dow said.

“Sometimes it can be a bit frustrating with the court system … sometimes we don’t always agree with their decisions about children and the direction they head in.

“It’s very hard emotionally and it’s not only for me, it’s for the whole family.”

Ms Dow currently has three children in her care, all of whom have lived with her and her biological family since early childhood.

“We have one girl who came to us as a baby actually and stayed with us, and is just like part of our family,” she said.

Mr Watson’s foster carers, Dennis and Judy, said they too had their disappointments, but when they saw their foster child succeed, the rewards were inspiring.

“It’s a very difficult job, but it’s a worthwhile job,” Judy said.

“There’s nothing better in this world than seeing a young child achieve what they want in life.”

Topics: community-and-society, family-and-children, children, adoption, welfare, regional, child-health-and-behaviour, mildura-3500, mooroopna-3629, shepparton-3630

First posted April 10, 2019 11:37:05

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