Foster Care – The Facts
All children deserve to be given the best possible care and support to reach their full potential. However, due to all the day-to-day challenges they face and the issues within and outside the family unit, parents may sometimes be unable to provide a safe and nurturing environment for their child.
What happens when families undergo crisis?
Families facing hardships may seek support from the Government and family support agencies. Case workers are assigned to work with these families to help them become resilient and remain together as much as possible.
Sometimes, the assistance provided is enough to keep families together during crisis and prevent children from entering care. But there are times when families still experience breakdown, or homes remain unsuitable for a child to live in despite the support provided. When this happens, the relevant court or a child protection agency may decide to place the child in foster care. The case worker would then work closely with the child, the birth family and prospective foster family to find a safe and appropriate foster home.
What is foster care?
Foster care, also known as out-of-home care, is Government-approved short-term or long-term care for children up to 18 years. A child might come into foster care for varying lengths of time, from overnight to a few years, depending on the circumstances. Some children stay in care until they are 18 years old and are able to look after themselves. As much as possible, siblings are kept together to keep their sense of family identity. The usual plan is for the children to be reunited with their families. If this is not possible, children are then considered for long-term or permanent placement.
When considering a foster care arrangement for a child, staying with relatives or a close family friend is usually the preferred option particularly for very young children. This is called ‘kinship care’. For older children and teenagers, or when kinship care is not available, ‘non-kinship’ care or even residential care can be good alternatives. . During 2012-13, there were 50,307 children in out-of-home care across Australia. Approximately half were living with relatives and the other half lived with non-relative foster parents.
Why are children placed in care?
Children are placed in foster care because they cannot safely remain at home. These issues may include risk or experience of neglect, violence and/or abuse. There can also be voluntary placements of a child into foster care by a parent when the parent is unable or unwilling to look after the child.
What types of out-of-home care arrangements are there?
There are many types of foster care arrangements to address the different circumstances and needs of children and young people. Across Australia, there are generally six types, including:
- Short to medium-term care – These are placements up to six months in duration. Short to medium-term placements have a strong focus on reunifying the child with their birth parents or extended family.
- Long-term or permanent care – These are placements for longer than six months. Long-term or permanent care placements usually refer to situations where the child is not expected to return to their family.
- Emergency or crisis care – For children who need an urgent placement because there are concerns for their immediate safety. These placements can occur after-hours and on weekends. Emergency carers need to be able to provide care for very young children at short notice.
- Respite care – From time to time, parents and carers need a break from their caring role. Respite care is for short periods of time, eg school holidays, weekends or for short periods during the week.
- Specialist care – Children who have disabilities or are in need of higher levels of support from both the foster parent and their support team will be placed in specialist care. Specialist foster carers are provided with additional training and support to help meet the needs of the child in their care.
- Pre-adoptive foster care – This is mainly for newborn babies while the birth parents are considering adoption or long-term and permanent care options. The period of care ranges from a few days to several months. In some States like Western Australia, pre-adoptive foster parents cannot be in paid employment.
Let your kids know you care and remain approachable.
What is the role of a foster parent?
Foster placements are coordinated by State child protection services. In these situations the child is placed in the guardianship of the State by a Children’s Court. The State child protection service subsequently becomes responsible for making the critical decisions about the child’s care often in consultation with parents and other significant people. Foster parents provide the day to day care of the child. They offer a safe and nurturing family environment for children and young people needing care. They also provide support to enable children to maintain contact with their birth families while in their care. This is important in preserving children’s self-esteem, sense of connection and personal identity.
What are the challenges of being a foster parent?
Separation from family is one of the most upsetting events that can be experienced by a child, therefore becoming a foster parent has many challenges and requires a high level of commitment. Children who have suffered abuse and neglect can display a range of challenging behaviours and require a high level of physical, emotional and social support.
Other challenges may include:
- Issues with family support services and/or relevant government agencies
- Inadequate support during emergencies
- Experiencing stress when dealing with children’s complex needs
- Lack of information and/or training to address problematic behaviours or health issues
- Inadequate financial resources for children with special needs
- Difficulties dealing with birth parents or issues between the child and the birth parent
- Saying good bye when a child or young person is reunified or moved to another foster placement
What are the rewards for being a foster parent?
Being a foster parent can be very demanding and exhausting. However, there are also rewards such as:
- Being instrumental in keeping children and young people safe and helping them to reach their full potential
- Enhancing your own parenting skills and knowledge while helping other parents to develop new ways of relating to their children
- Being a highly valued and contributing member of a caring team
- Expanding your social and personal contacts
What are some helpful tips for foster parents?
Below are some helpful tips that may help you in dealing with the challenges of foster caring:
- Get to know the child in your care and help identify their strengths and areas of need. You should be aware of any special requirements of the child. This is important in making the best possible decisions about caring for the child.
- You may need to set boundaries and daily routines (e.g. meal times and bedtimes). However, these may need to be introduced slowly to allow time for the child to settle in and familiarise with the new family.
- Be patient when a child tests you to find out if you are genuine or patient enough. As much as the situation permits, you need to be very understanding and show the child that they can trust you.
- If you have children of your own at home, the foster child would need to be adequately looked after and assured that they are welcome in the family. When deciding on becoming a foster parent, it is important to consider how your family would feel about it and when possible, involve them in the decision-making.
- Be really mindful of the impact that a new foster placement may have on your own children and make sure that you check in with them regularly.
- When accepting a placement, it is important that you discuss with your case worker the potential issues that may occur, so you can have realistic expectations of the foster child. It is also important to maintain ongoing contact with your case worker.
- It may help to join a foster parent support group in your area so you can access local services as well as information resources. If there is no local group available, your case worker might be able to refer you to an online support network.
What support is there for foster parents?
There is generally a range of support services in place for foster parents, including:
- Financial support – the government provides foster care families with ongoing financial support. The fortnightly non-taxable allowance contributes towards the costs of the child’s food, clothing and other expenses. A number of other payments and reimbursements are also available for certain children and situations.
- Community service organisation support – the foster care agency provides support to carers through telephone calls, home visits, after-hours support and regular supervision sessions. They also provide ongoing training to help carers develop skills to meet the challenges in their role as carer.
- Support networks – foster parents can also receive support through broader networks, such as the Australian Foster Care Association and other foster parents through support groups via face-to-face, telephone, and online linkups.
Building a support network helps foster parents manage the challenges of providing care. For further information about support groups in your local area, you may contact your local family support agency or community foster care agency. You can also do a web search of your state/territory.
Parenting brings joys and challenges. Stay strong and love your kids.