A View From the Field

Laurie Matthews | ACWA Newsletter | September 2010

Naively in 1998 I submitted a tender to establish an OOHC program thinking we could assist young people and also ostensibly to relieve some of the pressure on our SAAP program in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. Twelve years later, the pressure is just as acute and we are being warned of a further growth in the numbers of young people in care. From a SAAP perspective, I can say without hesitation that there are still many 14 and 15 year olds who are not in statutory care, floating around without anyone assuming responsibility and without any legal basis for other informal care arrangements. My first point goes to the very important issue of continuing the reform in Out of Home Care that has been started. Many of the new models and services are essential and they must be allowed to continue.

When a 13 or 14 or 15 or 16 year old refuses to remain in an OOHC Service placement, and this does happen, under the current contracting arrangements for OOHC Services this is the responsibility of the contracted service. However, it can be very complex and difficult when the young person themselves refuses reasonable offers of other placements. A community agency only has so many options other than the Youth Accommodation Association vacancy line for a crisis bed in a refuge. This is still putting huge pressure on youth SAAP services which have not received any additional funding to meet the need of many high needs clients. SAAP Services are seen as “collateral damage” between the funding system for SAAP and the new developments planned through the NSW Homelessness Action Plan. My phone rings hot with calls from Sydney, Northern NSW, the Central and the South Coast as examples looking for crisis placements for young people who have been ejected from foster or Out of Home Care Residential placements. I would contend that when a young person cannot sustain an OOHC placement, particularly a residential placement, they need a more intensive response, not just a placement in an under supported, under resourced SAAP service till a new placement can be secured.

We are still operating in a situation where the State has deemed it necessary to support young people in care in accredited programs. Nevertheless, those who end up in SAAP placements are being supported by agencies with much less funding, much less resourcing and where one staff member is often dealing with up to eight young people at one time. These young people are arguably in need of more intense support. Whether the Department agrees or not, young people in the Out of Home Care population are still ending up in SAAP services and SAAP Services are still acting as a defacto arm of the Out of Home Care system in some cases. If NSW is serious about reducing exits from care into homelessness then it would better resource Youth SAAP Services to assist in this. There are some excellent models in the new Out of Home Care contracted services that provide a graduated move from residential care to supported outreach placements to supported independent living. These models should be better recognised, more funded and supported. For example Southern Youth and Family Services, as I think it is one of few OOHC services funded for our sort of model.

Separate from young people leaving Out of Home Care placements, there are young people in need of far greater support who leave home. When I inform the Helpline of another 15 year old at Caretakers whose parents can no longer support their child’s behaviour the response is that the child is safe now, that they are at a refuge, so what do I expect the Department to do? Fair enough. I have great sympathy for the Department, as no government can begin to meet the demand for alternative parenting arrangements that currently exist. I am encouraged by programs like Reconnect, but it really needs to be expanded and the current services need to be enhanced to meet demand. I am also encouraged by promises of an expansion of Brighter Futures funding for 9-14 year olds. However, I am concerned at the proposed change to the Detached Family Counselor Projects through the CSGP Program, which will result in time limited early intervention as opposed to the more flexible program that is successful today. The reality of the situation is that right now, when I attempt to encourage a parent to develop the necessary skill to successfully parent their child, I struggle to find support programs or family counselling that will provide services in a timely or acceptable format and long term. All too often I am engaged with parents of older adolescents who have tried to provide for their children’s needs only to be worn down to the point of giving up, for example where young people demonstrate intellectual disabilities or emerging mental health issues. My second point is we need to maintain and expand programs that are working well and we need to expand the number of services with the capacity to support families to prevent young people becoming homeless or coming into care.

In a time of immense pressure on resources, the focus has to be on developing adequate support programs that parents can easily access. As a long term worker in the field I struggle to find family counselling or mental health support, particularly for reluctant clients. No wonder many parents give up, thus resulting in another young person in SAAP or OOHC facilities.

I am encouraged by the development of Brighter Futures and other programs and believe that enabling parents to better care for their children has to be the way forward, and for the community at large to be aware that our direction is in facilitating their capacity to care rather than removing kids and making them someone else’s responsibility. Perhaps some media promotion in this area might start to bring about the cultural change that is necessary.

I think the answer has multiple components:

  1. Providing supports to encourage parents to develop their capacity to care for their children. Ultimately this is about community wide cultural change that enhances the value of parenting and enables parents to rise to the challenges. However, I acknowledge that an OOHC response will always be needed.
  2. Expand the models and types of accommodation options in OOHC.
  3. Extend SAAP lie services to assist in the development of independent living situations for those young people who are “moving” from OOHC but not ready for independence.
  4. The widening of Brighter Futures to include older children is a great start and I look forward to the development of supports to parents of 14 to 18 year olds who are not engaging successfully in what is already offered in the community. It will be essential to ensure that this program expansion ensures that additional resources can go to agencies that already have credibility, experience and expertise in working with adolescents and their families such as many Youth SAAP Services, Reconnect services and others.
  5. In addition, an expanded crisis response needs to be developed in the OOHC sector that is adequately resourced to provide for the needs of those young people who cannot make a positive connection with their service and for whom a different model is required. Such a response needs to focus on bringing about some change that will enable the young person to make some positive choices about their care arrangements.

I think we can fix this situation. The answer is not in the reduction of funding to the existing OOHC agencies but in the expansion of suitable models for adolescents, better funding and support for SAAP Services, an expansion of family support programs like the Detached Family Counselor Projects and Reconnect Services to better support families, and community education and supports to encourage and provide practical help to families in the care of their young people.

© Association of Children's Welfare Agencies 2010