Foster mother Donna Scott.
On any given night of the year, nearly 50,000 Australian children are tucked into bed by someone other than their parents, separated from them for their own safety.
It is a number National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell says is a national shame that condemns some of the nation’s most vulnerable people to a life of poor outcomes and even homelessness.
“What is of absolute concern is the numbers continuing to rise of kids coming into the care system,” she said. “Over the past five years there has been a 35 per cent in-crease in substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect. The ones that have been investigated and substantiated are usually at a pretty high threshold, so that’s a very concerning development.”
According to a snapshot of foster care compiled by The Australian, there are 46,769 children in out-of-home care, which includes foster and kinship care as well as residential care, with a record 152,000 children receiving child-protection services over the course of the year.
Of these children, more than a third are Aboriginal and 43 per cent have suffered emotional abuse, largely through exposure to domestic violence.
Ms Mitchell said there was a disincentive for the adult victims of domestic violence to seek help.
“Child-protection systems are not good at dealing with situations where there are multiple victims, like a child and a mother,” she said.
“They are more likely to proceed to removal of the child because they can’t guarantee the protection of the child. However, it seems that the domestic violence system, child-protection system and Family Court system really have to be able to talk to each other much better than they currently do so we can support protective parents.”
Of the children in care, one in 20 are in residential care, having washed around the system after not finding secure places with kin or foster carers. In South Australia and Victoria, separate investigations over the past year have found children in residential care were vulnerable to sexual abuse from predators, including from pedophile and foster carer Shannon McCoole, who was sentenced to 35 years’ jail for the sexual abuse of seven young children.
An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report shows a record 320,169 notifications in 2014-15, with only half of those reports investigated and just 60 per cent of those substantiated.
The dramatic increase in child-protection reports has prompted state governments to launch recruitment campaigns for new foster carers. There are 26,872 registered foster carers in Australia, with demand for carers far out-stripping supply.
For Donna Scott, who has fostered 120 children at her northern Adelaide home over 12 years, raising children is like gardening: you get given a seed and watch it grow.
“My kids don’t like the word fostering, so we do a lot of gardening in our house,” she said.
“You don’t do it for the money. Carers are volunteers — when they age out of the system at 65 they have nothing, no superannuation.”
Over the years, she has noticed an increasing number of children coming into her care who have experienced domestic violence.
“They come in quite scared and, as a parent, as soon as you raise your voice you can see it in their eyes, so you then change the way you do things to make sure they feel safe,” she said.
The head of South Australia’s child-protection body Families SA, Etienne Scheepers, said children were coming into care at a younger age and “we’re trying to work out why”.
“Fundamentally, there is a big challenge for our community in dealing with child protection,” Mr Scheepers said.
But he said community-based, early intervention for at-risk families was the key. “We provide pro-grams that support parenting but prevention in child protection is supporting families across the community,” he said.
NSW-based foster agency Barnardos Australia strongly advocates for a greater role for foster parents so that they become permanent guardians.
“When a court decides they can never go home, you are condemning them to a life of moving,” chief executive Deirdre Cheers said.
“The order needs permanency and the best form of permanency is open adoption.”
(This article was first published in The Australian and was written by Rebecca Puddy.)