This thesis aims to report on Out of Home Care (OOHC) in the context of Australia. This includes discussion on its importance and the scope of OOHC in Australia. Furthermore, this study will also focus on how OOHC is currently being addressed in Australia and what are the consequences. Finally this paper will discuss how OOHC can be addressed differently in order to lessen negative consequences where children are being harmed instead of being protected from the effects of neglect and abuse.
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In cases where there children are maltreated there is sometimes the need to temporarily remove them from their homes and then reunite them with their parents after the crisis is over. There are also times when separation from family is permanent especially in cases of sexual abuse or when both parents could no longer support the child an when permanent care arrangements is in the best interest for the child (Tilbury, Osmond, Wilson, & Clark, 2007). In extreme cases when parents can no longer take care of their child, OOHC provides a shelter as well as carers who will act as surrogate parents for the child so that he or she can have a safe environment that both nurtures and protects.
What is Out of Home Care?
According to experts there are three major forms of child maltreatment and these are identified as: a) physical; b) sexual; c) psychological and emotional abuse (Browne, 2002). A combination of heightened awareness regarding the nature of child neglect and abuse as well as the increasingly complex family situations of children associated with parental mental health, substance use and domestic violence, the Australian government is now burdened with a significant increase in the number of children in OOHC (Tilbury, Osmond, Wilson, & Clark, 2007). In fact, from 13,979 children in OOHC in 1996 there was a significant increase to 23, 695 in 2005; this means that there is a 70 percent growth in the rate of children in OOHC in all jurisdictions from 3 per 1000 in 1997 and 4.9 per 1000 in 2005(Tilbury, Osmond, Wilson, & Clark, 2007).
The main purpose of OOHC is to provide a physically and emotionally safe environment for children under the age of 18 who cannot live at home due to safety reasons and family crisis (Tilbury, Osmond, Wilson, & Clark, 2007). On the other hand OOHC is the most extreme end of the statutory child protection continuum (Bromfield & Holzer, 2008). Since OOHC is used as a last resort, social workers will make it a point to use OOHC as a short term solution while improving the capacity of the young person’s family to take care of the said child (Tilbury, Osmond, Wilson, & Clark, 2007). Thus, workers from the child protection services will work to preserve the family and not remove children from their homes (Tilbury, Osmond, Wilson, & Clark, 2007).
OOHC in Australia
There are three different types of OOHC in Australia and these are listed as follows (Tilbury, Osmond, Wilson, & Clark, 2007):
- Home-based care – is the predominant form of OOHC where placement is in the home of a designated carer who is reimbursed for expenses in caring for the child. In this category one can find foster care and kinship or relative care. Foster care is provided by a government trained and approved carer while kinship care is given by a family member or a person with pre-existing relationship with the child.
- Residential care – the use of a residential building managed by rostered staff or live-in carers
- Family group home – it is a type of residential care which is run like a family home. The number of children is limited and they are cared for, 24 hours a day, by paid resident carers and usually, they are married couples. Children who are subject to a care order and yet unable to avail in any of these arrangements are taken to boarding schools or youth shelters.
In Queensland authorities are made aware of suspected cases of child maltreatment through notification given to the chief executive or otherwise (Child Protection Act, 1999). Immediately afterwards the chief executive will ask an authorised officer to investigate the allegation and assess the child’s need for protection or take other action that is considered appropriate (Child Protection Act, 1999).
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OOHC in Australia is unique in a sense that it has to deal with Indigenous communities (Richardson, 2005). In recent years there is an upsurge in the number of notifications as well as confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect among children coming from Indigenous communities (Richardson, 2005). The reason for the significant increase in numbers can be attributed to tougher laws that are in conflict with the traditional means of child rearing found in Indigenous communities. In fact, 11% of substantiations concern Indigenous children, but indigenous children make up only 3.6% of the population (Bromfield & Higgins, 2005).
There is indeed a basis as to why the government must take a closer look at Australia’s OOHC and determine if children from aborigines groups are taken cared of using the highest possible standards (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2006). This means that if these children are sent to foster homes there must be constant evaluation when it comes to the kind of care they are getting.
Although there is a dearth in research when it comes to Indigenous communities it was relatively easy to establish the reasons why there is a significantly levels of violence in this population group. Child maltreatment is caused by a multitude of factors such as high levels of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, ill health and substance abuse (Tomison, 2004). Aside from that it must also be pointed out that these problems are also linked to the impact of racism in the past when these Indigenous groups were unable to successfully cope with government policies concerning assimilation as well as their experience with the negative aspect of racism such as dispossession and marginalisation (Tomison, 2004).
Poverty is said to be the main culprit why there is a dramatic increase in the number of Indigenous children ending up in OOHC, the government must not also focus on providing employment for the people living in areas where there is a high concentration of Indigenous people, the government must also work harder to solve the problem of substance abuse (Tilbury, Osmond, Wilson, & Clark, 2007).
Impact of OOHC in Australia
A basic understanding of OOHC in Australia will reveal that the law allows for the forcible removal of maltreated children from their homes and be separated from their parents and siblings. Although there are provisions in Australian law that allow parents to request OOHC care, most of the children in OOHC are placed there because of an Order made by the relevant court (Bromfield & Holzer, 2008). There is a rationale for such extreme measures but on the other hand it must be pointed out the obvious that children should be with their parents. There is a general consensus among carers that children in care have an ongoing need for contact with their birth families (A Blueprint for Implementing the Recommendations of the January 2004 CMC Report, 2004).
The use of OOHC in Australia created both positive and negative results. Those who suffered immensely in homes where parents are abusing alcohol and drugs OOHC is a timely intervention strategy that will provide them a safe place to live in. On the other hand moving a child from home to OOHC can be a lonely and confusing experience (Tilbury, Osmond, Wilson, & Clark, 2007).
When it comes to the Indigenous people of Australia the solution to the various problems related to child abuse prevention and intervention was modelled after Canadian developments and this is the inclusion of the Indigenous community when it comes to solving the problems involving their own people (Tomison, 2004). This is taking collaborative problem solving to a new level. In the past the goal was to take care of the problem by dealing with the offender directly. This time, in the context of Indigenous communities it is much better to involve the members of the community such as the perceived leaders as well as people of authority to deal with family members (Tomison, 2004).
Case workers will no longer have a hard time trying to cross any language or cultural barrier. They are working with an elder or someone who is highly respected in the community who are experts in the customs and traditions of the Indigenous communities and therefore able to cut through a lot of preliminary work such as trying to gain the confidence of the victims or the parents (Bromfield & Holzer, 2008). The leaders of the community can easily establish a relationship with the other members of the Indigenous community and be able to deal with the issue in a more sensitive manner. This is almost impossible with an outsider who comes in like an accuser rather than someone who is offering help. There must be an added emphasis to the development to of core principles for culturally sensitive child protection practice when it comes to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (Bromfield & Holzer, 2008).
It must be made clear though that cultural sensitivity with regards to Indigenous children is no longer a matter of debate. In Queensland there is already a law that specifically mandated Australia’s child protection agencies and its authorised officer to regard the:
- views of the recognised Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander agency for the child and about Aboriginal traditions and Island custom relating to the child;
- if it is not practicable to obtain the agency’s views – the views of members of the community to whom the child belongs; and
- the general principle that an aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander should be cared for within an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community (Queensland Child Protection Act, 1999).
Social workers must also keep improving; the problems that are confounding the Australian child protection services are getting more complicated and thus social workers must also continue learning about the new strategies needed to solve the various issues surrounding OOHC (Tilbury, Osmond, Wilson, & Clark, 2007). For instance, social workers must be mindful of the naturally occurring ecology of the family, school, faith based, sporting and other social networks (Victorian Government Department of Human Services, 2008). The maltreatment of Indigenous children must be understood with a framework that recognises the contribution of multiple societal, community, family, and individual factors (Tomison, 2004).
Aside from dealing directly with the problem at hand such as the need for immediate care for those who suffered neglect and abuse it will also be helpful in the long run to find ways in reducing the number of Indigenous children needing OOHC (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2006). For instance, it would help policymakers if they will begin to deal with the underlying cause of the problem which is not only about poverty and substance abuse but also the legacy of past policies of forced removal and cultural assimilation (Bromfield & Holzer, 2008).
Aside from the urgent need for more funds, one of the major problems faced by the Australian government is the need for more information, especially with regards to Indigenous communities. This is needed to aid legislators in creating policies that would in turn improve child protection services in the country. A proposed solution is to improve communication between different agencies.
There is a need to improve coordination between different government organisations when it comes to child protection (Queensland Government, 2007). It is not only in Australia where there is a problem with lack of coordination and therefore failure in sharing information and reducing efficiency (Queensland Government, 2007). There must also be enhanced monitoring of placements to ensure that case planning expectations are being realised (A Blueprint for Implementing the Recommendations of the January 2004 CMC Report, 2004).
Information gathering can be enhanced by improving the method of reporting and monitoring of cases. It was also proposed that there must be an expansion of mandatory reporting of nurses (Queensland Government, 2007). In the past it was the doctors that were mandated to report suspected victims of child abuse and neglect but in rural communities it is more likely that nurses have more frequent contact with children than doctors (Queensland Government, 2007). Gathering of information can also be enhanced if various government agencies can learn to work as one.
Planning is best achieved if the social worker has access to every piece of relevant information. Therefore, if the social worker is not in possession of accurate and pertinent information it would be difficult to create a plan that would benefit the child and his or her parents. The proposed solution therefore is to consult relevant government agencies, indigenous groups, non-government organisations, advocacy groups, and staff (A Blueprint for Implementing the Recommendations of the January 2004 CMC Report, 2004). In Queensland the chief executive or an authorised officer can only enforce the Child Protection Act 1999 only after consultation with the recognised Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander agency for the child (Child Protection Act, 1999).
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Aside from simply dealing with the needs of the clients and making sure that they are comfortable and safe in their current OOHC setting, it is also imperative to look far beyond the present and into the future. According to Queensland’s legislation reforms concerning child protection services the social worker must ensure that every child has a goal-directed case plan that will help when it comes to timely decision making; to prioritise a child’s needs for long term stability; continuity of relationships; and encourages the participation of the child within the prescribed system of support (Queensland Government, 2007). One of the proposed solutions is to promote client self-determination and autonomy (Australian Association of Social Workers, 1999). This means that social workers must enable their clients to make informed decisions on their own behalf (Australian Association of Social Workers, 1999).
While it is important to consult various government and non-government organisations there is also a need to consult the children, parents, carers and stakeholders (A Blueprint for Implementing the Recommendations of the January 2004 CMC Report, 2004).
This means that the social worker will be able to gather all pertinent information not only about the legal framework of child protection services in Australia but also about the perspective of children, the direct recipients of their endeavour. For the Victorian government it is not enough to simply consider collaborative actions, there is also a need to build partnerships because families have complex and entrenched problems (Victorian Government Department of Human Services, 2008).
While children are the focal point it is also important to remember that without carers OOHC would be impossible to implement. Thus, it is also imperative to create an accreditation process for carers (A Blueprint for Implementing the Recommendations of the January 2004 CMC Report, 2004). Only those who can pass the stringent requirements of Australian child protection agencies can be allowed to take care of maltreated children in the context of OOHC.
There must be a system in place that will help in improving the assessment and approval of carers (Queensland Government, 2007). The Child Safety Legislation Amendment Act 2005 made amendments to the Child Protection Act 1999 and one recommendation focuses on the regulation of the assessment and approval of all carers (Queensland Government, 2007). The obvious reason is to ensure that every carer that will work in the system are suitable do so (Queensland Government, 2007).
In the preceding discussion much has been said about the weakness and problems of the current system designed to deal with maltreated children. There were various recommendations made to improve the process of selecting carers as well as the appropriate method for identifying, investigating cases of maltreatment and then finally the removal of children from homes and transferred to a temporary OOHC facility. Yet even if all these things are improved there is still the issue of the increasing number of notifications and reported cases of neglect and abuse especially among Indigenous children. This means that aside from creating a system of accountability the Australian government must also find a way to attract a broader section of the community to foster care roles (A Blueprint for Implementing the Recommendations of the January 2004 CMC Report, 2004).
Together with ongoing training and supporting them with ongoing development strategies, there will be a steady stream of carers able to help in caring for maltreated children in Australia. This will also ensure that there will be an adequate number of certified carers who will be able to handle the increasing number of children in need of OOHC. On the other hand if the trend continues the Australian government may not be able to cope with demand and there will be continuous shortages in the supply of carers. It is imperative therefore to look into creative solutions such as “family support” instead of utilising OOHC (Tomison, 2004). Family support can come in the form of financial help, addressing housing needs and serious stress problems (Tomison, 2004). These problems do not require child protection and therefore can help the government allocate resources more wisely.
Finally, there is evidence that various government agencies are duplicating the work of others. This is the reason why there are multiple notifications for one child. Therefore, it negatively affects data gathering because researchers may be misled into thinking that there is an increase in notifications when it can be explained by duplication of work (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2006). So instead of working independent of each other agencies related to child protection agencies must think and act systematically. For the Victorian government it is not enough to simply consider collaborative actions, there is also a need to build partnerships because families have complex and entrenched problems (Victorian Government Department of Human Services, 2008).
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