Urgent need for foster carers now more urgent

At-risk kids are a COVID casualty

The need for foster carers in Australia has become even more urgent thanks to COVID-19.

“We lost quite a significant amount of our carers when the pandemic started,” Jennifer Anderson, intake coordinator for Anglicare Foster Care in Sydney, tells Eternity.

“We just haven’t been able to place as many children through our program.” – Jennifer Anderson

“Some carers who are normally very willing and flexible and able to take on placements at short notice have been not able to do that because of risks to their own health.

“We have some amazing carers who are grandparents or retirees. They work tirelessly and are amazingly generous. But at the beginning of COVID, [they decided] it was just too risky for them to be accepting placements.

“Other families were not able to take that risk either because they might be looking after vulnerable loved ones or there’s someone in the family with health risks.”

“We totally respect that,” Anderson continues, “but that has also impacted the number of families who are able to provide care. So unfortunately it’s meant that we just haven’t been able to place as many children through our program.”

Currently, Anglicare only has 10-12 families across the Sydney region who are willing and able to take on children who require crisis care.

“But they are available for different things,” Anderson qualifies. “So some might be available to care for babies, another family for one child under five, a couple [of families] might be available to take siblings, but not many.

“And the foster carers have different availability as well. So they might say, ‘Yes, you can call me anytime 24/7, and we can take the child up to a week’ or they might say, ‘You can call me during business hours, and we can take the child overnight’. It varies.”

The logistical challenges of lockdown also have an effect, Anderson explains: “Homeschooling a foster child alongside your own children is a challenge.”

“You don’t know what their literacy levels are like or their additional needs. So that’s a big factor in a carer’s consideration of whether or not they’d be willing to take a child in lockdown.”

She adds: “Many children in foster care can look similar to a child with ADHD. So it is particularly challenging if you have a child with high energy and difficulty sitting still and concentrating, with a restricted ability to get out and exercise and socialise – that can also be an added stressor [for carers] as well.”

Despite the threat of possibly bringing the disease into their home – due to not knowing all the places which a foster child may have been – some crisis carers “decide to take the risk anyway”.

“The crisis carers who are still with us are amazing … They are prepared to do whatever they can to make sure that these children can be safe. It’s incredibly heartening to hear those stories.”

“… This is utterly distressing because there are so many children that we can’t place.” – Jennifer Anderson

The lack of foster carers is a problem that existed pre-COVID, Anderson clarifies, but the pandemic has made the situation worse.

“We always have such a need for foster carers,” she says. “There are always more children than we’re able to place.

“And so these children are going perhaps to other agencies, who hopefully will be able to place them, or sometimes they are going to hotels where they are supervised by [government]-appointed social workers. So it’s definitely not an ideal situation for those children.”

Anderson adds: “My experience pre-COVID was that this is utterly distressing because there are so many children that we can’t place. And that’s been my experience during COVID as well …

“So it’s a continuation of a really awful story …”

The declining number of foster carers since COVID has also been noticed by ARK Australia – a Christian organisation that supports faith-based carers who adopt or foster children, and links potential carers to out-of-home-care agencies.

“The [foster care] system in every state had an attrition rate greater than its growth rate prior to COVID. This has now been exacerbated even more as people are locked in, and are less likely to want to engage in caring for challenging kids while feeling isolated and limited in what they can do,” says ARK’s national director Heather Packett.

“Consequently, our (admittedly limited) data suggests people who were interested in stepping into care before COVID are waiting for more surety before taking the leap. We have had a handful of potential carers begin accreditation with agencies via our introductions during the past year, but it is significantly less than the number we saw in 2019.”

“Some kids are being forced to stay in dangerous situations because the authorities are not being alerted.” – Heather Packett

There are around 23,000 accredited out-of-home carers across Australia, compared with around 48,000 kids in out-of-home care nationwide, based on data from 2018, says Packett.

It may seem like good news that neither ARK nor Anglicare noticed an increase in the number of children requiring care when COVID began. However, as Packett clarifies, “the flow of children into care seems to initially have reduced as well during lockdowns, but this is not considered a good thing. What it indicates is that with kids at home rather than out in the community, mandatory reporting is happening less. This means some kids are being forced to stay in dangerous situations because the authorities are not being alerted to the issues they’re facing.

“This is of utmost concern as kids need to be safe. With mental illness spiking during lockdowns as well, all evidence is that some kids are in traumatic situations without anyone knowing.”

Packett’s comments about the situation of at-risk children in Australia are backed by international evidence that shows that lockdown is associated with a decrease in notifications of abuse and neglect.

Both Anderson and Packett agree that there could be a spike in the number of children needing care after lockdowns finish – such as those happening now in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

“Over time we may see the removal of more children from the homes because those families aren’t getting the support that they really need in order to keep those children safe,” says Anderson.

She gives examples: “Playgroups, extra care in the home or a cleaner in the home, those sorts of supports are not able to happen during lockdown.

“Also if a parent is experiencing domestic violence, or not able to go to mental health care groups, or they find support services difficult to access because they’re online and the parent doesn’t have a stable internet connection or use of the family computer, these type of things place more and more stress on families.”

“Our view is God’s people can be the answer.” – Heather Packett

However, there is an unexpected bright side that COVID has brought to Australia’s foster care system.

“One upside is that agencies are now doing training online for new carers which have made the accreditation process more straightforward and attainable for people, and in some instances, has sped the accreditation process up. This has been an improvement,” says Packett, adding that ARK also does online information sessions each month.

Another hope that Packett holds is the possible response of Christians to these children in need.

“Our view is God’s people can be the answer,” she says, “and we’re happy to help anyone wishing to step in to care, with information, support, and/or an introduction to a local agency.”

For more information, visit arkaustralia.org or anglicare.org.au/fostercare.