Opening address at Qld campaign launch
Brisbane, 28 November 2019
Friends, thank you for coming today.
Welcome to the official Queensland Launch of the Home Stretch Campaign.
I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, acknowledge elders past present and emerging, and acknowledge the importance of this reform for aboriginal children in care the prevention of further harm and disadvantage on this community.
I want to welcome government representatives, members from the department, distinguished sector leaders and representatives from many child welfare agencies here who look after young people in out of home care. I want to acknowledge Anglicare Southern Queensland for putting this campaign together here in Queensland with Home Stretch, I want to acknowledge Peakcare, the mighty CREATE foundation whom have been a co-partner in the launches of Home Stretch around the country, young people, care leavers, carers, kinship parents, grandparents and representatives from our indigenous community.
I’m Paul McDonald, chair of the Home Stretch Campaign and it is fantastic that we are here today to launch the Queensland Campaign, on behalf of Queensland’s young people in care.
Friends, Home Stretch has only one purpose, it is not complicated, it is not filled with clinical or technical consideration, Home Stretch simply calls on state and territory governments to stop terminating the care provision to young people at 18 years and to mandate the option of a young person continuing in their care till they are 21 years.
Currently in every state and territory in this country, Child Welfare Legislation states that care is to be terminated by their 18th birthday. (I will refer to the Queensland move to 19 years in a moment)
Home Stretch doesn’t ask ‘can we improve leaving care?’ to soften the landing of having their care terminated at 18 years. Home Stretch asks a different question. Home Stretch reform is based on asking the system ‘Why cant the child stay in care? Or ‘Why does the child need to have their care resources terminated in the first place?’
Just over three years ago now we launched the Home Stretch Campaign because for too long we saw how young people struggled post their care.
Well today we are here to launch the Queensland Campaign. To put an end to the abrupt uncompromising and dated policy and legislation that all care and support by the state be terminated at 18 years.
We in this room, are representatives and custodians of the child welfare system. We cannot enter into the family home, remove the child for their own safety and security, care and raise for them as ‘locus parentis’, as a good parent would, act ‘in their best interests’ as the Act requests, but then by the date of their 18th birthday we say to the child:
‘The deal is now over, go, we are now done with you and your care needs’.
And we base this act not on circumstance folks, not whether they are ready or not, but based simply on a birth date of the child.
You have come together this morning for the Home Stretch Campaign call to Government to say enough of this nonsense.
You have come today because you had seen too many young Queenslanders in the care system at 15, 16, or 17 struggle with life on their own when the care is terminated by the Queensland government.
You are here because you saw too many teenagers moving from house to house, couch to couch, bed to bed, as they were not ready to organise themselves. In the end you visited too many of them in jail where they had fallen, in the end you referred too many to youth homeless refuges, and sadly in the end you had gone to too many funerals.
You are here because you saw too many young people in care looking forward to their 18th birthday not with joy or happiness, but with dread. Dread that the support and certainty they had come to rely and live with was being terminated before their 18th birthday.
And for the child protection workers that I know in this state who have approached me on this campaign, for you, you have told me you are quietly cheering for this campaign because too many times, and always against your better judgement as the delegated guardian under the Act, you have had to send that letter to that young person and say your care is terminated, your support has now terminated, knowing that they needed more time, more care, more patience by our system of care.
Home Stretch does not argue to Government all its children in care should have their care through to 21 years. As one young woman who co launched the Home Stretch Campaign in Perth said in her opening remarks. “Hi I am Jenny, and I was in care all my life. I am happily married, with 2 beautiful children and a part time job. This Home Stretch thing I did not need. I was good. I am okay. But last night I got another call from my younger brother who is 19, from the homeless shelter again. He was also in care with me. “Sis I’m here again, what am I going to do?” “This Campaign is”, she said, “not for me, but for my little brother, and all those who are struggling in adapting to life after care.”
That is why we think that up to 50% of care leavers would take up this option if offered.
Friends, this has always been the missing piece in the Australian child welfare continuum. This has always been the last bit of the care journey that we as representatives of the child welfare system had not yet built. It was always the last part of the bridge into adulthood that we had not done, and still had to build.
I liken the current system of care for young people like building Brisbane’s Storey Bridge and stopping three quarters of the way, and saying “yep good job, I think we will leave it there” and allowing people, our care leavers, fend for themselves the rest of the way.
Up until recently no Australian state had recognised that it had a formal obligation to continue to care for a child past their 18th birthday until 21 years.
Our child welfare legislation in this state, and in this country, have been uncompromising on when the state provides and when it terminates its formal and mandated support to the child.
And friends, if it can get even more ridiculous, every child welfare legislation describes that a child has to have a leaving care plan by the time they are 15 years, with Queensland choosing to request this plan by the child is 14 years in this state.
Now I live in a house full of teenagers and if I said to my 15 year old son, “hey mate come here we have to do a leaving care plan”, he would say, like any other 15 yo boy would say “Uh?”
For 3000 young people in this country every year however, and over 600 young Queenslanders, that is what we do. We remove all resourcing to support their care at 18 years.
And let me make it clear how this plays out in the real world folks.
The Child Welfare System says it doesn’t matter if you are in out of home care and 7 months pregnant, or you may be on the spectrum, or you don’t have a brass razoo in the bank, or you may be depressed or suicidal, or angry and unregulated, or you may be in hospital with a life threatening illness, or you have that court case next month, or you are well adjusted but lacking confidence and skills to make it on your own. Regardless of all that, our child welfare system is agnostic to circumstance of these young people, and simply, and without reflection terminates care.
No discretion, no legal or legislated process for a young person or their case worker or their carer or their natural parent (!) to put a case to the state to have a young person to remain in care for a further 3 years. No recourse, no special consideration.
And in this breathtaking act by our system of care in this country, the carer payments to the foster carer or kinship carer looking after that child ceases, the allocated child protection workers relationship is severed and all emotional, financial and domestic support and responsibility is severed, without compromise. You have no other option than to leave, ready or not.
Folks, I head up, the largest out of home care services in Victoria, and I make it my practice to have dinner in a different Resi unit every second or third Monday night as a good habit to have as a CEO of such a critical service for the State.
And I look around the kitchen table see the dread on their face knowing their time is finishing and how how unprepared these young people are for independent living.
Is this how state politicians and state ministers of child welfare around the country plan for their own children or their nieces and nephews in their families? I don’t think so.
85% of 18-21 year olds in this country are still with one or both parents.
And personally I can give you this reflection. Just three weeks ago my son turned 18 years of age. Dad can I have a party with 85 of my closest mates?” Well we did, and it was a cracker of a night. Everyone had a great time, singing dancing, drinking and carrying on. It all went very well. But I can tell you one take out, as the parent of that party……none of them are ready for independent living! Yet, we expect children of the state, those from chaotic and broken homes, having been cared for by a care system is expected to, as the Act puts it in this State, ‘transition to independent living’!
Folks we have one rule for our own children as parents, and another rule for the same aged children as corporate parents.
And sure, there is commentary in most of the state’s legislation of the need to provide ‘post care support’, and ‘good transitions to independent living’ and ‘good leaving care plans’, but let’s not be fooled by our own rhetoric on this.
Whatever you may want leaving care support to be or wish it to be, or as the legislation and system want us to think, nothing, and let me repeat this, nothing replaces for a young person the certainty and security of continued, guaranteed care to 21 years by the state.
I note the Minister’s announcement also with this in mind of some extension to 19 years. Good incremental improvement I say, in the right direction, but really? Why the caution? Why the reluctance to invest in these young people? Why the resistance? Why the piecemeal one year advance where we make the child be Oliver Twist and ask, please sir can I have one more year? Come on. Lets just secure certainty for these vulnerable young people.
It is true, many young people may access post care support, but that should not be presumed that they prefer this to remaining to be cared for. In absence of the latter, that is all they can hope for.
We all know from our own experience, whether as parents or as carers, or child protection workers, or psychologists or psychiatrists, or academics or citizens in the street, or most importantly the children and youth in our care, that you do not grow up to be successful adults serendipitously, rather they grow up to be successful adults through the ongoing and deliberate support of the responsible adults that surround them.
Adolescent science states that the brain does not finish developing until 25, and cautions any large or multiple responsibilities on an adolescent between the ages of 18 to 21, as the brain struggles with multiple stresses at once.
We make the child deal with multiple decisions before they can. Where am I going to live? How do I get on with them? How will I get money? Where can I find a job? How will I afford to study? Will I meet girls? Will I meet boys? What happens if that doesn’t work out? And so on and so on.
When I ran the Child Protection system in Victoria, I saw too many letters go out to too many of these young people, 6 weeks out from their 18th birthday, to say that the time has come for their care to end.
And what is the result of this current system for our care leavers…well frankly it’s a disaster.
50% of young people who leave care every year in Queensland, will be homeless, in prison, a new parent or unemployed in their first twelve months ….35% of Queensland care leavers in their first twelve months will have had five places of abode in their first twelve months, and the national youth homeless survey conducted by Swinburne University found two thirds of youth homeless population now are made up of care leavers.
There is no describing this any other way. The current legislation arrangements in this state for care leavers is harmful. It is a brutal section of the Queensland Act that needs to be fixed. And despite the recent amendments, their contains this persistent child welfare policy relic, a fallacy from days well gone by, that says a young person, from a broken home, cared by the state, is now ready to ‘transition into independence’ as the Act describes, magically before they are 18.
Today we launch the Home Stretch Campaign to bring a stop to this nonsense.
We have titled this campaign the Home Stretch….a term that means, ‘the last part before we finish’, ‘the last leg in the journey’, ‘the straight from the last turn to the finish line’…or as the Macquarie dictionary puts it….’the final phase of any endeavour’.
That is our task as corporate parents, the guardians for these children…to finish the job.
When the state makes the decision to bring a child into state care, the state makes the statutory and legal promise to that child (and also to their parents), that the state will act ‘in the place of the parent’.
Australian parents know that there job as parents is to see the raising of the child through to the end. You don’t quit the parenting job during the tough times, you don’t quit when you are three quarters done, and you certainly don’t quit because of their 18th birthday.
All parents know this, whether you are a natural parent or a state parent.
True, governments may not claim to be the natural parent, but ‘the parent’ it is, in all the legal moral and obligatory functions it is required to perform to and for the child.
And let us address the other assumption here by the state. That is, that kinship and foster carers will do the finishing off for us.
Well true, many carers will continue on with their child past 18 years, and some wont. But is that our system here, a system that relies on on the good heart of a volunteer to finish what we started?
As one Grandmother put it to me in my office.
“Paul I am 82, on a pension and live in a simple 2 bedroom flat. I have been raising my 19 yo granddaughter. Of course I am not going to kick her out at 18 years, I will care for her. But when she turned 18 years I was just left with my pension to bring her up. All the kinship care payments stopped and the worker stopped coming and visiting us. I want her to have the best books for uni, and the best clothes for an interview and the best going out stuff, and the best start in life, but everything has just stopped for us and yet I am still bringing her up”
Premier Palaszczuk and Minister Farmer enough is enough, it’s time to stop this ridiculous nonsense, and amend this dated policy and stop the harm the system you are in charge of, to these young people up and down this great state.
We say to the Premier and the Minister that this reform is good for everyone, the state the child and the community.
We can say this as we have now the economic evidence from Deloitte who tell us that the Queensland government would receive up to $2.69 return on every $1 dollar invested into extending a young person’s care arrangement past 18 years.
We also, and importantly have the proven evidence from international countries, USA, UK Europe all reaffirming evidence that demonstrate that you will halve the homeless rates for these young people, and double their education engagement.
Just look at the Californian study of a 7 year follow up of 700 young people in extended care. Criminal convictions reduced by 41% for every year in extended care, arrests reduced by 40% for every year in extended care, teen pregnancies reduced by 38% for every year in extended care. All cheque writing expenditure by the State reducing.
This is not just a Care Leavers Strategy, Premier this is your Juvenile Justice Strategy, this is your Youth Homeless Strategy, this is your Youth Employment Skills Strategy.
And we have the Australian Deloitte Analysis that states that Australian young care leavers will have
- Homelessness halved, from 39% down to 19.5%
- Hospitalisation decrease, from 29.2% to 19.2%
- The probability of arrests would decrease, from 16.3% to 10.4%
- Educational engagement increase, from 4.5% to 10.4%, for non-parents;
- Rate of mental illness reduced from 54.4% to 30.8%;
- There are also benefits across a number of other domains; including improved mental health, and physical health outcomes; reduced intergenerational disadvantage; and an increase in social connectedness.
This is not just a good policy for these young people, but a good policy for all the Queensland community…and if the above is not enough to move the Premier and the Minister, we know that a politician is always interested in polling and we have done that for them as well.
Reach-tel, Australia’s premier polling company, on Home Stretch behalf, (we won this in a prize Home Stretch was nominated for), surveying 2000 Australians around the country found that the 76% of Australians support extending the age of care for foster children from 18 to 21, 75% said that being 18 is harder now to to when they were 18. 83% believe the Government should be responsible for young people leaving foster care post 18.
So, if we were to introduce this reform what would it look like?
Where a young person who is in foster care and carer and young person wish to remain together, the system would continue to provide the payments to the carer, continue to provide the case work support, and supply specific resources to assist employment or education engagement.
For a young person in residential care, knowing that turning 18 no longer makes them a minor, then they would immediately move to an established lead tenant or supported independent living arrangement with a case worker and access to employment and education.
For the child who was in care, tried it back at home and it melted down, that they get to come back, just like any young adult does and return to live with the parents, that they could come back, and access a care arrangement guaranteed to them until 21 years due to their state care history.
And the costs are not great to achieve these compelling benefits.
In a full year of 50% being offered to extend their care to 21 years, $9-10mill per year. For a 4 year budget announcement, that sees the offer move each year from 10% to 25% to 35% tp 50% in the 4th year, a total budget announcement of $24million.
Friends, in conclusion, yes they might be able to vote, or have a drink legally, or drive a car, but as many young people will tell you, overnight, between being 17 and being 18 not much changes. They don’t grow up overnight, they don’t become independent overnight.
It is time now Government hear the call of their young people under their care.
As a result of the Home Stretch Campaign so far, we have the governments of South Australia and Tasmania and Australian Capital Territory all announcing the adoption of the Home Stretch policy.
We have the Victorian government announcing extended care for all those in foster care kinship care and importantly residential care for 250 young people, to quote the Victorian Minister on the public record, ‘we want to make this a universal offering’.And last week the WA Premier held a meeting with care leavers and announced expanding their Home Stretch reform.
And so it is time for Queensland. Not to follow suit, but lead the country in asserting a care journey for its young people in care, by committing to amending the legislation to make it an entitlement for a young person to be offered care to 21 years if they request it, so that this important and powerful reform can be enjoyed by all children in care for generations to come.
In the words of Kathleen Noonan in her remarkable opinion piece in the Courier Mail, “Queensland should grasp the lead on this. Strangely governments pay for crisis services when young people spiral into homelessness, drugs and mental health issue and crime and that’s expensive”.
“Putting a fraction of that funding into extending state care to 21 through the front end spending should have any smart Minister grabbing this with both hands….”
And Noonan finishes with this, “this is something Minister for Child Safety Di Farmer, Treasurer Jackie Trad and Premier Palaszczuk can solve with the flick of a pen.”
“In modern politics there aren’t many gnarly issues that can be solved easily”. If you were a politician, I reckon at the end of it all after all the sacrifices the compromises the brutal politicking, this could be at lease be something to be able to look back at your career and think that this is one thing I did that changed and saved lives….I did this”.
At the end of the day our role in all of our different roles in this room is often to close the opportunity gap between the well to-do majority of the population and socially devalued minorities, such as youth in out of home care. To be that equaliser for them.
Extended care is simply a policy to equalize opportunity.
We call on the Government to do the right thing and finish the job as a parent and make it 21.