Children in care
Last updated June 2013

What is out-of-home care?

Out-of-home care refers to the care of children and young people up to 18 years who are unable to live with their families (often due to child abuse and neglect). It involves the placement of a child or young person with alternate caregivers on a short- or long-term basis (Victorian Department of Human Services, 2007). Out-of-home care can be arranged either formally or informally. Informal care refers to arrangements made without intervention by statutory authorities or courts, and formal care occurs following a child protection intervention (either by voluntary agreement or care and protection court order). This paper will describe those children in out-of-home care in Australia who are on care and protection orders.

Types of out-of-home care

  • Residential care: placement is in a residential building whose purpose is to provide placements for children and where there are paid staff.
  • Family group homes: provide care to children in a departmentally or community sector agency provided home. These homes have live-in, non-salaried carers who are reimbursed and/or subsidised for the provision of care.
  • Home based care: placement is in the home of a carer who is reimbursed for expenses for the care of the child. There are 3 categories of home based care: relative or kinship care, foster care and other home based out-of home care.
  • Independent living: including private board and lead tenant households.
  • Other: placements that do not fit into the above categories and unknown placement types. This may include boarding schools, hospital, hotels/motels and the defence force.

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 2013, p. 36.

The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 (Council of Australian Government [COAG], 2009) noted that out-of-home care is a last resort for keeping children safe. Supporting children within their family is the preferred option. Where the home environment is not safe enough for children and they have to be placed in out-of-home care the focus is on providing children with safety, stability and a sense of security. Importantly, the Framework noted that while the need for carers to provide quality out-of-home care for children is rising, the availability of such carers appears to be decreasing.

How many children live in out-of-home care in Australia?

The most recent statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW, 2013) show that, as of 30 June 2012, there were 39,621 Australian children living in out-of-home care. This is an increase of 5.24% from the number of 37,648 children in out-of-home care on 30 June 2011. Table 1 shows the number of children in Australia admitted to out-of-home care, by age group, in each state and territory during 2011-12.

Table 1. Children admitted to out-of-home care by age group, states and territories, 2011-12
Age (years) NSW VIC QLD WA SA TAS ACT NT Australia
Number
<1 653 490 473 245 133 45 26 62 2,127
1-4 870 842 702 338 146 73 73 115 3,159
5-9 829 841 576 254 123 66 68 78 2,835
10-14 749 880 629 203 146 72 49 107 2,835
15-17 306 473 291 48 70 28 31 37 1,284
Total 3,407 3,526 2,671 1,088 618 284 247 399 12,240
Per cent
<1 19.2 13.9 17.7 22.5 21.5 15.8 10.5 15.5 17.4
1-4 25.5 23.9 26.3 31.1 23.6 25.7 29.6 28.8 25.8
5-9 24.3 23.9 21.6 23.3 19.9 23.2 27.5 19.5 23.2
10-14 22.0 25.0 23.5 18.7 23.6 25.4 19.8 26.8 23.2
15-17 9.0 13.4 10.9 4.4 11.3 9.9 12.6 9.3 10.5
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Notes: The table includes all children admitted to out-of-home care for the first time, as well as those children returning to care who had exited care more than 2 months previously. Children admitted to out-of-home care more than once during the year were only counted at the first admission. Percentages exclude children of unknown age. Percentages in tables may not add to 100 due to rounding.

Source: AIHW, 2013, p. 76.

The number of children in out-of-home care has risen every year over the last 10 years (AIHW, 2013). As seen in Table 2, the number of children in out-of-home care has almost doubled from 2003 to 2012 (a rise of 95%). At 30 June 2012, the rate of children aged 0-17 years in out-of-home care was 7.7 children per 1,000 (AIHW, 2013).

Table 2: Trends in children aged 0-17 years in out of home care, states and territories, 30 June 2003 to 30 June 2012
Year NSW VIC QLD WA(a)(b) SA(c) Tas ACT NT Total
2003 8,636 4,046 3,787 1,615 1,245 468 277 223 20,297
2004 9,145 4,309 4,413 1,681 1,204 487 298 258 21,795
2005 9,230 4,408 5,657 1,829 1,329 576 342 324 23,695
2006 9,896 4,794 5,876 1,968 1,497 683 388 352 25,454
2007 11,843 5,052 5,972 2,371 1,678 667 399 397 28,379
2008 13,566 5,056 6,670 2,546 1,841 664 425 398 31,166
2009 15,211 5,283 7,093 2,682 2.016 808 494 482 34,069
2010 16,175 5,469 7,350 2,737 2,737 893 532 551 35,895
2011 16,740 5,678 7,602 3,120 2,368 966 540 634 37,648
2012 17,192 6,207 7,999 3,400 2,548 1,009 566 700 39,621

(a) Data for 2008 onwards is not strictly comparable to earlier figures for Western Australia as they previously included children whose whereabouts were unknown or who were living with relatives who were not reimbursed. (b) Data for 2009-10 for Western Australia are not comparable with other years due to the introduction of a new client information system in March 2010. Proxy data were provided for that year. (c) South Australia could only provide the number of children in out-of-home care where the Department of Families and Communities is making a financial contribution to the care of a child.

Note: Some rates may not match those published in previous publicatiopns of Child Protection Australia due to retrospective updates.

Sources: AIHW (2006, p. 45; 2013, p.45).

What are the living arrangements of children in out-of-home care?

The AIHW statistics show that 93 % of all children living in out-of-home care in Australia are in home-based care. Of that figure, 44% are in foster care, 47% are in relative/kinship care and 2% are in other forms of home-based care (AIHW, 2013).

Table 3 compares the proportion of children in out-of-home care by living arrangements for each state and territory. Of children in out-of-home care, Queensland and Tasmania had a relatively high proportion in foster care (57.2% and 54.2% respectively), and New South Wales had a relatively high proportion placed with relatives or kin (55.8%) compared to other states and territories (AIHW, 2013).

Table 3. Proportion (%) of children in out-of-home care, by living arrangements, states and territories, as at 30 June 2012
Type of placement NSW VIC QLD WA SA TAS ACT NT Australia
Foster care(a) 40.9 34.9 57.2 40.8 42.7 54.2 38.5 37.9 43.6
Relatives/kin(a) 55.8 45.6 34.6 43.1 43.3 30.3 51.6 23.3 46.7
Other home-based care - 11.1 - - 0.2 8.1 3.9 23.1 2.4
Total home-based care 96.6 91.6 91.8 83.9 86.2 92.7 94.0 84.3 92.8
Family group homes 0.2 - - 5.0 - 1.7 - 7.9 0.7
Residential care 2.6 7.7 8.2 4.4 9.7 2.7 5.8 - 5.2
Independent living 0.5 0.6 - 0.4 1.0 0.8 0.2 0.1 0.4
Other - - - 6.4 3.1 2.2 - 7.7 1.0
Total non-home based care 3.3 8.3 8.2 16.2 13.8 7.4 6.0 15.7 7.3
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

(a) Where a child is placed with a relative who is also fully registered to provide foster care for other children, they are counted in the foster care category for Victoria and Western Australia, whereas they are counted in the relatives/kin category in Queensland and South Australia.

Note: Percentages in tables may not add to 100 due to rounding. "-" Not applicable, nil or rounded to zero.

Source: AIHW (2013, p. 78).

How many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children live in out-of-home care?

Australian Bureau of Statistics population projection data for 30 June 2012 indicates that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children would comprise 4.72% of all children aged 0-17 years in Australia (AIHW, 2013); yet in 2011-12 they constituted nearly 33.6% of all children placed in out-of-home care. In all jurisdictions, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on placement orders was higher than that for other children. As of 30 June 2012, there were 13,299 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in Australia - a placement rate of 55.1 per 1,000 children. In contrast, the rate for non-Indigenous children was 5.4 per 1,000. This indicates that the national rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care was more than 10 times the rate for non-Indigenous children (AIHW, 2013). There was substantial variation across the states and territories, with the placement rate of Indigenous children varying from 20.7 per 1,000 in the Northern Territory to 83.4 per 1,000 in New South Wales (AIHW, 2013).

What is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle?

Cultural safety is important for the safety and wellbeing of all children. The right to cultural safety while a child is placed in out-of-home care is enshrined in Article 20 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989) .

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle endorses this in legislation and policy in all Australian states and territories. The principle provides an important acknowledgement that previous policies caused suffering to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and reflects the right of Indigenous people to raise their children in their communities (Lock, 1997) The principle states the preferred order of placement for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child who has been removed from their birth family. The preferred order is for the child to be placed with:

  • the child’s extended family (kin);
  • the child’s Indigenous community (kith); or
  • other Indigenous people.

According to the principle, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child can only be placed with a non-Indigenous carer if an appropriate placement cannot be found from these three groups (Lock, 1997). However, in order to find suitable placements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children there must be suitable places available for children. Increasing demand on the child protection system must be met with an increased availability for children who require out-of-home care and where demand outstrips availability, children will have to be placed in homes that may not comply with this principle.

Even when children are placed in accordance to the principle they may become disconnected from their culture. This may occur when children are placed with the “white” side of the family, an Aboriginal carer who is not from the child’s own cultural group, or kin who may have (because of their own removal) been disconnected from their traditional culture (Scott & Higgins, 2011).

The percentage of children placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in an Indigenous residential care facility varied substantially across jurisdictions from 38.1% in the Northern Territory to 81.6% of placements in New South Wales (see Figure 1). In Australia in 2011-12, 68.8% of Indigenous children were placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in an Indigenous residential care facility (AIHW, 2013).

For more information see Child Protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children

Figure 1. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care, states and territories, 30 June 2012

Figure 1. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care, states and territories, 30 June 2012 - as described in text.

Source: AIHW (2013, p. 43).

What does foster care cost?

Recurrent expenditure on child protection and out-of-home care services was approximately $3 billion across Australia in 2011-12, an increase of 3.5% from 2010-11. Nationally, out-of-home care services accounted for the majority (65.3%, or $1.9 billion) of this expenditure (Report on Government Services, 2013). A study by the Social Policy Research Centre found that the cost of caring for children in foster care is, on average, 52% higher than the costs of caring for other children not in care (McHugh, 2002).

What are some of the key issues/challenges in foster care in Australia today?

Many children in out-of-home-care experience multiple placement changes (Delfabbro, King, & Barber, 2010; Rubin, O'Reilly, Luan, & Localio, 2007). In a study profiling children in out-of-home care in South Australia, Delfabbro, Barber, and Cooper (2001) found that 20% of the sample had between three and five placements, 18% had between six and nine placements, and 24% - almost a quarter of all children - had experienced 10 or more previous placements during their time in care. Placement instability can have significant adverse affects on children. A number of studies have found associations between continued instability and adverse psychosocial outcomes, such as emotional difficulties, behaviour problems and poor academic performance. For example, Rubin et al. (2007) found that placement instability is "a significant contributor to a child's risk for behavioural problems unrelated to the baseline problems that a child had on referral for placement" (p. 343). Placement instability can be a significant concern for young people in care. In a survey of 1,767 Queensland children and young people in care, almost 20% of respondents were worried about having to move to another placement in the next few months (Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian, 2008).

Recruiting enough carers to cope with the increased demand for foster carers is a concern for most states and territories (Delfabrro et al. 2010; Osborn, Panozzo, Richardson, & Bromfield, 2007). Some are advocating for the professionalisation of foster carers in a bid to facilitate recruitment and help the increasing number of children coming into the system with complex and challenging behaviour problems (Butcher, 2005).

With the reliance on home-based care and the problems recruiting sufficient numbers of foster carers, there has been a rapid increase in the proportion of children in kinship care (AIHW, 2013; Boetto, 2010; Delfabbro et al., 2010). Although studies have shown that children and young people are able to identify positive experiences of living in kinship care (Mason, Fallon, Gibbons, Spence, & Scott, 2002), at this stage, there is insufficient research evidence to demonstrate whether or not kinship care produces better outcomes for children (Bromfield & Osborn, 2007a, 2007b).

The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 (COAG, 2009) notes that while primary and secondary prevention are important to reduce the number of children affected by maltreatment and the impact that maltreatment has on them, it is equally important that children who have suffered maltreatment are afforded necessary support and services. Ultimately, the preference is for children to be safe and cared for in their own family, but where that is not possible, children require a sense of safety and stability. The Framework aims to provide nationally consistent support services for children who live in out-of-home care and transition from out-of-home care to independent living.

References

  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2013). Child protection Australia 2011-12 (Child Welfare Series No. 55). Canberra: AIHW.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2006). Child protection Australia 2004-05 (Child Welfare Series No. 38). Canberra: AIHW.
  • Boetto, H. (2010). Kinship care: A review of issues. Family Matters, 85, 60-67
  • Bromfield, L. M., & Osborn, A. (2007a). Kinship care (NCPC Research Brief No. 10). Retrieved from <www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/brief/rb10/rb10.html>.
  • Bromfield, L. M., & Osborn, A. (2007b). "Getting the big picture": A synopsis and critique of Australian out-of-home care research (Child Abuse Prevention Issues No. 26). Retrieved from <www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/issues/issues26/issues26.html>.
  • Butcher, A. (2005). Upping the ante! The training and status of foster carers in Queensland. Children Australia, 30, 25-30.
  • Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian. (2008). Views of Children and Young People in Foster Care, Brisbane: Queensland Government.
  • Council of Australian Governments. (2009). Protecting children is everyone’s business: National framework for protecting Australia’s children 2009–2020. Retrieved from <www.fahcsia.gov.au/our-responsibilities/families-and-children/publications-articles/protecting-children-is-everyones-business>
  • Delfabbro, P., King, D., & Barber, J. (2010). Children in foster care - Five years on. Children Australia, 35(1), 22-30
  • Delfabbro, P. H., Barber, J. G., & Cooper, L. (2001). A profile of children entering out-of-home care in South Australia: Baseline analysis for a 3 year longitudinal study. Children and Youth Services Review, 23, 865-891.
  • Lock, J. (1997). The Aboriginal Child Placement Principle. Sydney: New South Law Reform Commission.'
  • Mason, J., Falloon, J., Gibbons, L., Spence, N., & Scott, E. (2002). Understanding kinship care. Haymarket, NSW: Association of Childrens Welfare Agencies and The University of Western Sydney.
  • McHugh, M. (2002). The costs of caring: A study of appropriate foster care payments for stable and adequate out-of-home care in Australia. Sydney: NSW Association of Childrens Welfare Agencies.
  • Osborn, A., Panazzo, S., Richardson, N., & Bromfield, L. (2007). Foster famlies (NCPC Research Brief No. 4). Retrieved from <www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/brief/rb4/rb4.html>.
  • Rubin, D. M., O'Reilly, A. L., Luan, X., & Localio, A. R. (2007). The impact of placement stability on behavioral well-being for children in foster care. Pediatrics, 119(2), 336-344.
  • United Nations. (1989). Convention on the rights of the child. Geneva: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Retrieved from <www.unicef.org.au/Discover/What-we-do/Convention-on-the-Rights-of-the-Child/childfriendlycrc.aspx>
  • Victorian Department of Human Services. (2007). The home-based care handbook. Retrieved from <www.dhs.vic.gov.au/about-the-department/documents-and-resources/reports-publications/home-based-care-handbook>

Acknowledgements

This paper was updated by Lalitha Nair, who at the time of writing was a Research Officer, and Deborah Scott, Research Fellow with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Previous editions were compiled by Alister Lamont.

Publishing details

Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, June 2013.

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