Lack of support from the Victorian Government means foster carers are waiting weeks to organise appointments and help children from different backgrounds, say those assisting vulnerable youth.
Sharon Hawkins, a foster carer for nearly 20 years, says she has often taken in children with just “the clothes on their backs”.
Carers are urgently needed to provide a safe environment for vulnerable children, she says, saving them from a life in Victoria’s troubled residential care units.
Hawkins says she aims to improve every child’s health and wellbeing but delays by the Department of Health and Human Services Victoria make this difficult.
Children are placed in foster care when their parents are unable to look after them, with 8,000 Victorian children currently needing some type of foster care.
Hawkins says the DHHS is a “disappointment” for these vulnerable children as it does not arrange appointments quickly, even when children need medical attention and are in pain.
Carers are not paid, but receive a weekly package to pay for the child’s needs. “They take their time in compensating me for medical expenses, leaving me out of pocket for up to a month,” says Hawkins.
Lisa Sturzenegger, chief executive of Victorian foster care agency OzChild, says more than half the the children in its foster care programs stay with the organisation long term (over 5 years), with many there for more than 10 years. “The system has not been very good at moving children into permanent care, where children technically become adopted if they can’t live with their birth parents.”
OzChild has more than 300 children living under its foster and kinship programs every night.
At least 300 more carers are needed across the 26 foster care agencies around the state.
Sturzenegger says being a foster carer is rewarding. “You’ll be the hero in a child or young person’s life as you’ll provide them with the simple but cherished things, a home, safety, security and love.”
Recent changes have been made under the Child Youth and Families Act to address the instability of children in care. A decision must be made about whether a child needs to be in permanent care or kinship care within 12 months, which Sturzenegger says should mean less children stay in foster or kinship care for so long.
Hawkins says another major flaw in the system is the failure to help foster children as young adults. “Once children are 18 and out of foster care, there are no follow-up meetings to see how they are doing and where they are going in life,” she says.
Despite her concerns, Hawkins recommends more people should give fostering a go. “The best thing about taking in these children is seeing them bloom and grow a happy personality, unlike they were when they got here.”
The Victorian Government has formed ‘Fostering Connections’ to learn about and promote foster care in Victoria. To find out more, go to www.fosteringconnections.com.au