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The early years of life are a critical period for children’s healthy development. They shape the way people learn, develop and form relationships. Children’s early positive and negative experiences have long-lasting effects. Exposure to risk can compromise children’s early development, while positive early experiences help build resilience and a positive trajectory. Positive experiences include secure caregiver-child attachments, stimulating home learning environments, access to health and community services, and attendance at high quality early learning services.
Investing in prevention and intensive early intervention can improve children and young people’s health and wellbeing, particularly those facing disadvantage, and help reduce the prevalence of abuse and neglect.
The Victorian government can invest more in support for children from conception to two years of age, providing strong foundations for their future health and wellbeing. Effective prevention and early intervention produces better outcomes for children than interventions later in life, and are more cost-effective.
An inclusive universal health, education and care system, strongly linked with secondary and tertiary services, can effectively reach Victorian families, and provide targeted, additional support to those experiencing disadvantage. Empowering local communities to solve complex issues, including socioeconomic disadvantage, can improve children and families’ wellbeing, and reduce abuse and neglect risks.
The Victorian government can provide supportive, stable out-of-home care environments for children and young people unable to live with their families, and give them the same opportunities as their peers to engage in education and employment, and lead successful lives.
The Victorian government can empower young people leaving out-of-home care by providing holistic support and care until at least age 21. Giving young people similar opportunities as their peers to successfully and gradually transition into adulthood helps them achieve better health, employment and quality of life.
VCOSS, along with many other organisations, are part of the Home Stretch campaign, calling on the Victorian government to extend the leaving care age from 18 to 21.
This would allow young people to remain in home-based care or supported accommodation if they wish, and include the option of extending this to age 25 if necessary. The government can provide reimbursements to carers, or case management to the young person, along with resources to access education or employment.
Young people across the community increasingly live with their families well into their 20s while studying or saving a home deposit. Many receive emotional and financial support after leaving home.
Yet when turning 18, young people in out-of-home care must leave their care providers and homes, and become entirely independent. Many do not have a formal leaving-care plan, and post-care services are not coordinated, flexible or consistently available to them.
Young care leavers have often previously experienced abuse and neglect, multiple care placements and may have limited social networks, which can leave them ill-equipped to cope with an abrupt transition to adulthood. They can face difficulties finding affordable and secure housing, enrolling in further education, getting a job, and gaining life skills.
Young care leavers are at greater risk of experiencing housing instability or homelessness, unemployment and low incomes, poorer educational achievement, justice system involvement, poor physical and mental health, substance abuse, social isolation, and early pregnancy and parenthood.,
They need a holistic support program, including stable living arrangements to build life skills, manage their health and pursue further education, training or employment.
Several international jurisdictions extend care for young people after 18, including the United Kingdom and California., They help people pursue education, training, employment and stable housing. Every dollar spent extending support for young care leavers is estimated to return $1.84.
The government can support children’s healthy early development and strengthen families’ ability to care for their children by increasing investment in intensive early intervention and prevention programs, from birth to the early years of life.
Children up to the age of four are at greatest risk of being placed on child protection orders. Early parenting services help families facing disadvantage build their skills, develop nurturing environments, form strong caregiver-child attachments and connect to community support. They reduce parents’ stress, anxiety and depression levels, and the likelihood of child abuse and child-behavioural problems.
Services cannot keep up with growing demand for intensive early parenting services and prevention programs, particularly for families of children with complex needs who are at risk of entering, or are already involved with the child protection system. There are few services in growth corridors, such as Wyndham, where 76 new babies are born every week.
Funding to expand early parenting services, integrated with early parenting services in child and family hubs and other community and health services, helps families find support before problems escalate. Evidence-based prevention programs build parents’ skills and challenge parental gender norms, while specialist centres and intensive services such as residential and day-stay programs wrap support around families, helping them negotiate complex challenges. The Victorian government can expand investment in the full continuum of support services.
Culturally responsive services, developed with and for local Aboriginal communities, improve Aboriginal child and family outcomes and prevent children entering child protection. Partnership models between Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and early parenting experts help build local knowledge and skills to create resilient families and communities. Examples of these models include the Bumps to Babes and Beyond program in Mildura. The Victorian government can increase investment in these types of partnership models.
The Victorian government can foster children’s early development by expanding supported playgroups and increasing community playgroup participation. Playgroups help children learn and develop in their first few years of life, prior to formal early childhood education. They can improve children’s learning and social skills, and better prepare them for kindergarten and school.
Children not attending playgroups are more likely to be developmentally vulnerable at school entry. Supported playgroups strengthen parent-child relationships, build parents’ skills and confidence, expand their social networks and connect them to health and community services.
Playgroups exist on a continuum, from parent-led community playgroups, to professionally-led supported playgroups supporting families experiencing disadvantage, to more intensive supported playgroups for families experiencing significant vulnerability, such as those at risk of entering the child protection system.
Community playgroups are an effective way to reach many families otherwise without support. The Victorian government can work in partnership with Playgroup Victoria so community playgroups are available to more families. The government can expand the Great Start funding model to mentor and resource new playgroups, and better integrate them with other early years services.
Supported playgroups are only delivered in 34 of Victoria’s 79 local government areas. Expanding supported playgroups across Victoria would help more families facing complex challenges. Intensive supported playgroups include a family support worker and an early childhood worker. The Victorian government can fund intensive supported playgrounds to support children’s development and strengthen the wellbeing of families with complex needs.
The Victorian government can improve Aboriginal children and families’ health and wellbeing and reduce the number of children entering out-of-home care by resourcing Aboriginal community-controlled organisations (ACCOs) to deliver prevention, early intervention and out-of-home care services. The government can work with ACCOs to progress the Commission for Children and Young People’s 2016 Aboriginal children in out-of-home care inquiry recommendations.
Aboriginal families are significantly over-represented in the child protection system, with Aboriginal children 12 times more likely to be in out-of-home care. While recent investments to improve outcomes for Aboriginal children and families are welcome, more can be done to better support families and prevent children entering the child protection system, and to nurture Aboriginal children’s identity and culture.
ACCOs are best placed to deliver services to their communities, but can only do so with resources to expand their work and sustainably grow their workforce. The Victorian government can develop a workforce plan, including funding for Aboriginal workers to undertake formal qualifications, and support for organisations to recruit Aboriginal workers and provide on-the-job training. ACCOs can help redesign the child protection system, including through the Roadmap for Reform process. A non-competitive funding environment for Aboriginal services allows more flexible funding models and stronger partnerships between agencies delivering family-centered wrap-around services.
The Victorian government can maintain targeted care funding packages to prevent Aboriginal children and young people entering, or help them transition out of, residential care. Assisting ACCOs to deliver these packages, and supporting growth in the number of Aboriginal kinship and foster carers can improve the wellbeing of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.
The Victorian government can fund meaningful Aboriginal cultural plans to help children retain cultural connections. Community organisations advise that promised funding is not enough. Plans need increased brokerage funding for content delivery, such as cultural activities and return-to-Country visits.
The government can continue to support Aboriginal children in out-of-home care to transition to the care and case management of ACCOs. This includes transferring guardianship of Aboriginal children from the Department of Health and Human Services to ACCOs by working towards the full implementation of section 18 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005.
The Victorian government can better support carers so more children and young people in out-of-home care live in stable and supportive home-based placements. This includes increasing foster and kinship allowances and providing carers with comprehensive training, development and therapeutic support. This would help address the crisis being caused by the rapidly growing number of children coming under care and protection orders, combined with a growing shortage and reduction in the number of foster carers.
Foster carer allowances do not meet the real costs of caring for children and young people, falling short by about $4,000 a year. Up to 60 per cent of potential foster carers are deterred by financial costs. Half of kinship carers report financial stress. The foster care system has five care allowance levels, based on the department’s assessment of each child. However, kinship carers are automatically assigned to the lowest care allowance level, regardless of their circumstances or the complexities faced by children in their care.
Children and young people entering the out-of-home care system have increasingly complex needs. Foster and kinship carer training does not sufficiently equip carers with the skills to support children, particularly for traumatised children. The recently announced foster and kinship carer training strategy improves targeted and comprehensive training, development and therapeutic support.
The Victorian government can help families access timely, effective early intervention services, and reduce the number of children entering the child protection system by increasing funding to meet child and family services demand.
There has been significant growth in both the number of referrals and the complexity of cases received by Child and Family Information, Referral and Support Teams (Child FIRST) and Integrated Family Support Services (IFS). The number of child protection reports has doubled in the last seven years, and is expected to keep rising due to population growth, and greater community awareness and reporting.
Early intervention services help divert children and families from protective care, but funding has not kept pace with the growth in demand. Services are forced to concentrate on assisting children, young people and families in crisis, reducing early intervention provision.
More funding would allow services to meet increasing demand and intervene early. It can be accompanied by providing families better access to specialist services including alcohol and other drug, mental health and housing services, so they can get help before problems escalate and require the involvement of child protection services.
The Victorian government can better support young women at risk of, or who have experienced, forced marriage. This can include increasing forced marriage identification, and funding targeted prevention and intervention services for these girls and women. Forced marriage is against the law in Australia. While its prevalence in Victoria is unknown, emerging evidence suggests a significant and diverse range of Australian women and girls are at risk.
Forced marriage puts girls and women at risk of violence, mental health issues, economic abuse, social isolation, and compromises their engagement in education or work. It needs a holistic response including case management, accommodation, peer support, education, legal, health and family violence services, similar to the Safe House model in NSW for women who have experienced trafficking and slavery. Outreach and prevention services help young women obtain help before a forced marriage occurs. General services are not suitable for the specialist and individual needs of this group.
 T Moore, Understanding the nature and significance of early childhood: New evidence and its implications, Presentation at Centre for Community Child Health seminar Investing in Early Childhood—the future of early childhood education and care in Australia, Centre for Community Child Health, The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, 2014.
 M McDonald, T Moore and R Robinson, Policy Brief No. 26: The future of early childhood education and care services in Australia, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Centre for Community Child Health, 2014.
 S Fox, A Southwell, N Stafford, R Goodhue, D Jackson and C Smith, Better Systems, Better Chances: A Review of Research and Practice for Prevention and Early Intervention, Canberra, Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2015.
 The Home Stretch, website, accessed 31 October 2016.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Home and away: the living arrangements of young people’, Australian Social Trends, 4102.0, June 2009.
 P Mendes, G Johnson and B Moslehuddin, ’Effectively preparing young people to transition from out-of-home care: An examination of three recent Australian studies’, Family Matters, No. 89, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2011.
 P Mendes, P Snow and S Baidawi, Young people transitioning from out-of-home care in Victoria: Strengthening support services for dual clients of Child Protection and Youth Justice, Monash University, Melbourne, September 2012.
 UnitingCare, Young people transitioning from out-of-home care to adulthood: Review of policy and program approaches in Australia and overseas, July 2014, p. 2.
 P Mendes, G Johnson and B Moslehuddin, Op Cit.
 Deloitte Access Economics, Raising our children: guiding young Victorians in care into adulthood, Anglicare Victoria, April 2016.
 Scottish Government, Staying Put Scotland: Providing care leavers with connectedness and belonging, Edinburgh, October 2013.
 Deloitte Access Economics, Raising our children: guiding young Victorians in care into adulthood, Anglicare Victoria, April 2016.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child protection Australia 2014-15, Child welfare series no. 63. Cat. No. CWS 57, Canberra, 2016, p. 39.
 Queen Elizabeth Centre and Mallee District Aboriginal Services, Bumps to Babes and Beyond Evaluation, 2014, p. 16.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Regional Statistics by LGA 2010-2014, Annual, Wyndham (C), 2016.
 K Hancock, D Lawrence, F Mitrou, D Zarb, D Berthelsen, J Nicholson and S Zubrick, ‘The association between playgroup participation, learning competence and social-emotional wellbeing for children aged four–five years in Australia’, Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2012.
 T Gregory, Y Harman-Smith, A Sincovich, A Wilson and S Brinkman, It takes a village to raise a child: The influence and impact of playgroups across Australia, Telethon Kids Institute, South Australia, 2016.
 Playgroup Victoria Inc., Policy Brief 4: Transition Playgroups, 2014.
 Playgroup Victoria Inc., Policy Brief 5: Playgroups and child protection, 2014.
 Commissioner for Children and Young People, Always was, always will be Koori Children: Systemic inquiry into services provided to Aboriginal children and young people in out-of-home care in Victoria, 2016.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child Protection Australia 2014–15, Child Welfare Series No. 63, 2016, p. 44.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child protection Australia 2014-15, Child welfare series no. 63. Cat. No. CWS 57, Canberra, 2016, p. 63.
 In 2014-15, 620 Victorian households exited foster care and only 392 households commenced care.
 Foster Care Association of Victoria, Claims for Improvement Manifesto: July 2016 Victorian foster care, 2016.
 Berry Street and Foster Care Association of Victoria, Save Foster Care, accessed September 2016.
 R Breman, Peeling back the layers – kinship care in Victoria: ‘Complexity in Kinship Care’ – Research Report, Baptcare Research Unit in partnership with OzChild and Anchor, 2014.
 Department of Health and Human Services, Care allowances and other financial support for carers, June 2016.
 ACIL Allen Consulting, Professional Foster Care: Barriers, opportunities and options, Melbourne, 2013.
 Victorian Government, Media release: Boosting Support for Victorian Carers, 9 September 2016.
 Victorian Auditor-General’s Office, Early Intervention Services for Vulnerable Children and Families, May 2015, p. x.
 Ibid, p. 1.
 Ibid, p. vii.
 M McGuire, The Right to Refuse: Examining Forced Marriage in Australia, Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service, Domestic Violence Victoria and Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, Melbourne, 2014.
 The Salvation Army, Trafficking and Slavery Safe House, accessed September 2016.