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Kinship care in Victoria – research reveals intense complexity

In today’s guest blog Rachel Breman, Senior Researcher, and Marita Scott, General Manager Family and Community Services, at Baptcare outline the findings of a new report into the ways in which complex issues impact children and families in kinship care.

Kinship care refers to the care provided by relatives or members of the child’s social network when a child is unable to live at home with their parents. Kinship care is an important element of the child protection system in Australia given that it is the preferred placement option within the child protection system.

According to latest statistics from Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2013), there were almost 40,000 children in out of home care in Australia (June 2012), 47 per cent of these reside in a kinship care arrangement.

But what are the complexities around kinship care and how are they being addressed?

Community service organisations, Baptcare OzChild and Anchor recently launched its research report about how complex issues were impacting children and families in kinship care.

The report entitled Peeling back the layers – kinship care in Victoria, was launched in Melbourne in early October.

The main aim of the research was to explore the range and impact of the complexity surrounding statutory kinship placements for kinship clients from all three organisations and the findings support a review and refinement of the existing kinship program model, coupled with better funding and allocation of resources.

‘Complexity’ as it refers to in the report, is a measure of substantial issues that are likely to make the placement particularly challenging. The measure of complexity may include any one, or a combination of, issues relating to the child, carer or the family. They include substantial problems in the domains of health, emotional disturbance, social interaction, familial tensions and/or conflict and financial difficulties.

It has to be noted that to date, no tool has been developed to assess the complexity in kinship care arrangements and associated service needs in out of home care. Previous research has also not addressed the issue.

Key findings:

The report revealed substantial breadth and intensity of complexity among kinship care arrangements. The evidence indicates that the needs of the children and carers are more complex than has been previously recognised in the current kinship service model.

For children in the study, the most common placement issues related to significant behavioural issues, including physical and verbal aggression toward others, followed by developmental delays, physical health issues, and significant school issues.

The report notes that half the children who attended primary school experienced poor educational outcomes and one in six were reported as being socially isolated from friends, family, school and/or their community.

For carers in the study, the most common issues found was conflict with the birth parents, followed by financial stress and concerns over access/fear of reunification.

The majority of carers in the study were grandparents, followed by aunt/uncle.

Overall the research found that over two thirds of carers and half of children had some indication of complexity. This suggests that the current funding model, based as it is on the presumption that most placements only require low level of support, is inadequate to provide sufficient support to these kinship care families.

Given that the majority of children in out of home care are currently residing in a kinship care arrangement, it is no longer acceptable to make broad assumptions that a familial relationship is enough in and of itself to fully meet the needs of children and young people in the out of home care system.

Children and young people in the out of home care system have inevitably experienced trauma, grief and loss which impacts on all areas of their life and long term outcomes. The needs of carers and their issues impact significantly on the outcomes of these children and therefore their needs must also be considered.

Until we better understand these complexities within kinship care placements and develop appropriate responses to address them, we run the risk of failing to meet the needs of half of the children and young people who are currently unable to live at home with their parents.

In order for this to occur the kinship program model needs be reviewed accompanied by a better funding structure and allocation of resources so that children placed in kinship care receive equitable care compared to children in other out of home care programs. The majority of children in statutory kinship care should be contracted to CSOs.

Further, in the absence of a reliable tool used to assess complexity that is specific to kinship care, all children in kinship care should be assessed, as a matter of priority, using the same classifications used in foster care so that highly complex cases start to receive the support they need.

Likewise, all carers should also be assessed to ensure they are receiving the appropriate amount (and length) of support required to sustain the placement and to ensure a safe environment for the child being cared for.