Foster care kids are struggling to get proof-of-life documents

ANALYSIS

Janine Voisey had been a foster carer for more than two years when she took her nine-month-old foster daughter, Elly*, to the doctor for a check-up.

Elly, like many kids in the foster system, doesn’t have a birth certificate.

Foster kids without this basic proof-of-life document can’t access many services and supports, including subsidised childcare, school enrolment, and a Medicare card.

“I’m happy to pay for her,” explains Ms Voisey. “But it’s constantly having to explain.  ‘Sorry, it’s not me that hasn’t got her on Medicare, I’m not a bad mum.’ And then having to tell her story and tell people she’s a foster kid. I shouldn’t need to.

“I think what frustrates me more than anything is that she’s non-existent in the world.”

Ms Voisey and her wife have been trying to get Elly a birth certificate since she came to them at four weeks old.

“Being a foster mum is something I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was young. But this sort of thing is why I’m rethinking being a foster carer, to be honest.”

Proof-of-life documentation is a human right under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

However, workers at the Foster Care Association of Victoria (FCAV) are regularly contacted by carers struggling to get this documentation for the children in their care. FCAV’s Rowan Pulford describes another case involving a carer who has had two children in her care for five years, and is still struggling to resolve this gap in documentation, despite repeated attempts.

This sort of thing makes it impossible for families to plan their lives. 

For instance, Ms Voisey has been hoping to get Elly into childcare so she can return to work. But without a birth certificate she and her wife would have to pay for it out of pocket, which they can’t afford while Ms Voisey’s not working. And she can’t apply for jobs until she has certainty around Elly’s care.

These circular problems keep cropping up. Mr Pulford says carers are regularly tangled up in red tape and obstructed by bureaucratic barriers. 

This affects children in care, and prevents volunteer carers from undertaking essential life activities such as work and travel. 

The impacts are also heavily gendered, with women making up around 80 per cent of foster carers.

Ultimately, it contributes to the “dire situation” some sector leaders say the system is in.

“Being a foster mum is something I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was young. But this sort of thing is why I’m rethinking being a foster carer, to be honest.”

The Victorian Government has launched an audit to work out how many foster kids lack this basic documentation, thanks largely to the advocacy of carers like Ms Voisey, and groups like FCAV. It intends to use the data from this audit to secure a birth certificate for every child in its care so “no child is prevented from receiving medical care when they need it”.

Another thing Mr Pulford hopes will make a difference is a dedicated, Australia-first carer help desk funded in the 2022 Victorian budget.

“Effectively what the Department is saying to carers [with the carer help desk] is ‘We don’t care what path you follow to get to us – whether you approach us yourself or go through an agency – once approached we’ll get your birth certificate, Medicare number or Centrelink number if you don’t already have it.’

“It also acknowledges that child protection workers are not best placed to undertake much of this work, which is administrative in nature, and that it’s better handled in a different and more accessible way.

“There are benefits for everyone in getting better decision-making structures and thinking about how to do things more efficiently.”

Mr Pullford says the wider system also requires adequate and secure funding and more direct financial and social support for foster and kinship carers.

For now, Janine Voisey and her wife are staying foster mums. 

They want to be able to look after Elly for as long as she needs it.

But for that to happen, they say Victoria needs to look after them.

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Foster Care Week (September 11–17). 

*Name has been changed

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