Recruiting, retaining and supporting foster carers is more important than ever

| April 25, 2020

Foster carers are volunteers who, after an in depth assessment and some training, provide day-to-day care for children who the child protection system deems unable to live with their biological families.

Children the foster care system for a variety of reasons including; abuse, neglect, parental substance abuse/mental health issues and exposure to domestic violence. Placement into foster care is an intervention of last resort once all other efforts to support families have failed.

Children in foster care have complex needs. The events leading to their foster care placement can have significant negative impacts on children’s physical, emotional and mental well-being. Indeed, being taken from family and placed into foster care is also traumatic, even when the carers are warm, welcoming and well-trained/experienced.

Children’s recovery from these experiences requires significant time, understanding and commitment from their foster carers.

The persistent shortage of foster carers

For the past several decades there has been a persistent shortage of foster carers in Australia. Despite attempts to recruit and retain foster carers, attrition rates exceed recruitment efforts.

Although extremely rewarding, fostering children with complex needs can be very challenging. Foster carers sharing their individual experiences of this role, positive or negative, by word of mouth can influence others decisions to become foster carers.

Foster carers sharing positive experiences has proved a powerful recruitment tool, while sharing negative experiences can serve as a barrier to recruitment and lead to attrition.

Barriers to recruitment include poor representation of foster carers in the media and general misunderstandings about the foster care system, such as who can or cannot become a foster carer.

Natural foster carer attrition occurs with age. The majority of foster carers in Australia are between 45-65 years of age. The physical demands associated with caring for young children become increasingly difficult for many foster carers as they age.

Attrition is compounded when foster carers feel undervalued or unsupported in their role and choose to cease providing care in this capacity.

Increasing numbers of children needing care

As of June 30, 2018 there were approximately 46,000 children in Australia who were unable to live with their birth families. This number is rapidly increasing as the incidence of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect and parental mental health issues rise in the midst of the current COVID-19 circumstances.

So what happens when there are not enough carers? These children often end up living alone in motels and caravan parks with a rotating roster of paid care staff providing supervision. Such arrangements are not only extremely expensive, but they do little to protect and support the health and well-being of these vulnerable children.

The impact of COVID-19 on foster families

The COVID-19 restrictions have greatly impacted upon foster families.

The changes in routine and lack of access to specialist services can exacerbate children’s issues, making them increasingly challenging to care for. School closures and suspension of extracurricular activities mean foster carers cannot enjoy the usual brief moments of reprieve to rest and rejuvenate.

As children become more challenging and foster carers become more tired, there is a real danger that foster carers will burn out and leave the already depleted system.

The need for more support

As the COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed, there will be an urgent need to recruit new and retain existing foster carers. In order to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of foster carers, government departments and private agencies should focus on new ways to support foster carers. This may require increased interdisciplinary collaboration between the health and social welfare systems.

Of the 11,200 children who were removed from their parent’s care during 2017-18, the largest proportion were less than five years old, with the greatest number being less than 12 months of age.

There is a large body of research demonstrating these early childhood years provide the foundation for future development. Brain development during this early childhood period is relationally and experientially determined. Children who experience safe, secure, nurturing relationships during this time develop in a typical neurological way. Those who do not, go one to experience significant dysfunction throughout their lifespan.

This is why the Australian government supports programs such as ‘The First 1000 Days’.  Specialist child and family health nurses are well versed in the importance of early childhood development.

They are also equipped to work with vulnerable families experiencing issues such as domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, substance abuse and mental health issues. Indeed, long-term nurse home visiting programs are an effective way to increase care-giving confidence and contribute to a positive home environment for children.

However, such programs have not routinely been available to foster families in Australia.

Child and family health nurses are an untapped resource that could be used to support both new, inexperienced foster carers and fatigued seasoned foster carers as they work with vulnerable children in their homes. Nurses’ professional skill set make them an expert resource in the physical, social and emotional development of children.

This knowledge can assist in early identification of developmental issues and enable timely access to appropriate services, which helps to achieve best outcomes for children. This additional support should also lead to greater foster carer satisfaction, resulting in better retention and potentially increased recruitment.