Research — 24 August 2015

Children in care are suffering significantly higher rates of mental health problems than their peers and are far more likely to smoke, drink and abuse drugs, a damning new report has revealed.

They are also five times more likely to be admitted to hospital than children living with their own families and are at greater risk of dropping out of school.

The figures, to be released by Anglicare Victoria this week, paint a bleak future for children in Victoria’s residential care system, who are lagging well behind on a range of developmental, educational and social milestones.

Forty-one per cent show high levels of emotional and behavioural difficulties compared to 18 per cent in the broader community.

Only 15 per cent of the 353 children surveyed have contact with their siblings and just 31 per cent have regular contact with friends, compared to 54 per cent in the broader community.

The Children in Care Report Card also highlights how ill-prepared young people are for the future after growing up in child protection.

Less than 40 per cent can function independently at a level appropriate for their age while only 34 per cent had a weekend or casual job.

The figures come after it was revealed child sexual abuse is rife in Victoria’s residential care units, with more than 120 reports of sexual assaults in the past 10 weeks.

It followed an inquiry, led by Commissioner for Children and Young People Bernie Geary, which was tabled in Parliament on Wednesday and showed children as young as seven were being abused and exploited in care homes.

Paul McDonald, chief executive of Anglicare Victoria, said the government must invest in the state’s most vulnerable children and fundamentally rethink its child welfare responses.

“How many more reports do we need before the plight of these children is recognised?” he said.

“This report gives us a snapshot of children who are about to leave care and shows how under prepared they are for independent living. If we don’t want to see them in our homeless shelters, or in our prisons as adults, or as new parents whose children come into care, if we want to reverse this cycle we need to invest in making sure they are achieving all the developmental milestones that children in their own families are achieving.”

The report makes a number of recommendations including extending the age of leaving care from 18 to 21 so young people are not “evicted” before they are ready, and tracking them once they leave to measure the long-term impact of the system.

It also called for investment in educational support for struggling children and in employment training to prepare them for the workforce.

Mr McDonald said early intervention was critical.

“We get to these families too late in their dysfunction. Overseas authorities scratch their heads on our child protection system’s tendency to only get serious when all hell is breaking loose.

“Too much of our time and resources are sucked into the pointy end of the child welfare system, with children churning in and out of care.”

This article first appeared on ‘The Age’ on 21 August 2015.

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