FCAV CEO Samantha Hauge Foster Care Week Speech - Carer Resilience

It goes without saying that this has been one hell of a year. First fire, then pestilence—with many of us asking, what next?

Throughout history there are examples of humanity’s resilience to deal with threat and change. Many carers will have parents or grandparents who lived through such calamities, including the Great Depression and the Second World War. And through those profound social, political and economic experiences they developed tremendous resilience.

In thinking about resilience I am reminded of the words of Winston Churchill who I think captured the essence of the carer experience when he said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts. If you're going through hell, keep going. Everyone has his day, and some days last longer than others.”

Speaking to and advocating for carers during this difficult time I have been impressed by their capacity to cope in the face of extremely difficult circumstances. Many have had to adapt to delivering online schooling for children already experiencing challenges, while at the same time working from home.

Others will have experienced difficult personal circumstances because of the economic shutdown including unemployment and worries about paying the rent or mortgage—while at the same time prioritising the social, economic and emotional welfare of the children in their care. Some have expressed concerns about potential exposure to coronavirus and what this might mean for their own personal health and wellbeing because their health is vulnerable.

One of the striking features of the COVID pandemic is the return of trust in government and the cooperative civic spirit that has underpinned community support for collective action. This is a remarkable achievement given that people have been asked to make significant personal and economic sacrifices; even some of our personal freedoms.

But there is very wide support for this approach which is based on the notion that working together is the best way of achieving common goals.

I would like to personally thank the Minister and the Department who have recognised the need for some additional carer support with the provision of payments to carer households in May and the extra funding for all peak organisations. This has been welcome and will be used to deliver practical support for carers such as a Carer Assistance Program and an improved carer hotline service.

And in particular I would like to acknowledge that the Department has been genuinely open and consultative about the development and implementation of COVID related initiatives during what has been a very challenging service delivery environment.

I would also like to acknowledge some of the achievements of the FCAV over the last 12 months. This includes the development and launch of the Carer Strategy to identify and drive a reform agenda that addresses carer needs.

The FCAV has also been working with DHHS and the Minister’s office on a project for children who enter care without a registered birth and who are unable to get a birth certificate. As part of this project, DHHS has agreed to prioritise and action any cases that the FCAV brings to their attention.

A bespoke process between the FCAV and DHHS has also evolved regarding investigations under the Client Incident Management System where there has been ongoing dialogue to clarify CIMS processes.

Following the FCAVs request, the Department has also commenced a Carer Census project which will seek to survey carers about who they are and what they want to better inform both policy and program development. This will provide key data to programs to better support carers. Hopefully it will provide timely data on the impact and stresses caused by COVID-19.

But in reflecting on these successes I think we also have to acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed well-known and long-standing problems with the child protection system which the Government has failed to effectively address over a long period of time.

One of the striking features of the COVID-19 shock is that has sped up trends which were already evident. So, what we might have expected to be the case in five or ten years’ time is now likely to be just around the corner.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the ongoing decline in the number of available carers relative to population and the need for a well-thought-out carer retention strategy to complement existing recruitment programs. The FCAV has heard evidence that there has been a substantial increase in the number of carers that are on hold or preparing to exit the system. Because the child protection system is heavily reliant on community volunteers, this has the potential to throw the system into chaos.

The potential for a significant increase in the number of children entering the care system as a consequence of COVID-19 is also of concern. The Centre for Excellence and Berry Street have recently published a report called Keeping Families Together Through COVID-19 which I recommend to you.

The report seeks to model the potential costs of COVID-19. Amongst other things it makes projections about the likely increase in the number of children coming into care in the next two to six years because of COVID-19 family related breakdown without targeted early intervention.

Based on a low impact scenario the modelling projects that without any early intervention the number of children entering out of home care by 2026 could be in the order of 24,000. To put that into perspective, the report assumes a base rate of 12,000 children in out of home care.

This increase in the number of children coming into care will occur at time when there is also an increase in the number carers leaving the system. But these underlying trends are not new and were already evident. Just as in aged care, the virus has revealed the fault lines and weaknesses in our sector.

Improved carer retention will provide both a cost saving and human welfare dividend. Clearly a focus on carer retention has got to focus on better carer support so that carers have the resilience to continue, even on their worst days.

But despite FCAV advocacy, the Government presently has no coherent carer retention or support strategy. While the development of the Carer Strategy is a welcome innovation, nearly two years in, it remains un-funded with no clear plan for implementation.

While the case for early intervention is compelling, recent reform initiatives seeking improved access for families to support services have not grasped the true dimensions of what carers are asking for. In many cases understanding carer needs doesn’t require an evidence base, or a consultant, but is based on common sense analysis and is aimed at making the current system more streamlined and efficient along with some targeted funding.

Many current administrative practices within our sector have not been updated for some time and as such can’t support carers in how they live and work in the 21st century. In some instances administrative practices appear deliberately opaque.

From a carer perspective what good carer support looks like includes:
• A process to register births in months, not years, and that all carers and agencies have a copy of the birth certificate so that childcare and school can be easily accessed.
• Medicare numbers that are provided within days of a child entering care so that universal health care services can be accessed and carers don’t incur substantial out of pocket expenses which can take months to be reimbursed.
• A transport system that is genuinely child centred so that those who wish to see the child are transported to the child rather than the other way around.
• A decent education allowance that adequately funds expected and known education expenses.
• A base level of funding for every child to support access to therapeutic and recreational services.
• A fortnightly monetary amount for carers which covers the true cost of caring for a child or young person.
• Support for carers and young people post 18 years of age.
• A properly funded respite care program which provides alternative cares for children and young people and gives regular carers trusted adults that they can rely on. (to name a few)

The good news is that we don’t require experts or evidenced based policy to effect these changes. The expertise to do this work already exists in the Department. What we need is for the interests of carers to be a genuine priority. To take the cooperative and collegiate spirit that has been evident during the COVID-19 pandemic and apply that to the care of our children and young people.

One of the many fault lines that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed in our society is the disproportionate affect it has had on women, because sectors which require a high level of care such as health and teaching also have high levels of female employment. Yet much of the initial COVID-19 program focus—particularly at federal level—has been on supporting male dominated sectors such as the construction industry.

I sometimes wonder whether addressing carers issues is also inherently gendered. The bulk of carers are women who not only volunteer their time but also often take pay cuts, work reduced hours and forgo superannuation in order to provide free care on behalf of the State. Yet these sacrifices have not been matched by meaningful systemic support from the Government to meets their needs. It’s no wonder that many women are voting with their feet and are no longer available for volunteer caring roles.

Yet in every crisis there are opportunities. The disruption that COVID-19 has caused may also be an opportunity to enact systemic changes and improved funding to support carers and put people first.

The best way to promote carer resilience is to invest in carers by providing a range of emotional and financial supports. And the good news is that carers who feel valued and supported are not only more likely to be resilient but will also be better placed to provide the best possible care. A benefit for all.


Happy Foster Care Week
Samantha Hauge, CEO Foster Care Association of Victoria