The NSW Parliament is considering legislative amendments to streamline decision-making about permanent placements for children who enter out-of-home care.
For these children, who have been removed from the care of their parents, the average length of stay in out-of-home care is 12 years – almost the duration of childhood. The changes aim to reduce the time in care to two years, with restoration to parents occurring where possible. If children can’t return home, the goal would be an alternative legal arrangement of guardianship with a relative, or adoption by a foster carer – with long-term foster care as the least preferred option.
Children need safe and stable care by consistent carers. We develop our understanding of the world and ourselves from our attachments to primary carers. When an infant has someone who meets their needs promptly when they cry, the infant learns that others are responsive and will meet their needs. When there is an inconsistent or problematic pattern of interaction, the infant learns their needs don’t matter. For very young children, who cannot take care of themselves physically, the dependence on caregivers means they will bond with the adult who cares for them.
Temporary care and uncertainty about the future can undermine children’s sense of security and functioning. As children grow older, their needs shift and their ability to tolerate separation from the primary carer varies.
A child who is returned home unsuccessfully and has to come back into care or bounces from one temporary carer to another experiences loss and faces uncertainty. It is critical that decisions are made within the children’s timeframe. That means, for each child, rebuilding the stability of their existing relationships with birth parents or facilitating the establishment of a new caregiving relationship.
For children who have experienced abuse or neglect and removal from their birth family, their best chance to recover from trauma is within a relationship of unconditional love from at least one committed parent or carer. It is the day-to-day interactions of meeting the child’s needs for affection, safety and care that is healing.
Delays in permanent arrangements can result in adverse consequences for children’s development. Longitudinal research has demonstrated that the longer children remain in homes inadequately protected from abuse and neglect, the more likely there will be long-term consequences. Harm can be compounded in the out-of-home care system if children experience temporary placements and frequent moves. Children, particularly young children, are likely to become attached to interim carers and can experience further loss if they are moved. It is therefore crucial to place children in caring and stable homes that will become their permanent homes, as soon as possible.
With the greater focus on achieving permanent homes, it is important that NSW policies and legislation consider the lessons from other jurisdictions that have made similar attempts. In the US, the Adoption and Safe Families Act has been criticised for its bias towards termination of parental rights and adoption over restoration, with inadequate timeframes and support services that do not allow birth parents to so their children can be returned to them. These parents are disadvantaged in terms of their own personal resources, finance, housing, and employment. In Britain, social workers have indicated that the Adoption and Children Act can be useful in preventing cases from being "sat on" for too long, but the rushed process may result in lack of quality work toward supporting restoration or stable alternative placements.
This is the dilemma of the child protection and out-of-home care systems: making decisions within the child’s timeframe but allowing the time and providing the support and resources for families to step up and provide a stable home for their children.
Economically, it makes sense to pursue permanency. Supporting children in out-of-home care is expensive. Some of those resources need to be re-invested into family support to prevent removal and to provide intensive services to restore children to their parents. It makes sense in child development and humanitarian terms to maintain children’s connection with family.
The current reforms include stronger measures to support families early when concerns about their parenting are evident.
Getting the balance right between supporting families to change so they may adequately care for their children, and the timely removal of children from neglectful and abusive homes is always going to be difficult.
Children in care, their birth parents and their guardians or adoptive parents should be able to access a range of support services at key points. The amount and quality of support is a factor in permanency adjustment and stability for children in out-of-home care.
These reforms to prioritise timely decision-making require adequate resourcing to strengthen and support families. Further, monitoring and research are essential to check for unintended consequences and to ensure the reforms do make a positive difference to the children they are intended to benefit.
Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright & Professor Judith Cashmore are affiliated with the Institute of Open Adoption Studies, The University of Sydney. Professor Cashmore is also affiliated with Sydney Law School.