"Foster Carers"

Page: 25501
Matter of Public Importance

Mr DAVID HARRIS (Wyong—Parliamentary Secretary) [6.25 p.m.]: Next week is Foster Care Week, which provides an opportunity for the community of New South Wales to show its appreciation for all foster carers, whether they are traditional foster carers or care for their own grandchildren as kinship carers. Their compassion, dedication and commitment to looking after children who cannot live at home with their families makes a huge difference to the quality of the lives of those children. I am acutely aware of the valuable year-round role that foster carers play in our community. I also recognise the value of the different types of care provided—ranging from respite, emergency, short-term and long-term care—and those caring for children with complex and special needs to meet the many and varied circumstances of children needing care.

Many grandparents also step in as kinship carers when families have difficulties. Carers are invaluable because they all help to protect our community's most valuable asset: our children. The Keneally Government is committed to providing and improving support to carers and children in care. Supporting carers through better communication is a key priority for the Government. There are many ways that the Government has been working to achieve this that I will talk about. It has established Connecting Carers NSW, a partnership between Karitane and the Foster Parents Support Network. This service supports foster, kinship and relative carers through peer support activities. Mentoring and training programs are designed to meet the needs of carers and give up-to-date advice on policies and practices. The Government wanted to address foster carers' concerns about potential disclosure of personal details to birth parents so it changed the law to provide greater safeguards. This move received widespread support within the out-of-home care sector.

Community Services has recruited Foster Carer Support Teams right across New South Wales. Those specialist teams focus on recruiting new carers and supporting them in their first 12 months of fostering. They also work closely with existing carers. The extension of those teams has led to an increased number of carer support groups that provide valuable ongoing training and peer support opportunities for carers. As well as the successful Muslim foster carer support group in Sydney's south-west, other carer groups have now been formed specifically for Aboriginal carers and for Vietnamese carers with caseworkers from each of those cultural backgrounds to work with them. The Government also introduced age-based rates for foster carer allowances after consultations with foster carers and based on research on the costs of raising children. The Government recognised the rising costs of caring for kids as they grow. I am pleased that carers in New South Wales are the highest paid in the country.

The Foster Carer Partnership Agreement forges a stronger relationship between Community Services and carers. That is done by encouraging open communication and to identify the levels of support carers should expect in their day-to-day dealings with Community Services. The Government has also produced a series of fact sheets for all carers. They include information to help carers and kids in care understand things such as case meetings, which can be a stressful experience, as well as the important value of life story work and helping children and young people reach their potential at school. This can be particularly challenging for children and young people in care, especially if there have been gaps in past learning opportunities and frequent school changes. Life story work records the experiences, relationships and interests of each child. It is important for all children in care.

The Government recognises the invaluable contribution and sacrifices that grandparents have made to give their grandchildren the loving and safe homes they need. There is better support for kinship carers in New South Wales, including the supported care allowance. This can apply to children in relative care who are not subject to a court order where parental responsibility has been allocated to the Minister. There has been some debate in this place about changes to the supported care allowance, but let me assure the House that grandparents looking after any of their grandchildren in need of care and protection will not be losing this allowance.

I am glad that the Government has announced additional support for grandparents of $60,000 for community organisations to run respite camps for grandparent carers and the children in their care at Wyong, Port Macquarie, Gosford and the Blacktown-Mount Druitt areas. This includes $15,000 for a camp for children from the Wyong area to be organised by the group Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. This funding recognises that grandparents have particular vulnerabilities when taking care of grandchildren. They do so for various reasons, including parental drug and alcohol abuse, parental incarceration, parent mental health issues, child neglect and abuse, or domestic violence.

While dealing with their adult children having issues, grandparents are taking on raising children when they are getting older. We know that, by taking on this responsibility, grandparent carers can become isolated from their peers who may be enjoying retirement while they are busy looking after children. Children being cared for by elderly grandparents can have fewer opportunities to socialise with other children their age. The camps that the Government has announced are occasions for grandparents and children in their care to build support and friendship networks with other families in similar circumstances.

Sadly, the number of children and young people needing out-of-home care has continued to grow steadily over recent years. A number of factors are contributing to this increase, including the growth in child protection reports reflecting international trends, as well as increasing community awareness about child welfare and greater confidence in our child protection system. Foster Care Week is about celebrating and thanking our carers. The Association of Children's Welfare Agencies hosts its annual carnival day on Sunday. This is the first of many events being held across the State next week to acknowledge and thank foster carers. I am pleased that the Minister for Community Services is contributing to the prizes given out to foster families on Sunday. Next week in regional New South Wales there will be morning teas, lunches, celebration dinners, pamper days and picnics to acknowledge and thank all foster carers for the valuable work they do for the State's most vulnerable children. Foster carers are involved in one of the most vital areas of the work of the New South Wales Government. It is fitting for us to demonstrate how much we value them.

Ms PRU GOWARD (Goulburn) [6.32 p.m.]: It is my pleasure to join in discussing this matter of public importance about Foster Care Week and the importance of foster parents and foster parenting. It is, as has already been said, a great form of volunteering. There can be no greater gift than to care for somebody else's child, often in extremely difficult circumstances and without the legal constraints and rights that need to go with effective parenting. Foster parents care for children in constrained circumstances. It is difficult to know how many foster parents there are in New South Wales. I know that 2,500 newsletters are sent to foster parents around the State. However, as there are more than 16,000 children in care there could well be as many as 4,000 or 5,000 foster carers in the State, including kinship carers and, in particular, wonderful grandparents.

Grandparents are at a time in their lives when, having brought up their own children who sometimes have had their own demons and struggles, they would like to slow down. However, they are suddenly faced with the enormous responsibility of bringing up two, three or four children with great energy, often without many resources because they are living on pensions or retirement benefits of some sort. We must acknowledge that a very high proportion of foster parents in New South Wales—I think it is almost half—are kin carers of some kind or another. They are people who go to a non-government sector organisation or to the Department of Community Services and offer themselves as foster parents. They need to be greatly supported. The non-government sector advises me that they provide enormous support for their parents and I understand that this particularly applies to foster parents with high-needs children.

Sadly, one of the changes in the foster care environment in New South Wales is the increasing number of children with complex needs as more and more young women give birth to children with drug and alcohol damage. We are not talking about an epidemic but, in respect of the numbers in the out-of-home care sector, I think it is starting to be a significant source of disability in children and more likely to be seen in the foster care sector. Indeed, the World Health Organization says that foetal alcohol spectrum disorders are the fastest-growing source of disabilities in the world. Children often have very complex needs and foster parents are just good people. They might get some training from the department or they might get some training and assistance from the non-government organisation to whom they have contracted, but I suspect nothing prepares them for some of the difficulties they have to deal with when they work with these children. It is absolutely incredible that they persist in doing it and do it so well most of the time.

The rewards of foster caring obviously are, for them, the sense that they have made a difference to a child's life and that they have been able to contribute their gifts of parenting. They must know that they are reasonable parents or I do not think they would put their hands up. They have been able to give the same patience, love and affection, and enjoyment and guidance that they have felt capable of giving to anybody. It is wonderful to see that they are able to make this offer and contribute in such a significant way. Obviously, they always need more support. We are well-off in New South Wales compared with other States financially, but foster parents constantly remark upon the difficulties of providing sufficient services for their children, particularly since high-needs children need a complex array of support—dental, medical, therapy and counselling. Something that might seem to an ordinary person to be a leisure activity, such as swimming, is often a form of therapy for a child who has been made brain damaged and blinded by childhood abuse from a parent.

We need to give children in these circumstances all the support we can, but that also means that we have to support foster parents, particularly those with adolescents. In my short time in this shadow portfolio I have been struck by the number of foster parents who have come to me having had a wonderful relationship with their foster child for eight, 10 or 12 years—they have treated the child like their own, taken the child on overseas trips—and then at adolescence, when those hormones kick in, all those early tapes, distress and trauma to the child re-emerge in quite a different form. Foster parents are often unprepared for this.

The story of Carol is exactly like that. The child she had had for 12 years hit adolescence and ran away from home. Unfortunately, the department did not support Carol. It considered that she had in some way failed the foster child and allowed the child to go to a series of child refuges and live on the streets. That child was never placed again. As I understand from the foster mother, who still keeps track of the child, she is now prostituting herself and using drugs. That would not be an uncommon story for teenage foster children. We must recognise that if this system is to be viable for the entirety of a child's life until they reach 18 years of age, we have to think much more critically about how we support foster carers of teenage children. I believe that is where we are seeing some difficult and emerging problems.

Tonight is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the coming week and the wonderful activities that are being created to celebrate foster carers. We want foster carers to know we care for them, we know what they have done, we know they need a break and we know they need pampering. That is all part of Foster Care Week. I think all members of the New South Wales Parliament would be unanimous in joining together to say thank you to foster carers and kinship carers in New South Wales.

Ms MARIE ANDREWS (Gosford) [6.39 p.m.]: It gives me great pleasure to join my colleagues the member for Wyong and the member for Goulburn in making a contribution to this matter of public importance. There are of course many children in New South Wales who need care. The New South Wales Government is aiming to reduce the number who cannot live at home, but we will always need foster carers. We can only reduce the number; unfortunately, we can never get away from the facts of child abuse and neglect.

The Keneally Government recently launched a successful campaign to recruit new foster carers for both government and non-government agencies. In April this year every member received posters, leaflets and information brochures for the campaign, which was conducted from April to June. In the 12 weeks from the commencement of the campaign to 15 July 2010, New South Wales Community Services received 1,516 calls to the Carelink 1800 number, received 638 applications, trained 55 foster care applicants, assessed 77 applicants, and authorised 66 foster carers. These are outstanding figures, especially considering the very strict process that goes into selecting foster carers.

It is worth mentioning just how stringent the process is when agencies go about selecting foster carers. First, a phone screen is made to make contact with an applicant and to explain the process. Then a probity check is made, for those who wish to proceed, which also involves a check of Community Services' KiDS database, a Working with Children check, and contact with other foster caring agencies to check for concerns. Once the probity checks are complete, Community Services conducts a home inspection to make sure that the accommodation is safe and secure for children. A foster carer does not have to live in a mansion or in a wealthy suburb but their house or unit has to be safe for children to live and play in. A pool or pond might need fencing or a high staircase might require a childproof gate.

When the checking is nearing completion, prospective carers are trained, in small groups of 10 to 20, with experienced carers and other foster parents. They learn about bonding and attachment, about how children deal with grief and loss, how they cope with trauma and abuse, and about how difficult it can be to maintain their identity when they cannot live with their family. Foster parents have to show that they are able to deal with potentially challenging behaviour, to provide a safe, abuse-free environment, and to work as part of a team with the foster care agency. At any stage a foster carer can withdraw or Community Services may have to determine their training should not proceed. When it comes to foster carers, many are called but few are chosen. Foster carers are not necessarily a special kind of person; foster carers are ordinary people making an extraordinary contribution.

We should take the opportunity during Foster Care Week next week to thank and congratulate all foster carers. We should also recognise that half the children in care are looked after by members of their extended family. This is a special kind of foster care known as kinship care. Many of these carers are grandparents who devote significant time, love and energy in their senior years to caring for their grandchildren. I am very pleased to note that the Government has supported the organisation Grandparents Raising Grandchildren to hold a respite camp for grandparents in the Gosford and Wyong local government areas. The $30,000 funding is very welcome and I am glad that these grandparents will be able to access the opportunity to have some time when their responsibilities are somewhat eased for a while and the grandchildren are given the opportunity to socialise with other children in similar circumstances to their own.

I am also pleased that the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies is having one of the regional events for Foster Care Week in Gosford on Sunday. We all owe a debt of gratitude to those in the community who put themselves forward to care for others and Foster Care Week is a wonderful opportunity to show our thanks. In the years I have been the member for Gosford I have had the opportunity to establish a close association with Grandparents Raising Grandchildren and I want to place on record my appreciation to those wonderful grandparents who are taking on the raising of their grandchildren. I say thank you to all the foster carers in my electorate.

Mr DAVID HARRIS (Wyong—Parliamentary Secretary) [6.44 p.m.], in reply: I thank the member for Goulburn and the member for Gosford for participating in the discussion of this matter of public importance. As both speakers said, everyone in this Parliament would acknowledge the fantastic work that carers do in our community. Like the member for Gosford, I have developed a relationship with grandparent carers on the Central Coast and was very fortunate to speak to grandparents at Ourimbah RSL last month about how they can interact better with the education system. I raised the issue that, being grandparents, they had been away from the school system for quite a number of years after bringing up their own children. It is a particular challenge for them to interact with a school system that has changed considerably. This is particularly so if they were caring for teenage children and investigating what sorts of courses they should do in years 9 and 10, whether they should be involved in vocational education and training, and how to have better relationships with the school to help stop things such as suspension.

One of the key parts of that meeting that I found very enjoyable and moving was the welcome to country by indigenous grandparents, followed by a Maori welcome. It showed that those two communities, which have a long tradition of grandparents looking after children in their community, can in many ways be of great value to the rest of the community in understanding that very important role.

I also acknowledge the member for Goulburn's comment that there is no greater gift that someone can give than looking after someone else's child in difficult circumstances. In my life as a teacher and in working in the community I have come across a number of really devastating situations where parents were either unable to continue to look after children or had significant problems that prevented them from caring properly for children. The fact that we have people in the community who are ready to step in and look after these children to make sure they have a loving family situation, are properly clothed and fed, and get a decent education is something we cannot put a value on.

As the member for Gosford rightly said, grandparent carers in particular have special needs because of their age. They just do not have the same energy they had when they were younger to run around and look after sometimes quite young children. When children are placed in care with foster carers, they must be properly supported. The member for Gosford referred to the issues surrounding the process by which carers are selected and how they are given information about dealing with potentially difficult situations. As has been mentioned, there is sometimes even greater difficulty in dealing with teenagers, given they are going through a stage when their hormones are having an effect on them. That is difficult in a normal family situation but with the other pressures when they are in care, it can sometimes be very difficult. As the member for Goulburn said, unfortunately it sometimes leads to them running away and getting into dire situations.

As we look towards next week, I hope many members will contact their local carer organisations and join in some of the activities, such as pampering days, barbecues and other activities. We should also not forget that even carers need respite. One of the main issues people in my electorate raise with me is that they take on this role and it is quite demanding, and every now and then they need a rest and some assistance. That is where short-term respite care comes into its own to give them a rest. The issue of looking after children with special needs was raised. It takes a very dedicated person to take on that role, particularly if the child is not their own. I met a parent a few weeks ago who had a child with intellectual difficulties and she just could not cope any more. The fact that people stepped in and took care of her child was a relief for both the child and the family. Once again, we congratulate carers and thank them for the work they do in the community.

Discussion concluded.  (Source : http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/hansart.nsf/V3Key/LA20100908046?open&refNavID=HA8_1)

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