Foster care budget cuts hit hard

Foster carer ‘Alice’ claims changes to funding by the state government will see more kids out on the streets.
Foster carer ‘Alice’ claims changes to funding by the state government will see more kids out on the streets.

Raising foster children has been a lifelong commitment for local foster carer Alice (not her real name).The three foster children she has in care at the moment are just as important to her as the 130 other children she has looked after in long- or short-term care over the past 34 years. For Alice, fostering children has never been about money, it's been about giving them love, care, a warm bed and three meals a day.

"My ideal in fostering children is to see a child stand firm as an adult psychologically, mentally and spiritually. These are things money can't buy. I'll know that when I die I kept them safe," she said.

While it won't change her mind about fostering, Alice is concerned that recent cuts to the NSW Foster Care Allowance will put more teenagers on the streets in the future. Since January 1, 2012, the $622 fortnightly Foster Care Allowance for over-16s has been cut by $212.

"When there's less money, less people will want to do foster caring," Alice said. "If carers don't get enough money to help them look after foster kids, especially high needs kids who have been sexually abused or are psychologically damaged and can be difficult, the children could be forced onto the streets," Alice said.

Community Services Minister Pru Goward announced earlier this month that foster families should not be out of pocket because the state shortfall could be filled by Commonwealth benefits such as the $214 Family Tax Benefit or the $212 Youth Allowance.

But for Alice, who receives a disability pension and raises her foster children on about $600 a fortnight, any reduction in payments would mean doing it even tougher than she is doing it now.

"The payment sounds like a lot but it's not," Alice said. "My 17-year-old son gets Youth Allowance, but he spent it within two days of receiving it and I had to buy his school uniform and pay his school fees and I'm supporting him again. I don't drink or smoke - I can't afford to. There are a lot of people out there doing it tough, trying to pay the rent and meet car payments. When the child turns 16, the expenses are still there and if the kids spend the money from the government, they will become more of a burden to their parents and may get kicked out."

Alice has been working in the area of drug and alcohol rehabilitation for many years, as well as volunteering in the local soup kitchen, and has seen first hand what it's like for kids on the streets.

"Many kids are on the street because of tough conditions at home and alcohol and drug abuse," Alice said. "Sexual abuse is rife. I know that in Lismore kids as young as 10 are turning sexual favours for money. They often turn up at the soup kitchen and get packed lunches so they don't have to give a blow job for a feed.

"I'm sick of society glossing over what it's done to these kids. The DoCS system as it is won't help kids get right. They have structures and policies that aren't designed for the benefit of the kids - not every child in care fits in with the structure and they need to support the carers more. We have all the responsibilities and no rights."

According to Northern Rivers Social Development Council CEO Tony Davies, the reduction in foster care payments is an attempt by the NSW Government to reduce costs in the out-of-home care system.

"The costs have ballooned over the last decade as the number of kids in foster care has doubled," Mr Davies said. "There are as many children in NSW in foster care now as there were in the whole of Australia 10 years ago. The government has traditionally been more concerned with ambulances at the bottom of the cliff rather than building a proper fence at the top. Over the last decade, it has failed to invest adequately in a proper system of support and prevention in community services.

"The opportunity for the new government is to invest at the right end of thespectrum rather than look at cost cutting in areas where we know people definitely need support, such as family support, quality early childhood care, and home visiting programs. If they do, they won't have this sort of fight over foster care payments and will get better value for money as well as a reduction in childhood abuse and neglect. These are far better outcomes for children and families across all aspects of their lives."

Liina Flynn also works part-time for the Northern Rivers Social Development Council.

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