Giving kids a voice about the care they receive

A study by Federation University PhD candidate Lynda McRae is looking to give young people in out-of-home care more of a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

Out-of-home care encompasses traditional foster care, but also other forms of care for young people who are unable, for one reason or another, to live at home with their parents.

These forms include kinship care, where a young person may stay with family or friends, and residential care.

"Residential care programs are usually operated by community service organisations, such as Berry Street, with young people who are referred from the Department of Health and Human Services. Groups of young people live together in this accommodation and are cared for by rostered staff," said Lynda McRae.

"It used to be that young people in residential care were often kids with particularly complex behaviours, over the age of 12 and with a history of placement instability. But these days the chronic shortage of carers in the system means sometimes much younger kids are in residential care."

Young people who find themselves living in out-of-home care are not often given a say in the decision-making processes that impact their lives.

Lynda McRae’s PhD research project entitled ‘You can’t hear a child you don’t see’ seeks to address this marginalisation of young people in out-of-home care and to bridge the gap between what is considered best practice and what actually happens in the sector.

"A large part of the argument in my thesis is actually focused on exploring that gap, first of all, from a worker perspective," said Lynda.

"There is an inherent widespread understanding of the expectations on [workers] to engage kids in decision-making…. So then it’s looking at why and what are the factors that are responsible for creating that gap between ideals and practice possibilities."

Lynda’s research has seen her immerse herself in the field, consulting widely with the child welfare sector and conducting interviews and focus groups with workers to find out what works and what could use improvement.

"Everything links back, in one way or another, to the excessive demand on service providers," Lynda said.

"We’ve had this incredibly rapid rise in the number of kids that are now in out-of-home care, over a really limited span of time, I think that’s really the key reason for why there are so many challenges for workers in being able to engage young people in the decision-making processes."

This situation makes it difficult for workers to establish trust with young people in care to ensure that they are willing and able to have their voices heard.

"The common consensus amongst all of my participants is that there’s never been a point in time in their working lives where they’ve had less opportunity to do that," said Lynda.

Lynda hopes that her research will help to inform policy development and practice interventions in the future, providing an evidence base for locally-driven action in the sector.

"A key part of my project has been about exploring, collaboratively, the  kinds of solutions that need to be resourced and implemented in order to realistically start to bridge that gap," Lynda said.

The research sits under the umbrella of the Inner Gippsland Children and Youth Area Partnership (IGCYAP), which is dedicated to developing new approaches to improving the lives of children, young people and their families in Victoria.

Members of the IGCYAP include state government departments such as DHSS and community service organisations including Berry Street, Anglicare and Quantum who have provided supervisory guidance and support for the various research projects.

Lynda said the sector has been open to the findings of the research.

"The premise of my research is not at all about finger pointing or blame; it’s about an acknowledgement that every layer of the sector is experiencing their own immense challenges in this environment," Lynda said.

Lynda has prepared a series of provisional findings reports for senior DHHS leaders, Berry Street and other IGCYAP leaders, and the sector is in the process of considering the most appropriate responses to these findings.

"I believe there is work underway at that higher level to further workshop and look at the range of recommendations that frontline workers feel would be the kind of change required to help them do this work better," Lynda said.

"I’ve presented to the Inner Gippsland Children and Youth Area Partnership leadership group and part of their commitment was looking at the best structure for them to move forward with these recommendations. So I understand that that work is underway."