The Minister for Child Protection and Family Services, Lizzie Blandthorn, has agreed to meet with A Better Life for Foster Kids, founder Heather Baird after a request made by The Nationals Member for Eastern Victoria Region, Melina Bath, in state parliament.

In addressing the parliament on children living in out-of-home care, Ms Bath highlighted identified gaps in mental health services as outlined by Ms Baird.

“Ms Baird has been lobbying for the implementation of comprehensive treatment plans to cover a child’s mental wellbeing when they enter out-of-home care for some time,” Ms Bath said.

“With a revolving door of five Andrews Government Child Protection and Family Services Ministers over the past 18 months, being heard and getting action has been a battle.

“When experienced advocates like Heather Baird are saying Victoria’s out-of-home care system is inadequate and it’s failing to support the children, the Andrews Government has a responsibility to listen.”

In a recent survey of 44 carers by A Better Life For Foster Kids, more than half had experienced difficulties in obtaining permission from the department or their foster agency to access mental health supports.

“When most kids are placed into care, they have access to assessments such as optical and general medical, but a mental health plan is not a standard part of the assessment procedure for all children,” Ms Baird said.

“On a daily basis, we hear from carers that they are fighting to get their child the mental health care they need, and are getting little support from the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing with funding or even permission to access treatment.

“On a daily basis, I hear about the worst cases of children – even children under five years old – having severe reactions to their traumatic experiences – and the carer can’t get permission or funding from the department, or they can’t get in to see a psychologist because they are booked up – and that was before COVID.

“That’s just the severe cases.”

Ms Baird said every child who entered out-of-home care had had some terrible experiences.

“They’re going to need help dealing with over their lifetime,” she said.

“One of the carers who responded to our survey said they’d had over 70 children placed with them in more than 10 years, but that only five had received professional mental health care support.”

Ms Baird said our society was failing children in out-of-home care, who were among the most mentally and emotionally vulnerable.

“Children’s lives are being lost to suicide, kids are running from home, going missing, living on the streets and becoming statistics because there is no standard mental health assessment or early intervention when they enter out-of-home care,” Ms Baird said.

“Our society is utterly failing them. Their carers do everything they can, but this isn’t something a carer can fix – we need government departments and agencies to work with carers and kids.

“The mental health care system and foster care organisations need to find a solution.”

The Nationals Member for Eastern Victoria Region, Melina Bath and A Better Life For Foster Kids founder Heather Baird talk meet to discuss children in out-of-home care.
The Nationals Member for Eastern Victoria Region, Melina Bath and A Better Life For Foster Kids founder Heather Baird. Photo: Contributed

Since 2017, the number of children in out-of-home care has increased to more than 46,200, a rise of more than 7 per cent, while the number of active foster care households in Australia is simultaneously declining, with just 9022 active homes in the latest reporting period, according to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures.

There were 9433 children in Victoria in out-of-home care on June 30 2021.

According to the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, kinship care – placing a child with a suitable family member – is the fastest growing placement option in Victoria, accounting for 75 per cent of Victoria’s placements with the number of children in foster care in Victoria now at a five-year low.

DFFH maintains that Victoria’s child protection practitioners and service providers deliver high-quality, individualised care to vulnerable children, including extensive wrap-around case management support and referrals to health, mental health, education, and disability support over a period spanning many years.

However, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute research shows only one in every 130 children received all recommended health services within 12 months of entering out-of-home care.

“These children have more physical, developmental and mental health needs given their experiences of abuse, neglect and/or trauma and increased likelihood of living in adverse socio-economic circumstances,” said Murdoch Children’s Professor Sharon Goldfeld.

Findings from the ‘Strong Carers, Stronger Children – Victorian Carers Strategy’s Findings of the Home-based carer census – Final Report’ to the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing have confirmed the high need for mental health supports.

Of the foster and kinship carers surveyed, 10 per cent were from Gippsland; the report showing 69 per cent of children in out-of-home care in Victoria had a history of trauma, 56 per cent had behavioural issues, 44 per cent had attachment issues, and 40 per cent had identified mental health difficulties.

The report also found that close to a third of carers had ended a placement because of behavioural and mental health issues or for anger and violent behaviours of the child.

Ms Bath said it was shocking that these children were not getting the services they need – when they need them.

“The glaring gaps in the provision of mental health support at the entry point of in Victoria must be addressed,” she said.

“Heather Baird has sensibly been calling for the introduction of a youth-specific mental health triage within the first six weeks of a care arrangement.”

Ms Bath said given the criticality of supporting our most vulnerable citizens, she expects Minister Blandthorn would make this meeting a priority.

“Children entering out-of-home care do so in a highly traumatised state – their emotional and psychological wellbeing must be supported,” she said.

“I’ve been working with Heather Baird for many years, and I’ll continue to advocate for Victoria’s most vulnerable children and the dedicated people who nurture and care for them.”

In her response to Ms Bath, Minister Blandthorn wrote, “I would be pleased to meet with Ms Baird when my schedule permits.”

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Families, Fairness, and Housing, the state government is significantly reforming the child protection system.

“The state government is undertaking significant reform of our child protection system – delivering new services, programs and support for children and families at risk, backed by a massive $2.8 billion investment over the last three budgets,” a Department of Families, Fairness, and Housing spokesperson said.

“Foster and kinship carers do an outstanding job, and we need more Victorians to support children who cannot live at home, which is why we have invested $5.8 million in the last budget to support carers in Victoria.”