In late 2004 there was a handful of children under guardianship of the Minister staying temporarily in motel rooms with 24 hour care provided by agency staff. This was a desperate measure because there was no other option and the children had to have somewhere to stay. The pressing issue at the time was to ensure that contracts with the agencies were clear about their significant responsibilities towards the children while the other care options were developed. By 2005-06 the number had grown to three handfuls at any one time. By 1 May 2007 there were 86 children in motels, cabins and rented apartments. This number fluctuated on a nightly basis but averaged 54 children on any one night over that year.
The department responded with an emergency care strategy of funding another 108 placements in a range of models of care by non-government organisations. However, from 2005 to mid-2008 the proportion of children and young people in all forms of emergency and short term care rose from 1.5 per cent of all alternative care to 7.7 per cent. The numbers in motel-type accommodation stayed persistently high, but did not rise further. The growth had been stemmed and steadied at averages of around 60 children on any one night (56 in 2012-13).
Arguably of greater concern was the length of stay. Instead of one or two nights in a rented room or apartment, children and young people were staying months. Some children were becoming accustomed to this way of life. The quality of day-to-day care varied hugely but the instability and uncertainty for children was universal. The Office of the Guardian received reports of, or witnessed problems such as frequent absconding, inconsistency in boundaries and approaches to behaviour, missed schooling, lack of personal belongings, and isolation.
Children whose needs were not particularly high when they were first placed in this type of care became ‘high-need’ children over time, reducing the likelihood still further of being placed with a foster family.
The average age of children in this type of care is 11 and it is not uncommon to have infants in temporary rented rooms with rotating carers.
The circumstances which led to children being in this type of care for long periods of time stem from a congested out-of-home care system. Nobody wanted to place children in rented rooms. There were no suitable alternatives to be found. The family placements were not there for young children or groups of siblings. Nor was the specialist care available for children with disabilities or challenging behaviour. The cost was escalating to the point where South Australia was spending proportionately more on out-of-home care than most other states and the ‘per child’ rate had increased by 357 per cent over ten years. (See how SA expenditure compares with the rest of Australia here) We were spending more on the wrong type of care.
While the problem is not unique to South Australia, it is a relatively minor problem in other states and territories, and has been addressed by expanding the range and volume of alternative placements.
On 10 June 2013 the Minister for Education and Child Development announced that an additional 360 staff would be engaged on contracts over the next three years to replace carers engaged through commercial agencies and to move children from motel rooms and cabins to residences. The Department for Education and Child Development anticipates that by mid-2014 there will be no children in motel-type accommodation for long periods, and only a few for short term stays.
The decision to employ and train more highly skilled residential care workers is good. However it is not the complete solution just to expand residential care. It is also not appropriate to accommodate young children in residential care on an ongoing basis. Instead this decision should be the first among many in a determined and inclusive strategy for a robust out-of-home care system that anticipates the demand and plans ahead for capacity increases.
That will be a development well worth celebrating.