8 Apr 2016

Keep children at heart of care, says former state ward

1:09 pm on 8 April 2016

The voices of children must be at the heart of changes to Child Youth and Family (CYF) if they are to be successful, a former child state ward says.

The government announced sweeping changes to CYF this week that will include the creation of a new entity to take responsilibity for children in care. It will also increase the age limit for children in care and contract out of some services.

Youth advocate Tupua Urlich spent years in and out of foster care and said he was scarred by the experiences.

Tupua Urlich

Tupua Urlich Photo: supplied

He was an advisor to the CYF review and told Nine to Noon he was heartened that young people had a say in the changes.

But he said but that must carry through as the new policies are put in place.

"You can not shut out the voice of young people because now that you've got it it's so powerful. It is more powerful than any university degree in terms of knowing that they are doing things right."

He said children often feel judged or blamed for circumstance beyond their control.

"You go into the system, you're taken away from everything that you know. That's horrible, that's traumatic for a young person.

"It's not helped when you don't have people skilled enough to get an understanding of where you should be going and where you best fit in."

Mr Urlich said the plan to cut down on the number of different homes children were placed in is one of the best policies for helping them have a more stable, supportive experience when they are in care.

And he said it was vital that carers had faster access to specialist support such as psychologists and social workers.

Some foster parents have also cautiously welcomed the government's new plan, but said there was detail lacking.

Alistair Wilkinson is a Home for Life carer. He said the foster system was not always good for the children, their parents or their carers.

"The problem that we have at the moment is that care givers are spending too much time battling the system and not enough time caring for the children," he said.

There were fights to get funding for the support services the child needed, and most children would move through eight different homes before being settled.

Mr Wilkinson said that often exacerbated the damage.

"I always knew instinctively kids in care were hurting but not broken. I knew that they were frightened. I thought that they were capable of change and I thought they'd be able to heal. But what you need are some ingredients. You need people who will step up and commit to those children and claim those children and be there for those children."

Mr Wilkinson said what that meant was someone who would go through thick and thin for the child in their care.

Linda Surtees heads the charity Fostering Kids, which helps a third of the country's 10,000 foster families.

The review wants national standards for foster parents and Ms Surtees said that would make it easier to ensure children went to good homes.

"The basic things like keeping children in care safe, healthy, achieving, making sure that they feel that they belong, and making sure they are able to participate in their care experience," Ms Surtees said.

But Ms Surtees wanted to see more detail about how much ongoing help foster families would get.

"Once a child's placed in care, sometimes it can be considered 'oh, they're safe now'. But what happens is those children are not necessarily safe. They've been through a lot, they've been through trauma, and they need some therapeutic healing while they're in care."

Ms Surtees said she would closely follow Minister Anne Tolley's announcements over children in care over the next year.

Ms Tolley has already announced that, by next April, children in care must be able to get state help until they turn 18 and, the report suggests, that in some cases this should be 25.

Lucy Sandford-Reed from the Association of Social Workers said that was still not good enough.

"It's good that it's lifted to 18 with some capacity to take support through to 21 and 25. But let's actually make it 21 automatically, not on a case by case basis. I think the devil's going to be in the detail."

Ms Sandford-Reed said she had lived through 14 reviews already, and she was not confident this was as groundbreaking as it seemed.

But Mr Wilkinson said it seemed the minister had listened to the people most affected by a broken system, and now it was up to the community to listen.

'We need to change our attitudes to children because these children get neglected and abused and then they get re-victimised through the stigma of being kids in care."

The first tranche of changes are due to be in place by next April.