National Families Week 2022 – Opinion Piece by Barnardos Australia CEO Deirdre Cheers

Today marks the start of National Families Week (15-21 May) and the final week of the Federal Election campaign. It’s a time when politicians appeal to ‘working families’ about their vision for the future. Families are vital for children to be able to grow up safely and thrive. No doubt many families will welcome some short-term financial relief on offer as cost of living pressures rise. What we need even more than that is a long-term plan to ensure success of the next generation.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of National Families Week’s, which is a good time to reflect on the great work that has been done over those years by both government, community and non-government organisations to keep children safe. However, we also need to recognise how much more work there is still to do to reduce child abuse and neglect and its intergenerational impacts.

All children and young people in Australia have the right to grow up safe, connected and supported in their family, community and culture. They have the right to grow up in an environment that enables them to reach their full potential. It’s our responsibility to ensure this is front and centre in social policy.

When families in our communities experience domestic and family violence, poverty, alcohol and other drug use, mental health issues or homelessness, it is too often the children who suffer most. And they suffer silently. In these circumstances, early support is critical to strengthen families and help children to thrive. This includes helping children, young people and families to access material basics, health services and education, which is their fundamental right.

The Australian Government is currently developing the next stages of both the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. Within these frameworks, the focus must always be on the best interests of the child which is only achieved by really listening to the voices of children and young people. While this important policy work takes place, we need leaders to who will take these frameworks seriously. This is more than just a policy wish list. It’s an investment in our collective future.

Support services for vulnerable children and their families need to be developed at a local level, with programs that are evidence-based, trauma-informed, culturally safe and inclusive. Children, young people, families and communities having a direct role in policy making and implementation is essential.

And in order to address the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care, it is vital that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations have increased say in decision-making, combined with priority allocation of resources to keep children on land, in culture, and within community. Building capacity in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce in the child and family sector is also vital to support increased focus on cultural safety and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led services.

In order to overcome service gaps in our community, a collective and coordinated approach between services involving information sharing, monitoring and evaluation to achieve improved outcomes for children, young people and families is essential. As the cost of living rises, the domestic violence crisis continues and services are stretched, and children and young people are falling through the cracks. Closing these gaps and providing a greater investment in services will mean more children can safely remain at home with their families and local communities. It will mean they can do more than just survive, they will thrive.

On the eve of this election, Barnardos call for political parties and candidates to make the commitment to enact these plans and frameworks in real partnership with state and territory jurisdictions. Without strong families and strong communities, our children and young people cannot thrive.

Celebrating Youth Week – Spotlight on Barnardos Youth Worker Taylor Gleeson

Barnardos youth worker Taylor Gleeson shares insights about the challenges and issues facing the young people in our community.

I joined Barnardos in April 2021 and currently I am working in the Targeted Early Intervention and Streetwork Programs in the Sydney Youth Services (SYS) team. I grew up in the St George area, coming from a single parent family. Growing up, I struggled with mental health for a long time as well as having other life experiences that shaped who I am today.

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do as a child. When I was 13-15 years old, I spent a lot of time at Belmore Youth Resource Centre for school holiday programs. I met a great youth worker named Jo. I ended up in youth work because I saw the impact she had on young people and that’s what I wanted to do for others who were like me.

When I returned to the Belmore Youth Resource Centre to do a work placement, the team were so supportive. A year later an opportunity was flagged at Barnardos so I applied and here I am!

The most rewarding part of my work is seeing young people overcome challenges and being on that journey with them, and having them trust you enough to come to you for anything.

One of the hardest aspects of my work is seeing young people go through tough times or trauma and the emotional toll it takes on them. The stereotype young people have in society is quite negative so it’s about advocating for them and explaining why young people act the way they do instead of making assumptions.

I think that the main issues facing young people today are mental health, unemployment rates, alcohol and other drugs and discrimination. One thing I wish adults better understood about young people is how important it is to listen and communicate with young people, not just talk at them. Just acknowledging their experiences/emotions and coming from a place of empathy will really help break down barriers.

I feel pretty lucky to work at Barnardos. We put the young person at the very centre of what we do and this connects with my core beliefs. We advocate for our young people and give them the opportunity to use their voice. By listening to young people, we can then address their needs and concerns. It’s very empowering to be able to help younger people go through hard times knowing that I was their age not too long ago. I get to reflect on where I was at their age, and it can be very grounding.

Young people are resilient and our future, so let’s look out for them, they’re going through a lot too so let’s not judge. 😊

‘Through thick and thin’: Landmark study backs open adoption

Damien Fitzpatrick says adoption changed his life. IMAGE CREDIT:NICK MOIR

Damian Fitzpatrick bounced between foster families between the ages of three and six after he was badly injured by his mother’s boyfriend. He was told the families would be permanent – but they weren’t. “You start not to believe the things the adults in your life tell you,” he said.

Then one couple finally adopted him, making Mr Fitzpatrick (his biological father’s name) their legal son while agreeing to facilitate contact with his biological mother. “It changes your life,” said the 35-year-old. “It takes a while to sink in [that] they can’t give you back.”

Oxford and Loughborough universities on Wednesday published a study of 210 children, including Mr Fitzpatrick, who were involved in a NSW program that allowed the adoption of abused, neglected, non-Aboriginal children between 1987 and 2013, but mandated contact with their birth family.

The study was done in partnership with Barnardos Australia, which ran the program, and found that educational and employment outcomes for the children were significantly better than for those who remained in foster care, and almost as good as the general population.

While the adopted children were more likely to have estranged or minimal relationships with their adoptive parents than the general population, those relationships were twice as likely to persist into adulthood as those between care leavers and foster parents.

“One of the most significant findings was the extent to which the adoptive parents acted as a protective factor for the children. They stood by them through thick and thin,” said Harriet Ward, Emeritus Professor of Child and Family Research at Loughborough University.

A key focus for researchers was the contact between children and their birth parents, as in other jurisdictions that contact is rare and often takes the form of letters.

Almost all birth parents of children in the study were struggling with issues such as mental illness and drugs and alcohol, and serious maltreatment was the main reason for removing more than 90 per cent of children from home. Like Mr Fitzpatrick, many had multiple foster placements before they were adopted.

More than 85 per cent of adoptees had continuing contact with at least one birth parent, and 87 per cent continued to see a grandparent or other relatives. In 40 per cent of cases, contact visits went smoothly, but more than half of the adoptees and their parents found them problematic. Nonetheless, two thirds found them beneficial.

Issues included birth parents’ behaviour during contact – some arrived affected by drugs or alcohol, and some brought the person who abused the child. Two thirds of decisions to cease contact were made by the child themselves.

“It’s not about creating happy families,” said Professor Ward. “Everyone had to confront the issues they had. Adoptees had to learn why they had been placed for adoption. Birth parents had to confront their views of adoptive parents.

“The myths dissolved. They came to see that their birth parents were people who had many difficulties in their lives. The birth parents came to see the adoptive parents as people who loved their children.

“The adoptees could see that the grass was not greener on the other side. A lot of them had good relationships with grandparents, and because of mandatory contact.”

Professor Ward said the study demonstrated that when the choice was between adoption and foster care, an adoptive placement “is more beneficial for the child. It’s more likely to last, and the outcomes are better.” However, she said permanent fostering could give children security if it was well-supported, and cited Scandinavia as a region in which this was done well.

Adoption remains a highly sensitive and contentious issue in Australia, due to the trauma faced by stolen generations of Indigenous children and decades of forced adoption last century. Barnardos refers all Aboriginal children to Aboriginal foster agencies.

In 2014, NSW introduced reforms to make adoption the preferred option for children who are removed by courts from their families, and where no other relative can care for them. Only the ACT has similar laws.

Barnardos chief executive Deirdre Cheers hoped the study would prompt other states to consider NSW’s model, and prompt NSW to make the adoption process smoother.

“Foster care is not permanent,” she said. “Some states have permanent care orders, but the reality is they can be challenged over and over again in the court, and that is very destabilising for children and foster carers.

“We are seeing very few open adoption care plans going to the children’s court, we’re seeing lawyers who are advocating strongly on the basis of adult rights, and not considering the children’s rights issues.”

Professor Amy Conley Wright from Sydney University said adoption – which permanently severs the legal relationship with the birth family – worked for some children, but not all.

“It is particular for the individual, that’s why you always have to be cautious in saying there’s a simple solution,” she said. “That’s why it’s good to have different types of arrangements for different circumstances.”

This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald here.

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Our new Barnardos Foster Care Recruitment ad

We are proud to present our brand new foster care ad premiering this week across Youtube, radio and online.

Thanks to the video creation experts at P2. Content Creators. for designing this beautiful and powerful animated video to help us find more foster carers for children in need.