The term ‘state care’ can mean a few different things.
Generally speaking, it’s a young person who can’t live at home with their biological family and therefore stays either in a residential care facility, with strangers (foster care) or with family members (kinship care).
But whatever form a young person’s care arrangements take, one sad certainty remains: they’ll be stripped of all support when they turn 18.
For someone in a residential out-of-home care facility, what that means is literally being shown the door on the day of their 18th birthday.
Young people tell of blowing out birthday candles in the morning and being handed a plastic bag with their possessions in the afternoon., expected to go out into the world and fend for themselves.
Similarly, foster carers have no expectation – and are given no funding or support – to continue their care relationship after the young person turns 18.
And while the situation might not be quite so stark for someone in kinship care arrangements – for instance, a young person living with their grandparents might still be able to keep a family roof over their heads – kinship carers lose all financial and practical supports to maintain that care relationship.
And it costs money to look after kids, particularly big ones.
Whatever happens, at age 18 the state washes its hands of these young people, abdicating further responsibility: job done. But as anyone who’s had a kid or been a kid knows, the job is far from done.
At age 18 young people’s brains are still developing, their sense of self still forming. Most don’t have access to employment opportunities or the economic independence a good job provides.
Often they’re still completing their education – and this is a good thing.
Young people tell of blowing out birthday candles in the morning and being handed a plastic bag with their possessions in the afternoon.
Generally, as a society and within families, we recognise that kids don’t have the skills and resources to go it completely alone at age 18; so we wrap our care and support around them for longer, not expecting some arbitrary leap into full independence to occur on that birthday.
If we don’t expect complete independence from 18-year-olds in regular circumstances, why should we expect it of the young people who are most in need of our help and support?
These are kids who may have experienced trauma, violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation. They often haven’t had the same opportunities as other young people to get their physical health looked after, and their mental health can be severely impacted by childhood trauma.
If anything, these are the young people we need to wrap more support around, rather than sending them off on their 18th birthday with a wave.
All young people in state care need the option of extending their care arrangements until they turn 21.
Some 18-year-olds might not want this; they might be ready to move into independence before they turn 21, and we need to respect their right to do that. Good luck to them.
But for those who need it, the extra support should be there.
The Victorian Government has funded a pilot investment into extended care, which reaches about 10 per cent of young people in state care.
VCOSS has praised this initiative, which has already shown positive outcomes in other jurisdictions.
But providing it to only a fraction of young people leaving care just creates a lottery in which most miss out.
And we know that without the benefit of that extended care, the risk to those who miss out is unacceptably high. Rather than going on to pursue exciting education, training and job pathways, they often slip quickly into homelessness or the justice system.
State care should mean just that: care.
By extending its care responsibilities to 21, the Government can give all young people the opportunity they deserve: not just to survive, but to thrive.