The study, being conducted in South Australia and Western Australia, is part of a major research project looking at the history of foster care in Australia since it was formalised in the late 19th century.
“Foster care is the dominant form of out-of-home care for children in Australia, and although it’s been in existence for more than a century we still don’t actually know if it works,” says Dr Dee Michell, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide.
“For kids who’ve been in care generally – including residential and foster care – we know the outcomes are poor. There are some individuals who do very well, but as a group their outcomes are what you’d expect from the most disadvantaged groups in our community. This includes higher representation of people in prison, lack of access to education, homelessness, mental health issues, and so on.
“The experience of foster care has remained relatively hidden in all of this. There’s been a very strong focus on residential care in recent years, but as a society we’re well overdue to better understand what’s going on in foster care, and how that affects children and their foster families,” Dr Michell says.
Dr Michell, herself a former foster child, is hoping to hear from: people who grew up in foster care; current or former foster carers; and the children of foster carers who grew up with foster kids.
“What we’ve found so far is that there’s not one standard experience – the diversity is extraordinary. We’ve spoken with people who describe their foster parents as ‘saints’; others have had terrible experiences and ran away from their foster home at the first possible opportunity.
“When I hear about other people’s experiences of foster care, more often than not I realise I was one of the lucky ones,” Dr Michell says.
She says not only does foster care tend to be hidden in the community, but there is also a stigma attached to being in care that helps to perpetuate this.
“People can feel damaged in terms of public perceptions about them. Foster care isn’t very much talked about, and those who’ve been in care will often hide that knowledge from others,” she says.
To take part in the study, members of the community in South Australia and Western Australia should call Dr Dee Michell on: 08 8313 3675 or email: [email protected]
Dr Michell’s research is being undertaken in collaboration with Dr Nell Musgrove (Australian Catholic University) and is funded with an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant.