Australian and International data indicate that Indigenous children and young people are over-represented at all stages of child protection systems. Many factors contributing to this ongoing outcome are identifiable, including consequences of past policies of forced removal of Indigenous children from culture and community, intergenerational trauma arising from these policies and resulting socio-economic disadvantage. In spite of this longstanding concern there has been limited research concerning the needs of, and outcomes for, Indigenous care leavers in Australia. In the Victorian context, policy initiatives including the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, Cultural Support Planning and the Aboriginal Leaving Care Support Initiative each aim to ensure culturally appropriate supports and connections are provided to young people. Yet there has been little reflection on the impact of these policies for Indigenous young people transitioning from state care.

This report presents the findings of a 14 month exploratory study of Indigenous care leavers in Victoria. The study aimed to examine current leaving care and post-care systems available to Indigenous care leavers, paying particular attention to relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous agencies, and differences in their approach to service delivery. Additionally, the project investigated the backgrounds and experiences of Indigenous care leavers, including their access to leaving care and post-care services. Finally, the study sought to identify programs or strategies that would assist Indigenous care leavers, in order to inform future policy and practice responses. The project was overseen by an Advisory Committee comprised of representatives from partner agencies as well as the Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare.

Data collection occurred in two phases. Eight focus groups and one individual interview were initially undertaken with a total of 36 staff of partner agencies and other child and family organisations (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) delivering Victorian out-of-home care, leaving care or post-care services. These were followed by individual interviews with two Indigenous care leavers who each provided in-depth accounts of their journeys during and since transitioning from out-of-home care.

The findings identified various systemic matters impacting on Indigenous care leavers, including issues identifying Indigenous status, complex relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous services, concerns around inadequate referral pathways to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs), and limited funding for Indigenous-specific programs and supports. In particular, funding for completion of Cultural Support Planning and, just as importantly for resources to implement plans, was identified as a key barrier for cultural connectedness of Indigenous adolescents in care.

The study found that Indigenous young people face the same complex and compressed transitions as other young people leaving care, with additional attention required to address cultural needs. An unanticipated finding of the study was that many Indigenous care leavers adopt caregiving roles in the leaving care and post-care periods, not only for their own children but in some cases for younger siblings, and extended family. Cultural expectations regarding sharing of finances and other material resources (e.g. housing) may add further stressors during the transition from care. Conversely, cultural connectedness was also seen to support resilience, identity development, social connectedness and material sufficiency among Indigenous care leavers. Negotiating these potential benefits and challenges of cultural connection in the post-care period may be one of the more difficult aspects of leaving care for this group of young people. The potential value of family work for this group of care leavers was thus widely supported by the key stakeholders interviewed.

The study also found that many Indigenous young people were either absent from the placement or were discharged from care prior to being eligible for leaving care services. Anecdotal evidence from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous services suggested that many re-engaged in the post-care period seeking assistance and support. Earlier leaving care planning (e.g. commencing from age 14) and lowering the age-threshold for leaving care eligibility were also identified as useful strategies for supporting Indigenous adolescents in the transition to adulthood. This finding was reinforced by the voices of the young people who were involved in the study. Future research could ascertain whether the data supports the suggestion that Indigenous young people may miss out on leaving care supports for various reasons, but may be accessing (or attempting to access) post-care supports at higher rates.

Respondents from both mainstream services and ACCOs suggested that the main shortcoming of current systems supporting Indigenous care leavers was the under-resourcing of ACCOs, limiting the capacity for direct service delivery and secondary consultation. While participants were unanimous in their declaration of the need for, and value of cultural support and connectedness, a subtle though noteworthy divergence in belief systems emerged. The majority of participants from non-Indigenous organisations appeared to espouse the view that cultural connectedness and support is one of many hierarchical needs of Indigenous care leavers, but not necessarily the primary need. Conversely, the alternative position presented by many ACCO workers and some non-Indigenous staff from mainstream agencies is that cultural connectedness is a primary and fundamental need of Indigenous care leavers, through which their other needs may be fulfilled. Ultimately, the narratives of the young people involved in the study were able to demonstrate that these two approaches are not inherently incompatible. There is a critical need for attention to both mainstream leaving care planning and services as well as meaningful cultural connections for supporting the transition of Indigenous young people from care.

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