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Thesis Statement for Foster Care Policy

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How has Social Policy Shaped Foster Care Practice in the Australian Welfare Context?

Reviewing the history of Foster Care, it must be recognized that Foster Care practice has not been able to make substantial and measured improved outcomes for children. Rather, despite decades of policy change, strategy and foster care change, the system has only been able to improve within the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (safety, physiological) (Hopper, 2020)

Baber (et al, 2003) asserted that Foster Care is in crisis and practitioners, researchers and politicians have to recognise it as such. Why is it in crisis? What's the problem represented by this crisis? Government policy leads practice. The social policies are not adequate, wrongly targeted or poorly effected. According to McClelland & Smith (2014), social policy involves the wellbeing of people and the influence on the individual at different levels, for instance, health and education. Social policy influences these different levels which in turn shape Foster care practice.

To understand the impact of policy on practice, we can review foster care history and the social policy in effect at that time. It will be seen that the consequences of child protection polices throughout time 'robbed children of their most basic comforts and welfare, their civil and human rights, and in many cases their mental and physical health' (Wilson, 2019, p. 135). By reviewing the policy and resulting practice, it is hoped that the cause-effect relationship can be identified that may lead to improvements in future social policy and better results for foster children.

In the late 19th century, governments were managing the industrial revolution as well as the Gold rush with accompanied migration of people. This had many urban and social challenges, amongst them the development of systems of care for children left behind by errant parents (Musgrove, 2008). Institutions were the initial solution however this changed when it was noted that Foster care was cheaper than institutional care (e.g. Adelaide in 1872). ‘Boarding out’ was the expression utilized to define the children’s placement with foster families. (Evan, 2013). Placing children with “good” families, who had the opportunity of schooling was the preferred solution. At least, this was the thought of the social reformers. (Musgrove, 2008). The retribution to these families was in part calculated through the amount of labour the children could supply. In Melbourne the police were entrusted with the distribution of foster care licenses with a resulting militant tone and strict care, this was clearly noted when a Melbourne journalist compare the two states systems (Briggs & Hunt, 2015). Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families under the Aborigines Protection Act (in Victoria) and other states soon followed suit in the following years (Bringing Them Home Report 1997).

The social policy was designed to maintain social order and provide for a “respectable” society. Working class (respectable) families were assisted with the children (Musgrove, 2008) whilst the “undeserving poor” and Aboriginal were separated from their children. This stigma of social class also assigned a role for the (undesirable) single mother and gave them some relevance in society.

The negative results of social policy, the Great War and subsequent global depression led the Australian government towards a stronger welfare state and inclusive interventions. This nascent welfare state aimed at providing social policy, health services and thus meeting social needs. Whilst emergent in the 1930s, the welfare state did not come of age until after the Second World War. Indeed the term “Child welfare” was adopted by various states in lieu of the term “neglected children” (Musgrove, 2008).

In 1929, more children appeared in institutions due to the Great Depression. The government didn’t have any other option than to assign money to the institutions (Musgrove, 2008). This was costly and many children were “boarding out” to their own mothers. Remuneration to these foster careers was low however due the social norms of the times (depression) they could not expect any more. There was however the change in expectation that the benefit derived from fostering a child should not be financial (or derived through child labour) but in emotional terms. This was a time of change and by 1937 the Victorian government introduced non-contributory pensions for widows. (Lawrence, 2016) Social services became better coordinated with development of a central service in Melbourne (1929), Adelaide (1936) and Sydney (1936). The central service however was not mature and was able only, to form as a register for foster cases. Missing services, were still relegated to a women’s role, women being largely still seen of as supported by their husbands and ideal for charitable use of their talents.

The social policy aimed to provide a minimum wage and working conditions which included protection from (or exclusion of) non-European or coloured people. This policy supported the Australian standard of living, but strengthened the moral support for segregation. This in turn extended the practice of removal of Aboriginal children from their families, one based on pre 1900’s social policies.

In 1954, the Children’s Welfare Act broadened the scope by which children could be committed to institutional care. Previously these were mostly run by religious or charities with state run reformatories for young offenders and disabled youth. Private institutions were required to register and state governments started their own approved homes/ schools/ hostels. (Evans, 2013)

In 1969 the Aborigine Protection Act was repealed in all states and marked a change in the moral and social policy understanding. Social policy change in the 1970s furthered decentralization which allowed closer integration into the local community. Local led initiatives (particularly in Victoria), allowed a return to smaller institutions and home based care. Foster care parents were not well catered for and foster care parents complained to have to cope with little financial compensation, children with disabilities, among other things. (Musgrove, 2008). The Federal government destined more money for creatives’ social initiatives, (Briggs & Hunt, 2015). However, Dickey et al. 1986, revealed that large part of the money was neglected and spent in expanding the administration during the 1970s.

This period from 1930s through the 1970s was perhaps driven by the economic possibilities of the times. From the depression era protectionism (of wage and living standard) to the decentralization of the sixties and seventies (multiculturalism) and start of labour government dominance (Deeming, 2013). Foster care practice changed from institutional to a decentralized model with increased emphasis on “human” goals.

In Victoria, 'Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005' as well as 'Children, Youth and Families Act, 2005' are the foundation legislations.

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These came into practice in 2007 with community service organizations providing care, the Department of Human Services providing child protection and the Children's Court making decisions. (AIHW, 2012).

In the last ten years, the reports of abuse or neglect to child protection department has doubled in number. This escalation is due, among other things, to changes in social values in society and better knowledge of safety and wellbeing. Child protection was born as an answer to serious physical abuse cases, however it has now changed to give solutions to general abuse (sexual, physic, emotional), neglect and domestic violence. This has increased the demand for social services. (Bromfield & Holzer 2008).

In the same manner, the number of children removed from their parents have doubled in the last decade. Children have worse outcomes when they are removed from their home,

Taking a child out of their families should be the last resort, with a receiving foster family previously prepared. If the case requires removal of a child, it needs to be with the support of the family and supervisors to overcome the issues and cement positive change.

Foster families perform crucial work in keeping children healthy, secure, comfortable and with resources. Bonfield (et al. 2010). Nevertheless, looking after abused children with traumas is a complex challenge for foster parents. (Harkin & Houston, 2016).

In today’s welfare system, foster carers don’t feel supported by the social practioners and the policies in place. A recent study disclosed that foster carers felt pressure, angst and frustration, in the interaction with the foster care system (Blythe, et al. 2013). There are many factors stacked against foster parenting (such as not enough money, no support from the system, children with many problems, etc.), therefore there are few families who are motivated to do it.

It is curious that these factors are consistent throughout the time. Currently the amount of compensation a family foster care is low. It is understandable the families should move for altruism, with generosity to give a child an opportunity of a “normal” life. However, at least, the expenses of care must be covered but in many cases, these are not met. It would be good to increase the amount and ensure foster families have the qualities to enable successful foster care. Fostering is challenging and families need motivators to take the risk. The responsibility that they assume should come with reasonable economical compensation as motivation.

For this reason, it is necessary to reform the system so that children become a priority with solving their needs in the primary goal. Not to do so only creates future issues due the negligence of the system, poor response by the children, frustration of the workers and deterioration of foster parent quality.

The change in structure and type of cases supported has led to a strategic concentration on 'early intervention', to support families to avoid the child entering the protection system, to help reduce their issues through factual and realistic intervention (Bromfield & Holzer, 2008). The system must avoid removing a child from their environment, and provide an early intervention backed up with adequate resources and professionals.

The early intervention necessitates close monitoring of children at risk which in turn suggests the involvement of the immediate community surrounding the child. Neighbors, extended family, friends as well as professionals such as social workers, teachers, doctors, nurses, etc.

It is clear that the system fails. Even with the positive evolution over the last 150 years it has poor and obsolete practices. In a report statics of Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW, 2012 ) specified that in 2010/11, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children still have a higher statistical number of children out of home than non-Indigenous children. Is it a coincidence that this statistic has not changed over the last 150 years? The systemic (generational) consequences of long term, poor quality foster care can cause social and emotional issues, as well as problematic behaviors and educative abilities. (Harkin & Houston, 2016).

The system has to change the policies to improve the practice. Social workers decision are led by legal statutes and policy. Social workers feel that they are not responding adequately to the children and their foster care families. (Harkin & Houston, 2016).

For better foster care practice, the system needs to be capable of listening to the children and allow them to take part in the decisions for their outcomes. Some factors such as permanency, responsiveness, confidence, safety, affection and resilience are some of the aspects that children benefit from, when being involved in decisions with their foster families (Randle, 2013).


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  3. Blythe, S., Halcomb, E., Wilkes, L. & Jackson, D. (2013) Caring for vulnerable children: Challenges of mothering in the Australian foster care system. Contemporary Nurse, 44(1), 87-98,
  4. Bonfield, S., Collins, S., Guishard-Pine, J., & Langdon, P. E. (2010). Help-seeking by foster-carers for their ‘looked after’ children: The role of mental health literacy and treatment attitudes. The British Journal of Social Work, 40(5), 1335–1352.
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  6. Bringing Them Home Report (1997) Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families
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  16. McClelland, A. (2014). “What Is Social Policy?” in A. McClelland Alison and P. Smyth (eds), Social Policy in Australia: Understanding for Action.
  17. Musgrove, N., Michell, D. (2018). The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia Just Like a Family?
  18. Randle, M. (2013) Through the Eyes of Ex-Foster Children: Placement Success and the Characteristics of Good Foster Carers. Practice, 25(1), 3-19
  19. Wilson, J. (2019) The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia: Just Like a Family? Australian Historical Studies, 50:1, 135-136
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Thesis Statement for Foster Care Policy. (2023, October 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from
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