kids

"I spent my teens in foster care. At 18, my 'case was closed'."

Most people don’t know how foster kids in Australia live. They think it’s like Sally on Home and Away. That you find somewhere safe and life settles into a version of home.

But substance abuse, unemployment, homelessness, and mental health issues did not dominate Sally Fletcher’s storyline the way it does real life.

A staggering 40 to 60 per cent of foster kids will experience chronic lifelong health issues and struggle financially and emotionally. This issue crosses all race, gender and ethnicity lines.

This is the reality for Aussie kids living in foster care, and why we need to do better. Post continues below.

Video by Home Stretch

Even more disturbing is that children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds are 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children.

I spent my teens in foster care and moved over a dozen times during those four tumultuous years. The only constant was change; new homes every other month, new housemates and new rules to follow. There was no stability or structure. From the age of 15 I was warned that at 18 I would be cut off with no further support or contact. I was told to be ready.

However, I had other things to worry about. Like not being allocated the bed next to the girl with the knife under her pillow and avoiding the adult predators who flock to target foster kids. Planning for life beyond the age of 18 was not a priority. I lived in the moment, hyper-vigilant about my safety and aware I was the only one who could protect me.

Like 3000 other foster kids every year, my “case was closed” at the age of 18 and I was instructed to fend for myself. I am one of the lucky ones. I had support that many other kids did not. Importantly, when I decided education was my way out, I had a secret weapon.

Throughout my teens I wrote constantly. That was how I processed my feelings. So when I enrolled into adult education at 19 I wasn’t completely out of my depth. I worked full-time to pay for school books and rent and food and I remained living with an abusive boyfriend, but my love of writing served me well. I went on to achieve a Bachelor degree. Fun fact, only one per cent of kids who live in group home care will make it to university.

I often wonder how much easier it could have been had I received some support during this time. Would I have stayed so long in that violent relationship? I doubt it.

foster care kids
Eleni draws from her experience of being a ward of the state in her young adult novel, Stone Girl. Image: Supplied.
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This month a campaign by Homestretch – a coalition of welfare and child advocate agencies – calls on all state and territory governments to ‘make it 21’. The campaign is reigniting in an effort to change how foster kids exit the system and thereby improve their life outcomes.

A symposium at the end of August will bring together politicians, welfare agencies and foster kids to discuss the benefits of lifting the age to 21. The public are asked to sign a pledge in support of the call.

I scrambled out of the margins of society, gained an education, worked as a journalist and wrote Stone Girl, a fictional unfiltered account of one girl’s journey though institutional care. But I still shudder at how close I came to capsizing, and I hate to think of all the thousands of young Australians who are, right now, precariously balanced between surviving and spiralling further down. I know many are hoping they have enough luck and grit to avoid the streets and jail.

State and territory governments are tasked with caring for kids who don’t live with their parents. But they are pseudo-parents and certain laws around this care are abjectly cruel.

Putting aside the rights of young people to have life opportunities, research shows extending foster care to 21 years old will actually save tax payers $2.4 billion over 10 years. This is an investment in future productivity and wellness which is beneficial to society as a whole. Serving our youth well will make them stronger more resilient adults.

Support for foster care kids has been extended until 21 years old in the UK, Canada, NZ and USA. Why not Australia? Why not our vulnerable young people?

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

Eleni Hale is the award-winning author of Stone Girl, published through Penguin Random House. Follow on Twitter @EleniHale.

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