Over the last decade out-of-home care in Australia has experienced a period of considerable turmoil as royal commissions, parliamentary inquiries, departmental audits, empirical research and industry reports have highlighted the dire straits of the care system. A constant theme throughout has been the failure of the sector to adequately meet the needs of children and young people in care.
Within this context the purpose of this study was to examine the needs of children and young people in care in Australia, giving voice to the full range of stakeholders, whose views were expressed in multiple documentary types. Specifically, the aim was to develop an in-depth understanding of their needs and formulate this into a formal taxonomy of needs.
Using document analysis and the constant comparative method within the constructivist paradigm of social inquiry, the study involved analysis of 580 non-traditional, naturalistic and secondary documents relating to out-of-home care in Australia. The document sample consisted of five data types: primary data (letters, submissions to inquiries, transcripts of interviews and public hearings, and personal accounts); secondary data (reports resulting from commissions of inquiries and departmental reviews, audits and investigations); empirical data (the published findings from empirical research); legislative and policy data (legislation, regulation and quality frameworks); and industry and practitioner data (reports by academics, peak bodies and advocacy groups, and writings by out-of-home care practitioners). Further, the document sample included stakeholders from five major groups: children and young people in care (and former wards ); their parents and extended family; carers, agency staff and practitioners; statutory workers; and academics, advocates, and representatives of state and national peak bodies.
The findings include a series of prominent themes of care; salient findings that highlight the experiences and needs of children and young people in care; and the taxonomy of needs. The prominent themes include the importance of natural family connectedness, cultural identity and connectedness, and counselling and therapeutic support. Issues relating to placement stability and disruption, safety and protection and, transition from care also featured prominently. The salient findings include an exploration of the overwhelming emotions of care, emotional putdowns, vicarious trauma and the witnessing of violence and abuse in out-of-home care, characteristics of children and young people who survive and thrive in care and beyond, characteristics of quality carers, symptom intolerance, disenfranchised grief – the never-ending story, and the defensive behaviours of children and young people in care.
The taxonomy of needs provides a comprehensive overview of the needs of children and young people in care across 89 attributes and 21 attribute sub-categories, within 21 dimensions, and across three domains (the personal, placement, and community-of-care domains). The dimensions in the personal domain include attachment, physical development and health, personal growth, education and vocational attainment, development of the inner-self, and hope in life and for the future. The placement domain includes basic needs, basic entitlements, caring relationships, positive-parenting-practices, activity programming, focused-support, peer-relations and positive group management, and preparation for and transition from care. The community-of-care domain includes clinical intervention, family connectedness and involvement in placement, friends and social outlets, significant others, cultural-religious-spiritual connectedness, departmental worker capacity and support, and after care support.
The principal theoretical, practice, and methodological conclusions derived from this study are that children and young people in care in Australia have considerable needs, are largely unable to meet their own needs, and experience harm when their needs are not met. Consequently, the out-of-home care sector has an inescapable obligation to provide for these needs if children and young people in care are to avoid harm and experience personal wellbeing. Further, children and young people in care have experienced considerable need deprivation, and if their needs are not to be forgotten, then a shift to a ‘needs-based’, ‘needs-focused’ paradigm of care is needed to inform out-of-home care policy, service design, and day-to-day practice. And finally, document analysis using non-traditional, naturalistic, and secondary data (representing the full range of stakeholder perspectives) within a constructivist paradigm of inquiry, provides an effective, indeed powerful methodology for exploring the needs of children and young people in care, and for giving voice to the many stakeholders who voices may never have been heard again.