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Increasing the age for children in care: What does it mean?

Many of us were delighted that finally the Government is planning to legislate for a change for children in care who are currently automatically discharged from care on reaching the age of 17. The new arrangements will see children having the option and possibility of remaining formally in care until the age of 21 and possibly beyond this point until the age
of 25. This is a particularly vulnerable group of young people, and abandoning responsibility for them once they reach the age of 17 has never made sense. As one researcher described it, it could be characterised as: ‘Happy birthday, goodbye.’

But, there are no details in the announcement. So, let’s ask some critical questions:

1) Will the support and assistance only be available if the young person remains in state care or returns to care? Some young people might need specific and very time limited assistance around a particular issue or need without having to commit themselves to the controls and dependence that being ‘in care’ entails.

2) What range of assistance will be provided and on what basis? Will entitlements be spelt out or will all assistance be discretionary? If the latter applies, what rights will the young person have to challenge the decision?

3) As is increasingly happening elsewhere in the social policy and social service environment, will young people be expected/required to look to their immediate and extended whānau for support in the first instance? Given the histories and experiences of this group of young people, such an approach is clearly contraindicated.

4) Will the young person be able to ‘come and go’ in terms of being provided with support and assistance? Much has been made about trying to make the opportunities and experiences of this group of young people parallel to those of their peers who are with their parents. But young people, increasingly, leave home and return or come back to seek specific assistance and support – will this practice be paralleled here?

5) Will the assistance be provided as a grant or will it be treated as a loan which then has to be repaid, as has happened with a significant amount of discretionary assistance available under the social security legislation?

6) What will be the budget for providing this assistance be, and how will it be changed over time? Recent years have seen a range of initiatives which seemed desirable in the first instance slowly eroded by failure to keep abreast of changing needs and/or increasing costs. Will this initiative experience the same fate?

No doubt others will be able to add to the list of questions. As is so often the case with new social developments and provisions, the devil is in the detail. The detail matters considerably here – the lives, wellbeing and futures of too many young people are at stake. If we start by putting the young people at the centre, not the government or its Ministry, then we will find ourselves with some very clear answers to these questions.