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A structural analysis of young people leaving state care in Victoria, Australia



Leaving care is formally defined as the cessation of legal responsibility by the state for young people living in out of home care. But in practice, leaving care is a major life event and process that involves transitioning from dependence on state accommodation and supports to so-called self-sufficiency.

It is often said that care leavers face multiple disadvantages. Firstly, many have experienced and are still recovering from considerable physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect prior to entering care. Secondly, many young people have experienced inadequacies in state care including poor quality caregivers, and constant shifts of placement, carers, schools and workers. Some have also experienced overt abuse including sexual and physical assault, and emotional maltreatment. Thirdly, many care leavers can call on little, if any, direct family support or other community networks to ease their involvement into independent living.


In addition to these major disadvantages, many young people currently experience an abrupt end at 16-18 years of age to the formal support networks of state care.  Care leavers are literally abandoned by their substitute parents, and expected to transition directly from childhood dependence to adult self-sufficiency.

Purpose of qualitative study

The aim of this research was to gain an in-depth understanding of young people leaving state care based on their own experiences, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between out-of-care experiences and post-discharge outcomes. The study therefore targeted young people who have left State care under Guardianship or Custody Orders and were aged between 18 and 30 years. A semi structured questionnaire was used in this study to collect data through in-depth interviews with a sample of 20 young people. 

 The 20 care leavers interviewed were aged between 18-26 years and comprised 12 females and 8 males. The age range when entered care was between birth to 15 years, whilst the age range when exited care was between 16 and 18 years.  Out of 20 respondents, 11 of them were from a rural Victoria and 9 were from Melbourne Metropolitan area. 

Key findings

The young people entered care at different ages and the reasons for entering into care also varied considerably. 

Placements during Care. The  study findings revealed that the care leavers experienced frequent changes and a variety of placements during their period in care. All of the 20 care leavers in this study experienced multiple placements while in care, with the minimum of placements being two and the maximum being 100 and more as alleged by two of the care leavers.            

Reasons for placement changes/breakdowns. The most commonly reported reasons for placement breakdown and changes were: conflict with foster family and with other boarders, associating with the wrong crowd, anger and resentment, problematic behaviors (including drinking alcohol and drug abuse), assaults to the carers and abuse in care. 

Age of exiting from care. The age at which young people exited care varied from 16 to 18 years.  A total of 10 out of 20 or half of the young people, exited care before their 18th birthday and only four of the young people reported that they felt prepared at the time of discharge from care.      

 Housing options following discharge from care. All but four care leavers have had multiple accommodation following discharge from care including supported accommodations, ex-carers, boarding, friends and family members.                    

Relationship and contacts with biological family. None of the care leavers interviewed reported having a close relationship with their parents during their period in care, however for some of them the relationships improved following discharge. 

Education and employment. Only four of the care leavers have successfully completed year 12 and they did so following their discharge from care. Furthermore, only four have completed year 11, six have completed year 10 and the rest or six young people have only completed between years 5-7.

This low level of education has resulted in the majority of young people being unsuccessful in gaining and sustaining meaningful employment.

Poor physical and emotional health. Out of 20 young people interviewed, eleven reported having suffered from depression and/or other mental health issues during and post care warranting prescribed medications and/or professional interventions. The staggering majority or 16 of the young people also reported to have suffered from some forms of physical health complications during and following discharge from care.

Criminal behaviors. A total of 11 out of 20 respondents in the study had been in trouble with the law and faced criminal charges both during and after being discharged from care.

Early parenthood. Out of 20, six of the care leavers (3 females and 3 males) have children of their own including one having her first child at the age of 16 years and now at the age of 26, has 5 children.    

Leaving care experiences. All but four of the care leavers didn't feel adequately prepared for leaving care and there was very limited or no support before and after being discharged from care. 

Recommendation: affirmative action

Affirmative action supports and programs are needed to compensate care leavers for the disadvantages produced by their traumatic pre-care experiences, their lack of family support, and in some cases, their less than supportive substitute care experiences. At the very least, State and Territory care authorities should aim to approximate the ongoing support that responsible parents in the community typically provide to their children after they leave home in terms of income, housing, health care, education, and social relationships until a minimum of 25 years of age. The aim of this support would be to promote the effective participation of care leavers in mainstream social and economic systems, rather than many continuing to become reliant on adult health and welfare systems.

Contact details

Philip Mendes, Monash University of Australia.

Email: Philip.Mendes@med.monash.edu.au

Badal Moselhuddin, Monash University of Australia.

Email: Badal.Moslehuddin@med.monash.edu.au

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