Extending care support past age 18 to 21
Written by Billy Black
Support for young people in the Australian out-of-home care system has been extended past 18 to the age of 21, with NSW the last state to commit to the change early this month. Family and Communities Minister Natasha Maclaren-Jones said, “Our investment is focused on creating stability so young people can work towards independence and achieve their goals”.
Of course, independence and achieving life goals at 21 is still a huge feat. However, the extended carer allowances, specialist aftercare programs and aftercare staff that we can expect from early 2023 could allow young people to lay more stable foundations from which independence and achieving life goals become more within reach. The difference these additional three years of support can make is set to change life trajectories for young people in care who need this time to plan and build the scaffolding for their adult life. Greater continuity for supportive relationships with carers, workers, and community programs could give young people a better chance to cope with the emotional and practical challenges that adult life brings.
The years between 18 and 21 are a critical period of transition for anyone. As flawed as the high school system can be, finishing means discontinuing a daily structured activity that incorporates education, social connection, and easy access to mentor supports. Neuroscience shows us that brain processes critical to decision-making are still developing until the age of 25. Even highly secure teenagers don’t find it easy to adapt to this sudden lifestyle change. When you add experiences of abuse and neglect, uncertain living situations, and no backup support, this period becomes less about developing independence and more about surviving chaos.
Young people in foster and kinship care deal with all the regular difficulties of adolescent life on top of recovering from past unsafe situations and preparing for a future of “independence”, a term that can start to feel like a fancy word for “losing your safety nets”. Those lucky enough to have lifelong relationships with their carers are blessed to retain some security in those relationships. But for most young people in care, especially those in residential care who often don’t have long-term carers, the “transition to independent living” implies a future where no one will be paid to care about what happens to you anymore. You better learn how to thrive as an adult, fast, before your 18th birthday when your well-being stops mattering. Meanwhile, regular adults twice their age still make memes about how difficult and confusing “adulting” is, so we know perfectly well that the task is an ideal direction rather than a feasible goal.
To make the learning curve slower and gentler, out-of-home care workers begin discussing the transition out of care as early as 14-16. While that affords children more time, it also introduces stress and anxiety in a period where developing your sense of identity and place in the world is critically important. These teenagers choose between either hanging out with their friends or attending case meetings with a revolving door of temporary adults, each demanding immediate trust and engagement briefly before leaving forever. An extra three years of care support after 18 can prevent robbing children of important teenagehood experiences and put less adult pressure on young people already living in chaos.
We can’t expect a 16-year-old to develop their real weekly groceries budget on top of studying for exams, and then pretend they have the same access to education as their classmates. Removing the rush on developing living skills means young people can focus on developing the real independence goals: a sense of self, the ability to self-care both practically and psychologically, and the ability to personally connect to others and the community. Many young people transition from out-of-home care with few or none of the community connections that more securely situated young people use to open pathways to education, training, and employment.
We talk so often about care leavers developing independent living skills and not enough about developing interdependent living skills. Aging out of care often means carers, social workers, and other safe professionals stop actively attempting to engage with you, which can leave these new adults isolated without the skills to develop a good support network. Happy healthy adults lean on family, friends, and community supports in the tough times, and give back in the good. When connected adults begin to face creeping alcoholism, a season of poor mental health, or a sticky legal issue, their support networks link them to practical help and buffer the emotional impacts. Young people stigmatised by care experience, who haven’t developed permanent safe relationships, and aren’t explicitly taught how to connect to community become vulnerable to those “poor outcomes” statistics of care leavers we revisit at every seminar.
This decision to extend care support is not only able to change the life trajectory of care leavers practically but also symbolises an overdue stride towards psychologically treating young people in care as equals. What was the age you gave earlier, the age of the last time you moved out of home? The average age is currently 25 and increasing. Extending care support to 21 takes us almost halfway to demonstrating that young people in care deserve the same chance at happy, healthy adulthoods as Australians who grow up at home.