Care Experiences and Social Isolation
Practitioners commonly believed that in-care experiences of more placements, or placement ‘instability’, led to poorer outcomes for young people. Participants in this study believed that this also led to pregnancy and early parenting amongst care leavers.
Yeah, and look international research has shown any young person who has experienced five or more placements actually steps into a higher risk category, and that’s only five placements, and as you said, we know kids who have had forty. You know, and the more placements a young person experiences, the higher the risk level of them becoming pregnant (Non-metropolitan post care programme staff).
Residential care (i.e. a facility where young people are supervised by paid rostered staff) is often associated with placement instability. This is because of known and unknown staff continually coming and going from the home which makes relationship development difficult for both staff and young people. Changes in residents also add to the regular changes in home dynamics.
I’m just going to say … residential care. Yep. The lack of family, the lack of consistency of people who care, staff coming and going, there is … you know, and young people being in residential care from a younger age, and being in there for a long period of time, I think it significantly increases their desire to have a baby at a younger age (Non-metropolitan post care programme staff).
Participants reported other challenges commonly associated with residential care experiences, such as negative peer networks engaging in substance abuse. When young people in residential care were a part of such social networks and became pregnant, parenting risks were heightened. If young parents maintained these social networks, they would be exposing their children to unsafe environments, and therefore enhancing the risk of having their children removed. However, without contact with these social networks, young people were often completely isolated.
Thinking about this particular group, they do all have other people around, but most of the ones who I’ve written down, …the social networks around them are not great, and they’re pulling them back into some of those behaviours that weren’t positive (Non-metropolitan parenting programme staff).
Service providers felt that young people in residential care lacked positive social supports, engaged in higher risk behaviours, and were more likely to have children early and to have those children placed in care.
Negative Feelings Towards Care and Disengagement
Discussion in focus groups and interviews frequently turned to young people’s negative feelings about being in care and their desire to be free of statutory services, thereby becoming more isolated from positive social and community networks.
Some of the kids that I work with, the ones that are between 15 and 18, all they talk about is wanting to exit care. They think that when they turn 18 and they’re not in the care of DHS [Department of Human Services], life will be better (Non-metropolitan home-based care programme staff).
There was some indication in this study that this disengagement was often associated with returning to the families from whom they had been removed. This pull of family was said to be very strong for many young people despite the risks that saw them placed in care to begin with.
I mean, at all ages, all children in care that … it doesn’t matter what the reasons, what most of the time, it doesn’t matter what the reasons were that a child was put in out-of-home care, they always want to go back to their … you know, they want to go back to their parents and they think they have a view of them as being good parents, so … and that lasts for many kids in out-of-home care up until the end of care and after they’ve left care (Non-metropolitan parenting programme staff).
Indeed, even the experiences of being in care and having statutory authorities making decisions for young people without their active participation were discussed as other pathways to early parenting.
Yes, and it could be … it very much seems as though they’ve had that such little control over their lives and who’s in them and where they’re allowed to be and who they’re allowed to be with, has been dictated to them their entire life and this is something that no-one can control but them. They think, well, while they’re pregnant it is something that no-one else can control, you know, there’s nothing workers can do … (Non-metropolitan post care programme staff).
For young people, disengagement from services and/or return to family of origin whilst pregnant or parenting was seen as a significant risk for the child in some instances. Whether young people exited care to family or elsewhere, participants discussed their lack of positive parenting models as a major impediment to their own parenting skills.
[Focus group member 1]: And that’s definitely where we get into real strife, because the lack of any parenting role model becomes evident really early on. And these young parents go, I actually don’t know how to do this, at all, and become completely overwhelmed and intimidated by that.
[Focus group member 2]: It’s very tragic. It’s awful, to watch it play out (Non-metropolitan post care service staff).
The lack of professional support provided to young people post 18 years old as they transition from care to early adulthood was described as a risk factor outside of parents’ control that jeopardised their ability to parent safely and well.
I guess the key point has become her history of care, becomes the risk factor. Ironically, this young person has grown up with the guardian which is the state and all of a sudden, her age changes and they are no longer responsible for them, and that’s the concern, that’s the protective concern (Non-metropolitan post care service staff).
The main pathways to early pregnancy cited in the research literature all exist in and appear to be exacerbated by placement instability and placement in residential care. Placement instability and relationship disruptions associated with residential care were also associated with social isolation which could increase if young people disengaged from services according to study participants. Participants felt that young people often wanted to live with families they were removed from, that they wanted more agency in making decisions about their lives, and that they thought having a child would provide them with the care of a family. This suggests that the out-of-home care system should attempt to ensure young people are actively involved in decision-making about their own lives to prevent disengagement and increase social connectedness. Increasing agency and social connectedness, as well as access to supports and resources was thought likely to both avert early parenting by young people who could not safely raise their children and to increase young care leavers’ parenting capacity and improve outcomes for them and their children.
Greater Supports and Trauma-Informed, Relationship-Based Practice
Participants in this study were in favour of greater supports for young people transitioning from care generally, and recommended that specialised services for those becoming parents adopt a trauma-informed approach with an understanding of how a parent’s care experience could affect their particular circumstances. Where intensive parenting support programmes or services were not available, participants spoke about how other service systems might not be as effective in response to this particular cohort.
…there are a lot of young mums out there who are not getting our service and so therefore they’re then being referred to either more general services, like family services, and or they’re being referred to more shorter-term services, like [family service] or [parenting service] that are six week [interventions]. So instead of having the four years with a specific worker who knows all about young people, and pregnancy and parenting, they might have a general family service program that you might be able to be with for a year or they’re given a six-week intensive thing and then, off you go, that should fix you (Non-metropolitan parenting programme staff).
More intensive support was felt to engender greater trust. An ongoing relationship with a service and/or worker promoted more productive working relationships.
…that’s the thing when I think of our mums that we’re working with, they don’t have one person in their life that can give them ...that can give them that emotional attunement [sic]. I was thinking when we were talking – it feels like these young people don’t have a secure base, if we think about security, they don’t have somebody to go back to that’s safe...
Because we can work with them for up to four years, that really gives them the opportunity to like, build their trust and actually get below the surface.
[Interviewer]: Does that take a long time?
It can, yeah, yep. Some people … out-of-home care goes either way. Either really closed or they just divulge like way too much (Metropolitan parenting programme staff).
The benefits of relationship-based practice in a consistent service are thought to be able to prevent entry to care, or alternatively to facilitate family reunification.
But quite truly, it is a great program because it’s long, it does allow that time to really, like, work on the trust of some of the young people you’re working with and the complexities and stuff, so while Child Protection is just going, oh, [intensive parenting support service] is not available, we’ll have to shunt them off to these services – they’re not getting the best services and therefore they, yeah, it’s quite possible that they’ll return later or they’ll have children removed earlier than necessary and they might not have as great a chance of getting their children back, because there’s not many services (Non-metropolitan parenting programme staff).
There was general consensus amongst participants that care leavers were under more scrutiny from child protection and other services than other members of the community. Whilst service providers felt that children of care leavers were at higher risk generally, much of what they reported about interventions with care leaver early parents suggested that this monitoring and supervision of their parenting could be harmful to both parents and children. One example of surveillance bias is the ability of protective services to review the child protection file of a parent who was in care to make assessments about their suitability as parents. This issue was discussed in two of the focus groups.
[Interviewer]: So do you think that that would be allowable under policy and regulations that Child Protection is able to read the files of people who they’re investigating as parents, files of their childhood?
[Parenting service provider]: Yeah, I think they should. Definitely. Because of family of origin kind of connections. It’s like finding out what is the history, why is this person like this in this situation? So it gives you a clearer picture. It definitely helps with working with them, knowing their needs analysis and stuff. And particularly when or if they’re considering kinship assessment I think it’s really important for the worker to have read the file and understand how this young person was placed in out-of-home care and does that preclude that person who was supposed to be their care giver from being assessed now (Metropolitan parenting programme staff).
Well, they definitely have access to entire histories. They shouldn’t use things that are too far back or that shouldn’t really be having an impact. They shouldn’t use those in current assessments, but they will use, like, as in the criteria for [intensive parenting support program], they will use the fact that they’ve been in out-of-home care and they’ve had these experiences to inform them that these are possibilities as well (Non-metropolitan parenting programme staff).
In contrast, protective services are not able to access the details of other parents’ highly sensitive life histories if they did not have any previous involvement with child protection.
At the same time, the lack of supports available to young people transitioning from care has been well documented in research. Participants in this study explained that there may be many services and workers involved with a care leaver and their child or children, but without any general increase in practical resources to meet a parent and their children’s basic needs, like food and shelter.
…when every day is taken up with appointments or people popping in, and that can be Child Protection, Enhanced Maternal and Child Health, referrals from [intensive parenting support program], God there could be anything else, like Centrelink [government income support] appointments to financial counselling, you name it. Like, in the space of a week, it becomes a case of … so when does this young person make an appointment for her mental health ... And then that becomes a risk factor. They’re [seen as] not prioritising their own mental health throughout all of this, so on it goes, round and round (Non-metropolitan post care programme staff).
With this increased scrutiny, care leaver parents may have to cope better with parenting than others in the community, with less resources available to them. Normative parenting stresses of sleep deprivation, coping with new responsibilities, hormonal changes and other issues play out under statutory supervision for many care leavers.
[Focus group member 1]: … you know, young care leavers have their babies, they might have their babies with them for a period of time but during that period of time, there are so many workers involved, not really any support for the mum. It’s all monitoring and telling them what it is they need to achieve, you know. Like a young person who has left care, who is having a baby, will be monitored to the nth degree by every program basically. There’ll be multiple workers and we know what needs to happen, but at the same time it’s a level of scrutiny that any other young mum with parental support wouldn’t ever necessarily experience.
[Focus group member 2]: And it doesn’t allow for the normal bumps in the road of early parenting where you under-sleep, you’re emotional, you’re not being rational, you’re saying things that are outrageous. You’re saying you’re not coping, you’re wanting to chuck the towel in, all completely normal early parenting experiences for completely middle class etc mothers.
[Focus group member 1]: That’s right, but it’s taken as serious and acted upon, by professionals, but there is also that duty of care, where the baby, once that baby is born, it must come first. And you know, you do sit with that risk. Like, no one wants a baby to die on their watch. No worker wants that (Non-metropolitan post care programme staff).
Balancing risks to children against parents’ potential was reported to be highly complex in the existing service system where risks could be significant, and support was difficult to access. One respondent made a further argument that the experience of multiple interventions does not teach anyone how to raise a family in a ‘normal’ way, and this can ingrain reliance on professional services instead of supporting community connectedness.
But I guess I wonder whether it’s services that make better parents at all, or whether it’s services that continue to perpetuate these cycles, that the young people are in. I guess I would sort of argue too that kind of getting out of all this scrutiny and actually being a functioning member of the community is what is going to make them better parents. (Non-metropolitan post care programme staff).
The Paradox of Care and Protective Interventions
The fear of authorities’ surveillance bias was powerful whether the bias existed or not. Service providers reported that a parents’ fear of having children removed if they asked for help or support may result in an avoidable risk to a child’s health and wellbeing, especially if that young parent is avoiding medical checks for his or her children and/or important services for his or her own health and wellbeing.
And I think for our work, I think we talk about it a lot, about how Child Protection involvement can mean they’re not disclosing things or not asking questions and not seeking support because there’s an interpretation that asking for help means not knowing, means I’m a bad parent and it’s that circular kind of … (Metropolitan parenting programme staff).
Participants gave many examples of how this problem could manifest. For parents living in poverty, an inability to access food security and stable accommodation became a child protection concern for professionals working in services these parents’ children attend regularly. Avoiding detection of these parenting risks resulted in missing out on essential services for their children.
[Focus group member 1]: Keeping their kids away from school and day care because they don’t have enough food to send them with….
[Focus group member 2]: There’s also that, ‘I’m not going to send them, because it’s going to look bad…’
[Focus group member 1]: And because of those things, some child care [services], if they don’t provide lunches and things, they’ll have conversations with the mum and that can bring about some shame as well, I think, which is really hard if you’re already feeling vulnerable.
[Focus group member 3]: Taking them back to their own childhood as well (Metropolitan parenting programme staff).
I feel like, my other big thing that I feel is missing from all of our clients’ lives is having access to stable, long term housing. How can they be able to work on any emotional stuff, how can they ever be able to work on any high level parenting capacity, to be able to plan their next meals, if they don’t have stable housing? (Non-metropolitan parenting programme staff).
Participants also explained that access to existing services for material needs could be a challenge as young people transitioning from care could experience a service and stigma fatigue from being overwhelmed when constantly referred to services throughout their lives.
I think it’s the stigma that is attached to services. And you know, um these young parents, you know, you’re talking specifically about young parents who have been involved in the system… So reaching out and linking into all these other services that have been a part of their lives for goodness knows how long. You know, just like ‘God, just let me be’, I know the families that I work with are like, ‘I just, I just, I just need to breathe, by myself’. And there’s some risk in that definitely, there is. Um you know, but we’re all coming from a strengths-based perspective. We also need to give people the opportunity to do, you know, give evidence that you know what, actually maybe they can do some of this on their own as well. You know, maybe they do have more capacity actually than we’ve given them credit for too (Non-metropolitan youth services).
One service provider highlighted that, within smaller communities when care leaver parents were investigated by child protection, some young people had to visit the same offices that they had themselves been taken to as children and young people following reports of maltreatment by their own families. Entering an office which you had previously been in as a child or adolescent victim of abuse to be investigated as a perpetrator of abuse against your own child could be re-traumatising. If so, this experience may adversely affect the young person’s affect and responses to investigators’ assessments. It is unlikely to be an environment where an objective assessment of a young person’s parenting capacity could be carried out.
It’s a very hard situation for those mums. Like, it’s hard for anybody that has Child Protection involved, but the ones that have had the Child Protection history themselves, it’s extremely distressing and triggering for them and in somewhere like [non-metropolitan town], sometimes they get people turn up to talk to them about their children who removed them from their parents when they were a child, it might be the same individual who actually removed them and that is horrible, obviously (Non-metropolitan parenting support programme staff).
Turning Lives Around
Many participants in this study echoed findings in previous research that suggest that early parenting can in fact be a positive outcome for young people transitioning from care.
It completely changed her focus when she realised she was pregnant and she doesn’t allow drug-using behaviour near her infant, whereas that’s something she never prioritised for herself (Metropolitan parenting programme staff).
But on the other hand, sometimes some people really get their acts together like they want a better future, for their kids, and you can really see a massive shift (Metropolitan parenting programme staff).
Traumatic Pathways to Early Parenting
Something largely overlooked in much of the research is the impact of histories of trauma on a young person, and their susceptibility to exploitation when exited from services and supports or when employment or income support is interrupted or suspended. There is very little literature examining the relationship between abusive and coercive relationships and early parenting amongst care leavers. Participants in this study felt that this was one pathway to care leaver early parenting.
You know, violence is a natural part of their world, by this stage. Yeah, often they themselves have been sexually exploited, especially in relation to drugs and alcohol…
-In the context of residential care too, sexual abuse.
That’s exactly right. Sexual abuse from client to client within the unit as well. You know, it’s very prevalent. So for the most part, you do find young men who leave residential care are generally violent perpetrators in relationships. Which is, you know, sad all round (Non-metropolitan post care service staff).
The literature says little about exploitative relationships and pregnancies that may result. In this sense, it is unclear how many care leaver parents could in fact be dealing with the strains of early parenting at the same time as experiencing complex trauma around exploitation and having a child whose parent abused them. This seems like a significant mental health concern that may not be being addressed at all.
Indirect Pregnancy Prevention Through Educational Attainment
There is emerging research investigating relationships between school disengagement and early parenting—or school completion and delayed parenting. Participants in this study made only a couple of statements on this issue.
I think education makes a huge difference for all our clients, that have, better life opportunities, better life skills … (Metropolitan parenting programme staff).
Another participant felt that parenting could allow access to a positive sense of adult identity where other options were limited by a lack of education or employment.
And that sense of identity. You know, like, you know, disengaged from school. Who am I in the world? I can be a mother…Because you know, for like other children it may be looking at some sort of career but if you disengage from school quite early, those aren’t options for you at that point in time. And if your role models around you are not employed, not engaged in education then that whole side of life is then not something you see as achievable (Non-metropolitan youth services).