Dr Melissa O'Donnell, an NHMRC Early Career Fellow, psychologist, and Research Associate at UWA, argues that legal support for disadvantaged young people must be extended until age 21.
As we move into a New Year, and bid farewell to the end of 2020, we can look forward to the special occasions and celebrations shared with family that 2021 will bring.
For anyone who is 17, 2021 marks the year they ‘officially’ move from adolescence to adulthood, and all the opportunities and responsibilities that turning 18 holds.
However, for more than 200 young people in Western Australia, their 18th birthday also marks the day they effectively lose the support of their legal guardian.
Unlike young people who have grown up in a family with their birth parents and are leaving home at an older age than ever, those who have grown up in state care will be left alone on their 18th birthday.
Left to navigate the challenges of their newly acquired adulthood on their own, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic and its many impacts. All with no support network to fall back on.
These are young people who the State Government has taken guardianship of because they deemed their parents were not fit to do so.
However, it raises questions of whether the government, as a parent, and in our name as taxpayers, is being responsible by effectively leaving these young people to fend for themselves, especially during an ongoing global pandemic.
Many young people during the coronavirus lockdown moved home to be supported by family. Many are still living with mum and dad to ride out the rising rental crisis. There is no such safety net for young people who have been in out-of-home care.
“Research shows the outcomes for young people who have been in out-of-home care are worse than for any other group in Western Australia in terms of physical and mental health, education and justice.”
Many have experienced abuse, neglect and trauma, facing challenges of homelessness, and left navigating the task of becoming an independent adult before they have even finished high school. Often on the very day they turn 18.
Following the WA Auditor General’s report into the failings of the government to ensure adequate support for young people transitioning from care, the McGowan Government committed to developing and testing a better system of support for young people, effectively extending their right to support from 18 to the age of 21.
The Home Stretch WA Trial has been a successful pilot in which a transition coach supports young people aged 18-21 to navigate serious life decisions.
This can include being supported to stay in a foster or family placement, or finding and maintaining rental accommodation, especially for those who have been in residential care group homes.
The transition coach supports them in accessing health and mental health services, and pursuing options of education and employment.
While it is easy to hide behind the rhetoric of ‘intended system reform’ or point to the current system of discretionary supports, there is clearly a missing piece to our puzzle.
The United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and many other places have seen transformational outcomes by extending support to 21.
Unfortunately, besides the 15 placements within the WA pilot, our State Government has not committed anything beyond February 2021 to ensure that young people leaving state care have the same rights to support that any responsible parent would provide their own child.
In Victoria, its government has reacted to the immediate impacts of the global pandemic and lockdown, by making extended support options available for all young people leaving care for the next three years.
In Western Australia, many foster and kinship carers are addressing the government’s neglect of these young people by keeping them on themselves with no financial support.
So as we head into the new year and continue to support each other through the ongoing COVID-19 uncertainties, spare a thought for those young people who have no family to fall back on and seek support.
The State Government, as the parent of the 200 young people who will come of age in 2021, must do better. Moreover, as the government acts on behalf of us - we must call on them to do so.
Dr Melissa O’Donnell
The University of Western Australia