1.1 Limitations in services and networks
Australia will face frontline staffing challenges across many services due to both the impact of illness itself, and to the transition to remote service necessitated by social distancing measures. This impact will be experienced by services that currently support children, families and carers in the OOHC system.
It is likely that in the medium1 term, COVID-19 will lead to a spike in the demand for respite care and low-cost child care services (Kelly and Hansel, 2020). This is driven by extended strain on carers and kinship families who are caring for children more intensely as schools experience closures and can no longer provide on-campus learning, and as respite care is made unavailable during COVID-19 lockdowns.
The need for respite was expressed during interview by a current foster carer, “[my foster child] can be challenging in times… previously he’s spent time at pre-school or school for most of the week which has at least given us a breather. Now the challenge of having us all cooped at home, and having to school [him] as well is going to be difficult”.
There will also be challenges in accessing wrap-around supports which are normally provided face-to-face. As partial lockdowns continue, children and birth parents may only be able to access therapeutic services virtually. Where services are unavailable or restricted, as is likely to occur during COVID-19 (Kendrick, 2020), additional strain will be placed on carers as the lack of support services exacerbate children’s care needs.
Additional impacts on NGOs and funded service providers are likely in jurisdictions which rely upon funded service providers to support delivery of OOHC. As the financial impacts of COVID-19 and related partial lockdowns drive economic hardship for some agencies, examination of supports to enable agencies to continue delivering casework may be necessary.
In response to COVID-19, the Australian Government is allocating $74 million to support remote provision of mental health services that are under strain due to the pandemic (Sullivan et al, 2020). Whilst this will support children and carer families accessing services, ensuring the availability of targeted, trauma-informed services to meet the needs of children in care is necessary to ensure that all children receive the supports they require to ameliorate the risks posed by limitations in service provision during COVID-19.
1.2 Reduced family contact
In Australia, the safe reunification of children and young people in OOHC with their birth families is the preferred means of achieving permanency across all jurisdictions. A significant component of the road to reunification is through regular and ongoing family contact.
With the need for social distancing to contain the risk of spreading the virus, face-to-face contact is becoming a challenge and other, less ideal, mediums of communication, such telephone and video calling, will be required. Some Australian states have already enacted blanket restrictions in face-to-face contact in response to COVID-19 (Boseley and Knaus, 2020). However, there is evidence that in this context connecting virtually presents difficulties for some families. Video-calling may not always be an option for low-income families, who may have little capacity to access or use this technology (Hager, 2020). It can also be difficult to engage young children who have little understanding of it and would lose the benefits of being able to bond physically with their parents (Fadel, 2020).
Similar concerns were expressed by the foster carer interviewed, who suggested that family contact by technology “changes the nature of contact” and limits opportunities for her foster child to spend quality time with his parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents. She also noted that as her foster child is very young and “not great at linear verbal communication”, she is uncertain whether he will be able to “connect well with them [birth parents] in an online setting”.
1.3 Delays in court assessments
There is a risk that relevant courts will face closures or only allow for virtual hearings, with a slow down in the courts in Australian settings already observable as a result of COVID-19. Currently the Children’s Courts in NSW are encouraging parties and practitioners to engage through use of audio-visual technology, which is likely to prolong the time children spend awaiting court outcomes.
Legal Aid is now only providing services over the phone and many walk-in family services are reducing their assistance (Kendrick, 2020). Taken together, these conditions suggest that more children will require OOHC placements in the medium-term, given the impact of COVID-19 on court systems creating a build-up of cases which are likely to be processed when more normal court functions return.
1.4 Increased risk in homes
The spread of COVID-19 will lead many families spending significantly greater amounts of time at home, potentially while under financial stress due to losing their jobs and hence increasing tension in the household (Hager, 2020). Some families may also be experiencing challenges relating to mental health or substance abuse (The Associated Press, 2020). This can increase the risk of domestic violence and child abuse (The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, 2020).
As COVID-19 has spread across the world, increases in rates of domestic violence have also been recorded, and in some jurisdictions this has been suggested to be as high as three times pre-COVID-19 rates (Rawsthorne, 2020). A survey by Women’s Safety NSW of 80 frontline workers and service providers across the state has found that 41.7% of respondents are already seeing an increase in client numbers since the outbreak of COVID-19 (Foster and Fletcher, 2020). Respondents who saw a decrease in the number of client referrals noted suspicions that women who are experiencing domestic violence may also be experiencing barriers to accessing services, due to isolation placing them with perpetrators who are preventing access to services, alongside the impact of social distancing requirements further limiting their ability to seek support.
Similar issues are likely to impact child abuse reporting. Social isolation is leading to a loss of contact with people in the community who would normally be supporting the family or reporting potential child abuse or neglect, such as teachers and doctors (Lagoe et al, 2020). International evidence suggests that lockdown is associated with a decrease in notifications of abuse and neglect.
For example, the Oregon Department of Human Services has recorded a drop in 70% of child abuse and neglect reports compared to February (Powell, 2020). In 2018-19, 20% of child abuse notifications in Australia that were subject to investigations were made by school personnel (AIHW, 2020). However, with school closures and governments encouraging virtual learning, there are limited opportunities for teachers to pick up on signs that a child or young person is at risk in their home. Likewise, lockdown conditions create less monitoring of child wellbeing from health workers, extended family members, neighbours and other community members from whom child protection notifications would normally be received. The lack of observation of at-risk children increases the likelihood that children will be subject to longer periods of abuse and neglect before entering care.
Where child abuse reports are made, it is likely that child protection caseworkers will need to make investigations through virtual or socially distanced means. This will occur particularly where there is a shortage of safety clothing and equipmentsuch as masks and gloves, and where the virus is spreading rapidly, as demonstrated in New York City (The Associated Press, 2020).
Whilst Australian child protection services are currently transitioning their services in response to COVID-19, it is clear that opportunities exist to support the sector as it transitions modes of service delivery to identify children at risk and adjust assessment processes to reduce COVID-19 spread.
1.5 Impact of infection on current carer pool
to spread and financial impacts of lockdown continue, it is likely that without targeted intervention, the existing pool of carers will be impacted in the short to medium term.
Foster and kinship carers represent an ageing group which places them at particular risk of COVID-19 symptoms. The largest available Australian survey of foster and kinship carers indicates 64.5% of carers are over the age of 50 with only 12% under age 40 (Qu et al., 2018). In comparison to the general Australian parenting population, carers are at greater risk of experiencing more serious complications from COVID-19 given their age, and more likely to be required to self-isolate under current Government guidance.
To the extent this occurs, the capacity of these carers to look after the child or young person in their care who may now have more intensive care needs as a result of the pandemic is compromised.
We undertook analysis to explore the likely impact of COVID-19 on the current carer pool. Data forecasting based on the average age of carers, annual trends in children requiring care over the last 5 years and contraction as a proportion of the Australian population reported by NSW Health (as of 12 March 2020) was undertaken to predict the likely impact of COVID-19 on carer infection rates. On the basis of these factors, our analysis suggests that carer infections are likely to impact on up to 8,500 of placements, potentially creating instability in care for these children and requiring additional placement supports. This is equivalent to a 20% increase in children who may require support to retain their placements, on top of new admissions who will require a placement.
The strain on carers will be exacerbated by the reduced level of support from case workers due to illness and lockdown measures preventing face-to-face support service contact. A recent interview with a foster carer highlighted this challenge. The carer expressed concerns that without face-to-face catch-ups with her foster child’s case worker, it will “remove another regular visitor to the house who is always interested in [the child] and his welfare”. The carer suggested that “more regular contact on the phone would be good” as she has received advice that regular home visits will not be continuing.
A similar concern is present in residential care environments where there may be a shortage of staff to maintain placements to the required safety standards (Tickle, 2020), leading to closure of these institutions and a likely need for placement of children in hotel and motel settings.
COVID-19 also poses challenges in providing care for children who currently are in need of a placement. In the United States (US), there have been reported instances where carers have refused to foster new children due to concerns that these children may carry the virus and infect the remainder of the household (Hager, 2020). Taken together, this evidence suggests that an initial reduction in the available carer pool for children entering out of home care is likely.