Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are overrepresented in the child protection system (Higgins, 2010). Issues such as stolen generation, past government practices, intergenerational impacts, economic, material and social disadvantage can make Indigenous communities particularly vulnerable and wary of government involvement. Past issues can act as both a barrier and incentive for Indigenous people to be careproviders (Bromfield, Higgins, Higgins & Richardson, 2007 (b)). These issues add complexity to how to best support Indigenous children requiring out-of-home care in a culturally-sensitive manner (Bromfield, Higgins, Higgins & Richardson, 2007 (a)).
Kinship care for many cultural groups is natural or more in line with existing ways and traditions of caring for children. It has been suggested that kinship care for Indigenous children may be preferable particularly because of the cultural, familial and spiritual connections (McHugh, 2003, cited in Valentine & Gray, 2006). “Thus kinship care helps Aboriginal children maintain their cultural identity and connections, and this lessons the stigma of out-of-home care” (Valentine & Gray, 2006, p. 541).
Although the benefits of Indigenous kinship care are clearly evident, benefits are inextricably linked to the availabilityof quality Indigenous kin placements (McHugh, 2003 cited in Valentine & Gray, 2006). A number of Indigenous carers may already be overstretched, not sufficiently resourced/trained and not have opportunity to access services (Valentine & Gray, 2006). This adds complexity to identifying and ensuring secure and robust placements (McHugh & Valentine, 2010). This underscores the importance of examining how best to identify, recruit and support Indigenous careproviders /communities so they can provide quality placements for Indigenous children.
Although Australia does recognise the importance of Indigenous children being with Indigenous careproviders via the Child Placement Principle, it has been suggested that compared to other jurisdictions more could be done (Valentine & Gray, 2006). Valentine and Gray (2006) cite the examples of Canadian First Nations and New Zealand Maori children where there appears to be more support, financial assistance, information provision and more diligent and concerted efforts to identify kin.
Given the different kin structures and conceptualisations of family within different cultural groups, dedicated consultation and active involvement of individuals/communities in decision-making is necessitated. Breslin (2009, p. 30) makes the comment that “…there is currently a lack of guidance around what constitutes effective consultation and the approach from caseworkers is inconsistent, or a ‘tick box’ approach (NSW Ombudsman, 2008)”. This highlights the importance of clearly understanding and ensuring that quality consultation with cultural representatives, leaders and elders occurs.
Given that there is a lack of Indigenous careproviders which means insufficient culturally-sensitive placements, this raises the question of how best to identify and recruit potential Indigenous careproviders4. Recruitment of Indigenous careproviders has proved difficult (Bromfield et al, 2007 (a)). However, recruitment difficulty is not always due to willingness on the part of potential carers but rather their “capacity or ability – such as financial capacity or ability to meet eligibility criteria” (Bromfield et al, 2007 (a), p. 5). Insufficient Indigenous careproviders can also be attributed to caregivers retiring, concerns about managing children with high level needs and the stress/strain on existing carers who are often overburdened (Bromfield et al, 2007 (a) and (c)). Recruitment of Indigenous careproviders may be more successful if “using Indigenous people to recruit Indigenous carers and community based recruitment strategies…” (Bromfield et al, 2007 (c)).
Insufficient Indigenous careproviders have also been experienced by Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. Ivanova and Brown (2010, p. 1798- 1801) explored the needs of Canadian Aboriginal careproviders and found that the following support needs were valued: (1) foster system care support (e.g. support worker, assessment, school support, respite, funding to keep siblings together in the family); (2) specialist services (e.g. tutoring, medical, psychological, training for themselves to manage the specialised issues the children may have; (3) education to develop their capacities (i.e. a variety of mechanisms to educate them e.g. mentoring from others; seminars, learning units, support groups, community resources); (4) cultural and community supports (e.g. Aboriginal and cultural activities, access to traditional teachings and language, cultural support from Indigenous services and assistance to repair relationships/connections with the child’s biological parents and kinship network); (5) recreational support – financial assistance so recreational activities can be accessed and enjoyed; and (6) housing assistance. Similarly, carers in Higgins, Bromfield, Higgins & Richardson’s (2007) research reported needing: financial, practical, emotional and peer support, quality, respectful relationships between caseworker, statutory organisation and carer; more collaborative, partnership style approach, involvement in careplans, more detailed information about the child, greater contact with caseworker, having an Indigenous caseworker, contact assistance and more highly skilled practitioners who are experienced and do not impose ethnocentric attitudes.
Assessment is vital in kinship care. A different approach to assessment is suggested but effectiveness is yet to be empirically established.
Suggestions for assessment pertain to both the process and content of assessment.
The process of kinship assessment could be more collaborative, supportive and partnership based. Safety and thoroughness are still essential.
A number of kincare specific content areas as distinct to foster care assessment have been recommended.
There is substantial justification for developing quality support provision for kinship carers. Not all kincarers will have the same support requirements or the desire to receive support.
Kinship care placements can be increased by implementing more proactive measures for identifying kin. However, kinship care is not suitable for all children. Not all kin have the capacity and ability to offer care.
Cultural awareness of how kin are understood and their role in Indigenous and other cultures is important. Likewise, assessment and support provision require consultation with Indigenous communities, leaders and elders so as to ensure cultural compatibility and social inclusion.
Kinship care does require professional staff who are well trained, skilled and aware of the particularities of kinship care. Specialised training may be required.
Kinship care is different to foster care. Policy, programming and practice need to be tailored to the unique benefits, risks and requirements.
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1 See also Smith & Palmieri (2007) for mental health comparison to general population. Children residing in kin arrangements may have higher emotional/behavioral issues compared to the general population.
2 Notably, Gleeson & Seryak (2010) are referring to informal kinship placements, however this issue may also be relevant for formal kinship placements.
3 These recommendations pertain to recruiting Indigenous careproviders and are not differentiated between kin and foster carers.
4 Information provided is derived from material that discusses Indigenous careproviders - both foster and kin.