TACSI spent time learning from young people who had grown up in care to develop opportunities to improve outcomes for care leavers.
Every year in Australia 1150 young people aged 18 leave out of home care. In the following years they experience the challenges common to nearly all young adults – moving into independent housing, leaving school, finding employment, finding a partner, starting a family. However, care leavers typically experience these transitions at a younger age, more rapidly, without strong family support, and with the likely legacy of trauma, grief and loss from their early lives.
Despite the best efforts of services and workers, outcomes for these young people as they grow into adult life are typically poor. It’s estimated that each annual cohort of care-leavers will cost the government $2 billion in service delivery over their lifetime, or $46 million a year. $76 million of that will be spent on income support between the ages of 18-27, and $350 million on mental health over 35 years.
The Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department, leading a collaborative group of 10 federal agencies, invited TACSI to explore opportunities to enable these young people to live thriving lives and reduce long term costs for government – especially those relating to justice. The Department saw understanding what young people needed and wanted as fundamental to identifying new opportunities for innovation. They invited TACSI to help them do this because of our experience of working with hard to reach groups.
 Morgan Disney Associates & Applied Economics Pty Ltd (2006). Transition from Care: avoidable costs to governments of alternative pathways of young people exiting the formal child protection system in Australia, p. 8
To develop insight into opportunities in this particularly complex area we used an approach that combined rapid-ethnography with young people, semi-structured interviews with service delivery staff, and a systems analysis of young people’s experience in and after care. We also spent time with bureaucrats in the system. The shortcomings of out of home care have been knowns for some time, there has been significant investment in redesign, reform, and enquiries in every state. Given this work we wanted to understand how the system improves itself, in other words we wanted to understand how innovation can happen in this complex environment.
Over three months we met young people, workers, and managers in South Australia, and spent a week meeting Aboriginal young people and services working with them in Darwin. It was a particular challenge to recruit and engage young people in a meaningful way. The young people we met were more than willing to contribute their stories to the projects, but for many the complexity of their own lives got in the way.
Six out of every seven meetings were cancelled at short notice, and for good reason. In the course of the project one young person was incarcerated, another had their house ransacked, another had been pronounced clinically dead during a trip to hospital a few days before we met.
Throughout the project we used stories and video to keep the Department and the collaborative group informed as to what we were learning on the ground. Our co-design approach to developing insight served as a compliment to other approaches being used to inform policy ideas including a literature review and expert group. We were able to contribute questions to the literature review and emerging themes to the expert group. We were also able to quickly test ideas developed by the expert group with young people to determine if they would work or not.
Our insight work with young people, service providers, and bureaucrats helped shift what the Department saw as a credible solution. The project has started with the assumption that after-care services were poorly co-ordinated and difficult for young people to navigate. The implicit logic was that better co-ordination of service after-care would lead to better outcomes. The young people we spoke to had little issue with after-care services, for them the problem was rooted in the experience of out of home care itself.
We learned from young people about what they considered to be the features of good out of home care and good after-care. Through analysis of our interviews and rapid-ethnographies a clear pattern emerged. For the young people we met a great out of home care experience would: build connections, expand possibility, and help them build a sense of control. Interestingly young people attributed the same qualities to good after-care support.
Concerningly, we heard from young people how services had (unintentionally) eroded the very outcomes they considered important. They gave examples of how care had made it hard to make and maintain healthy relationships, how being identified as a ‘care kid’ limited their own expectations of what they could achieve in their lives, and how care took away their opportunity to make decisions for themselves. Our work with services and managers helped us understand why this is happening.
At a high level the policy rhetoric focuses on creating outcomes for young people, yet in practice forces including hostile press and a culture of blame around adverse events work to to shift the focus of the system from creating outcomes for young people to reducing short term risks to the system itself. Any innovation in the system that promoted outcomes, encouraged co-ordination of existing services, or even developed new services would alone not be enough to create the required change, given the powerful external forces.
From bureaucrats and managers we learned about the challenges of creating meaningful innovation in the child protection system. We heard how well intentioned top-down reform was usually not based on an understanding of the realities of young people’s lives in care. We learned how solutions, often developed far from the field, were overly simplistic for the complexity of the situation. We also noticed how recommendations for reform focused almost exclusively on the ‘what’, for example naming a new service, procedure or process to be implemented, rather than the ‘how’ – for example recommending a process to follow that would get to better results. System thinking literature tells us quite clearly that when it comes to complex systems it’s often impossible to predict solutions because of their interconnected nature and the ease of creating negative externalities. When it comes to innovation in complex systems it’s smarter to follow a process of understanding, running small scale trials, and rapid iteration.
Our final recommendations to the Department covered three areas. We recommended the adoption and adaption of programs and services that have been shown to create the outcomes young people described as important. We proposed ways to shift child protection services’ fractious relationship with the media. We proposed alternative ways to deal with adverse events by drawing on examples from other contexts including the Israeli Military, social work organisations in the UK, and common medical practices. Finally we proposed the adoption of a rigorous approach to innovation in child protection that would explore and spread effective program, services, systems, and policy. Practically, we proposed the creation of a national accelerator for innovation in child protection.