A newly commissioned report has considered three scenarios to assess the impact of COVID-19 on families experiencing vulnerability coming to the concerning conclusion that, unless deliberate and considered action is taken, an additional 4,500 Victorian children could enter the out-of-home care system by 2026 as a result of COVID-19, increasing the total number of children potentially in out-of-home care in six years’ time to 27,500 children.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the risk factors for families that can lead to abuse and neglect, leaving Berry Street, who commissioned the report, and the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare concerned for the impact on both children and the child protection system.
The report considers three scenarios to assess the impact of COVID-19 on families experiencing vulnerability – a constrained pandemic with a fast economic recovery; a prolonged pandemic with a slower economic recovery; and, a severe and rolling pandemic with a protracted economic recovery.
Under a constrained pandemic scenario, the modelling predicts approximately 24,000 children will be in out-of-home care in 2026. In the event of a prolonged pandemic and slower economic recovery, approximately 25,000 children are forecast to be in out-of-home care in 2026.
However, a severe and rolling pandemic with a protracted economic recovery could see a 20 per cent increase on current rates in demand for child protection for five years, which would mean approximately 27,500 children potentially in out-of-home care by 2026 – an additional 4,500 children as a result of the pandemic.
“If this happens, Victoria’s child protection system won’t just be broken – it will be beyond repair, and we will see more tragic outcomes for children in care as a result,” Berry Street CEO Michael Perusco said.
In light of the findings, leading child and family agencies are calling on the Victorian Government to provide additional, sustained investment in effective early intervention programs, to reduce the number of children experiencing harm and entering the child protection and out-of-home care system.
“Even before the pandemic, the child protection system was broken, causing devastating outcomes for children and young people. Now, COVID-19 is pushing even more families to breaking point, which could see thousands more children potentially enter out-of-home care as a result,” Mr Perusco said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the risk factors for families that can lead to child abuse and neglect, but, for many, providing targeted intervention at an early stage will help them stay safely together, and prevent the need for child protection involvement.
“Already, we are seeing the impacts of COVID-19 and lockdown measures on families. We know there are increased family conflicts and separations, family violence, parental substance misuse, parental unemployment and financial stress, housing stress, and inability to meet basic needs. There needs to be significant investment to support these families – especially now,” he added.
His perspective was supported by Deb Tsorbaris, CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, who said a whole-of-community response is “desperately needed” to address the impact the pandemic has had on families experiencing vulnerability.
“The impacts of COVID-19 are being felt more severely by families who are isolated and have unmet support needs, families at heightened or intensified risk of family violence as a result of being locked down with family members, and families in lower socio-economic areas or employed in industries hardest hit by job losses,” she said.
Families in these situations “are at breaking point” and are therefore more likely to be involved in substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect.
“Significantly reorienting the child and family service system toward early intervention needs a sustained and collaborative effort. We need decisive action, and an ongoing commitment of additional investment to seed change, start to improve outcomes for children and young people, and to deliver long-term, economically sustainable results,” Ms Tsorbaris added.
The report proposes long-term investment in targeted early intervention to prevent children entering the out-of-home care system in Victoria, which would deliver net savings of up to $2 billion over ten years and prevent almost 1,500 children from entering out-of-home care every year.
Research for the report was undertaken by Social Ventures Australia, and supported by the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare and a coalition of Victoria’s leading child and family services agencies, including the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, OzChild, Anglicare Victoria, MacKillop Family Services, Mallee Family Care, the Queen Elizabeth Centre, Uniting Victoria and Tasmania, and Youth Support and Advocacy Service.
The full report is available to view here.