When I arrived at SARC nearly three years ago, I was handed the Rental Affordability Snapshot to do, with a wry smile and sympathetic look from the rest of the team.
Two clear messages emerged from this work:
- Tasmania is losing rental stock; and
- Affordability in the private rental sector is dire for low-income Tasmanians, but is increasingly worse for families.
In conversations with Anglicare Housing Workers, it became clear to me that there was a group of families who were likely to feel the impact of these trends immensely, but had not been identified otherwise. They were families whose children have been removed by Child Safety Services. The loss of parenting-related payments causes a large drop in income and makes holding onto a family home for kids to return to an impossibility in the private rental market.
Internationally, the poverty that families face when their children are removed has been gaining attention. In Limbo contributes to that conversation by investigating the nature and extent of the income and housing challenges faced by reunifying Tasmanian families and the impacts those challenges may have on family reunification outcomes. It also explores what an effective model to address these challenges might look like, drawing on UK and US responses. It contributes to the Tasmanian Government’s evolving redesign of Child Safety Services and its renewed focus on keeping families together, or expediting family reunifications where possible, to minimise the traumatic impacts on children of removal from their birth families.
At a point when families are reeling from the trauma and grief of child removal, many families who are already vulnerable to poverty lose between half and two-thirds of their household income when they become ineligible for parenting payments. This loss of income intensifies their struggles and stress to provide for their children and to meet other reunification goals.
Parenting costs money, even when you do not have the children in your direct care. The space you need for your children does not change whether they are staying with you one night a fortnight, or 24/7. They still need beds to sleep in. Food, age-appropriate clothes and toys, acknowledging birthdays, big items like car seats – these costs do not disappear. But they become a huge challenge to provide on a single adult rate of Newstart – $580 a fortnight.
There is no statutory recognition of parenting costs until well into the reunification process, after overnight visits have already commenced. The lack of stable housing in particular often stalls family reunification indefinitely, prolonging the trauma of family separation and disruption for children and compounding parental stress. Reunifying parents are not identified as a priority for public or social housing, nor are they flagged as a vulnerable cohort for crisis and transitional accommodation.
I don’t really think Child Safety understand the struggle that parents have. I get my kids for three nights. I’ve got $4 to my name. And I don’t get paid until the day before they go. They’re my children. I should provide for them. I shouldn’t have to ask for help.
Child Safety know Tasmania’s the most expensive state to live in at the moment. The housing’s just shocking. They’ve watched my struggle with housing, like I’ve always worked closely with them. They’ve watched me move into a house, get kicked out of a house. So for me to finally get stable accommodation and them question me, ‘Oh is that where you’re always going to stay with the kids?’
Child Safety told me I got about 21 days to find accommodation… You try finding private accommodation on Newstart. You can’t. Couldn’t even rent a caravan out. So I was thinking to myself, how can anyone survive, or get accommodation to support your child on this? On Parenting Payment I could barely do it, but when I went to the Newstart, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know what to do.
By the time I get me Newstart and I pay me rent and power, I have about $280 a fortnight. By the time I buy groceries, fuel costs, yeah, and my phone, doesn’t leave me much… A car shortens your budget… an oil change, a service, tires, battery. If that occurs, that’s a big chunk out of your allowance, and you have to turn for assistance… but I try not to unless I really have to.
This bloke was going to hire me part-time driving a truck. But I said I only can work Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, because I have access to Sam…I haven’t heard back from that bloke and I’m thinking to myself, I don’t know whether he’ll hire me for two days… Sam comes first I think. He’s my priority.
We know that poverty can have a direct or indirect impact on child maltreatment: directly, through a family’s struggle to provide for their children, and indirectly through parental stress leading to struggles in coping with child behaviour and maintaining regular routines. This is a social worker’s bread and butter. So why do we not see material basics addressed, to ensure that Child Safety Workers are assessing parents’ capacity to parent safely, rather than assessing the impacts of poverty on parents’ ability to cope?
Similar to UK research, Tasmanian government and community sector workers talked about poverty as being the normalised backdrop of their practice. Practice responses included “not my business to solve”; “let’s focus on what’s wrong with you”, rather than, “what’s preventing reunification that we can help you with?”; or poverty becoming the wallpaper of practice, too big to tackle – “we feel unable to solve parents’ challenges”. These are practices we can all recognise.
Such responses mean that income and housing challenges do not get addressed in any systematic way. They are being stepped over, left as the elephant in the room, whilst we continually focus on ‘what’s wrong with you that we need to fix?’
So how can we move poverty from being the wallpaper of policy, practice and programs to being at the forefront of it?
In Limbo’s recommends a policy, practice and program framework that operationalises a duty of care to parents and offers elements that would build a poverty-informed approach to supporting parents. It particularly draws on UK and US legislative, practice and supported housing responses that address reunifying families’ basic needs so that poverty is not assessed as child maltreatment and does not interrupt family reunification.
In Limbo serves to support Tasmania’s continued efforts to act in the best interests of the child by ensuring families are supported to maintain safe spaces, in the spirit of psychologist John Bowlby: If a community values its children, it must cherish the parents.
The kids don’t know that I struggle. You always find a way. They don’t know and you don’t want them to know…