Home Stretch by The Age's Miki Perkins

Imagine you’re a parent.

Until your little duck reaches adulthood you house them, clothe and feed them, schlep them to school and do everything within your power to give them a decent start in life.

Then, on their 18th birthday, you boot them out of the family home.

No, you wouldn’t do that, you’re not a monster.

But “we” (the collective state) do it with the young people legally in our care. That’s terrible parenting.

Victoria turns off support to young people in state care when they turn 18, despite a wealth of economic, social and even neurological evidence for a more generous approach.

For all the talk of our “progressive state”, we should be embarrassed that we now lag behind Tassie and South Australia, which have both recently announced bipartisan support for extending state care until 21 years of age.

Each year, about 500 young Victorians leave care and many are poorly equipped for the challenges of adult life.

Overwhelmingly, they’ve lived in unstable, often dangerous, settings. And they have endured trauma – often due to child abuse and neglect – before they entered care, and sometimes while in care.

Many don’t have family assistance. There is no friendly uncle to carry a couch up the stairs to a new apartment, or long-term family friend who’ll hook them up with a casual job.

And the future for this group can be bleak. They are more likely to be homeless, unemployed, experience poor health, suffer harm from alcohol and drugs, and be involved in the justice system.

Dylan Langley, now 24, told me he’d been in out-of-home care since he was 12 years old.

He spent the day before he turned 18 moving into an apartment with the help of a social worker, but found himself adrift after that.

“For the first week you are kinda excited because you’re an 18-year-old, and then you realise you don’t know what you’re doing with your life,” he says. “You’ve got no one that you can turn to any more.”

This abrupt loss of support stands in stark contrast with the trend for young people in the general population.

Almost half of people between 18 and 24 still live with one or both parents, moving in and out of the family home to pursue education or save for a mortgage in this era of superheated housing costs.

The UK and Canada have long provided optional continuing support for care leavers until they are older and better prepared for adult life.

And the results are hopeful: young people stay in education for longer, have better housing stability, use less drugs and alcohol, and go to court and prison less.

The economic case is also clear: analysis by Deloitte, commissioned by Anglicare and published a couple of years ago, found Victoria would derive a financial return of between $1.84 and $2.53 for every dollar it invested into extending state care.

It estimated that if Victoria provided the 500 young people who left state care in 2015 with an extra year of support it would cost about $10.5 million.

But the expected benefits – through relieving pressure on other services like housing or justice – would be about $19 million, a saving of about $9 million, it found.

A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare put it succinctly: “Tackling health and wellbeing issues when they occur in adolescence is socially and economically more effective than dealing with enduring problems in adulthood.”

Just by way of (slightly glib) comparison, in last year’s budget Victoria contributed $20 million to an eradication program for red imported fire ants. I mean yes, pest control is important, but so is the future of young people in our care.

In Victoria, there is a legislative responsibility to provide some help to young people leaving care, for example in finding housing. But in reality these packages are minimal and don't go far.

The government spends about $10 million a year on these programs but they are considered far inferior to extended care.

Social issues can sometimes feel intractable. Poverty, homelessness, neglect; there are no rapid and easy remedies. But when we're faced with a long-standing problem with a commonsense solution, why not act?

In this year’s budget, with the prospect of another ample surplus, there’s the opportunity to support a relatively inexpensive, preventative approach that is well overdue.

A good parent wouldn’t hesitate.

Miki Perkins is an Age senior writer.

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