Leaving care: The generation of Aussie foster kids making it on their own

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An 18th birthday is usually a cause for celebration, but for those in foster or residential care it can be a pretty daunting time.

Once they turn 18, they have to leave care, find their own independent accommodation and support themselves financially.

More than one third of those leaving care will experience homelessness within the first year, and many have problems finding work and staying on track.

The US, the UK and NZ have all raised the age of leaving care to 21. This small change has had significant results, and youth services in Australia are now pushing for the same reforms.

Jasper, not his real name, is 17 years old and living in foster care. He’s in a stable home. But he’s watching closely as those around him - also in out of home care - hit the big 1-8.

"It's definitely those worries that once you turn 18 you're going to have to make your own way straight away," he says.

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We can’t identify Jasper for legal reasons. At 18, young people - like Jasper - in foster or residential care are legally required to leave care.

This usually means finding their own accommodation and becoming financially independent. 

"The differences between someone in care turning 18 and just someone living with their family is usually you don't have the opportunity or the chance to keep living where you are," Jasper says.

"You have to move out, be more independent and sometimes that support's not there. When you're living with your parents you always have them to fall back on if things go wrong."

Carla is 21 years old. When she was 18, part of her was really looking forward to being independent.

"If I wasn't 18 and if I wasn't in foster care I wouldn't have moved out," she says.

"I probably would have moved out the age I am now because I'm a lot more mature, I've come through, I've finished school so I've got a full time job now so I would have been more prepared to move out on my own."

"If I wasn't 18 and if I wasn't in foster care I wouldn't have moved out..."

In her first year out of care, Carla faced some challenges. She felt unsafe in her new house, decided to move out, but was then homeless for 6 weeks.

She moved from couch to couch, worried that she was becoming another statistic.

"I really didn't want to stay in a homeless shelter? I was like this close to staying in a homeless shelter," says Carla.

"That means I've proven people right that people who have been in foster care end up homeless and in shelters and I don't want to do that."

The stats for young people leaving out-of -home-care are pretty dire. More than a third will experience homelessness within the first year

Two thirds won’t complete high school and their unemployment rate is nearly three times the national average.

Cassie and Lily have known each other for around seven years. Cassie was the coordinator of the residential care unit where Lily spent her teens.

"Oh I love Cassie," says Lily. "She was kind of like a mum to me.

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"I always knew, she was going to be there, nine till five, Monday to Friday. If I'd gotten into trouble you know she'd straighten me out."

When she turned 15, and then 16, Lily began to worry. Not just about having to fend for herself, but about being legally separated from youth workers, like Cassie.

"In New South Wales there's actually a law, once you turn eighteen they're not supposed to have contact with you until you're twenty-five, until you're completely out of the service.

"I think it's a conflict of interest or like a professional boundaries kind of thing. But it can be really hard, most of the youth workers were with me for four, three, five years."

Luckily, in 2014 Cassie became the head of a pilot program that would provide extended support for Lily and others beyond their 18th birthdays.

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