Australia

‘It wasnt in my plan’: The grandparents dipping into super to care for their grandchildren

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Joan's* home is full of unpacked boxes and her kitchen table is loaded with dishes she is too tired to clean.

She cares for six grandchildren under her roof.

But this is not Joan's usual home — she had to sell hers to get out of spiralling debt.

"I couldn't keep up the payments because I took on the children," Joan said.

"I couldn't go back to work, and it was devastating to me because I'd worked really, really hard to get to the position where I could have a job that earnt me enough money to own a home.

"I didn't ever think that I would be a solo parent of grandchildren. And of six."

Joan gained custody of the children through the Family Court, amid concerns of domestic violence and drug abuse.

"The two eldest have post-traumatic stress and so their sense of safety is often really hard for them, so I have to be constantly trying to make sure they feel safe," she said.

"It's manageable if I've only got one child at a time expressing some distress, but if there's more than one my ability to split myself up is really difficult."

A woman in shadow looking out a window.

Margaret* is also caring for her many grandchildren, living a cramped existence in a small, two-bedroom public housing unit with no room for the children to play.

"Basically, we'll go to the park on the weekends so they can just run and play and scream and yell," she said.

"[It's] very, very stressful. Very packed.

"The kids are sleeping in a queen-sized double bunk bed, so the girls sleep in the bottom bed, the oldest boy sleeps on the top bunk and the toddlers are in cots."

It has been this way since last year, when Margaret applied for custody from the children's parents amid concerns of neglect.

Not eligible for state support

Both women qualify for day care and after-school support, as well as Federal Government benefits, including the means-tested Family Tax Benefit.

Joan, who cannot work after taking on the children, takes home about $2,000 a fortnight, but regularly dips into her superannuation to make ends meet.

Red plastic bats and a bike lying on the grass.

Margaret, who works full-time, takes home about $2,600 a fortnight and does not have super to fall back on.

The grandmothers are kinship carers, but due to legislation introduced in 2016 they are not formally recognised for financial support from the NSW Government because they took custody of the children without the involvement of the state's Department of Family and Community Services (FACS).

If they had, they would receive the same assistance as foster carers — worth between $484 and $733 a fortnight per child, depending on the child's age — and could apply for extra financial support to cover things such as clothing, footwear, education and medical expenses.

"I don't believe it's fair. I don't think these children have any less need than children that are in foster placement," Joan said.

"I have attempted to speak to FACS. I've spoken to the FACS-funded program that I'm under to try and let them know that this is a really big issue with six children, and what I've had to give up for that to happen.

"But again, I get told the kids are safe and they don't want to intervene."

Hundreds of families affected

Support groups and not-for-profits say Joan and Margaret are just two of the growing number of families left without adequate support.

"Mirabel know of more than 500 families across NSW and 300 of those at least are in the Hunter region, the Greater Hunter Region and I would say 300 of those are not receiving the allowance from the state agency," said Mirabel Foundation support worker Karen Lizasoain.

"We don't know how many families it is exactly, because no-one is getting those statistics of how many families are not being attended to by FACS.

"Often, the grandparents are retired or close to retirement age and many of them are living on an aged pension, some on [a] disability pension."

Ms Lizasoain believes chronic under-resourcing of FACS is part of the problem, forcing grandparents to take matters into their own hands.

In 2017, a parliamentary inquiry into FACS found consecutive NSW governments had failed to properly invest in the sector, and only a third of children deemed at significant risk had received face-to-face visits from caseworkers.

"If grandparents are concerned about their grandchildren and they report it to FACS, they report multiple times, they keep reporting, but nothing is done, and the children remain in danger," Ms Lizasoain said.

"Then they go in and they take the children into a safe place. If this happens, the state agency says that's good, the children are safe now, and they just leave that family alone with no help whatsoever."

A small child's hand is cupped by an old woman's hand

Calls for change

The NSW Government has since allocated funds to support 75 extra positions in the sector, but Ms Lizasoain believes the law should be changed to treat grandparents the same as foster carers.

Former Federal Circuit Court judge Giles Coakes, who saw countless cases with grandparents, agrees they should receive the same treatment.

Dishes, a knife and chopping board near a kitchen sink.

"Whatever financial assistance they need, ought to be made available," he said.

"This sounds trite, but the children are the future of the country. And if they're not looked after properly, they're disadvantaged straight away.

"And they ought to have the best opportunities they can. And that needs money, if the grandparents and the parents can't do it."

Mr Coakes agreed that the State Government should consider the worsening issue as a wake-up call to start funding FACS properly.

"The department works very, very hard and thank God they're there for children," he said.

"But they can't be everywhere all the time or fund everything. And the department is in a crisis mode most of the time, with not enough staff and far, far too many cases coming before them."

No role in informal arrangements, FACS says

In a series of statements, FACS said legislative changes made in 2016 were to ensure financial help was given to children in out-of-home-care who it had assessed, and a court had agreed, were in need of care and protection.

"FACS does not have a role in informal family arrangements or Family Court orders where there are no child protection concerns," the department said.

Six pairs of shoes are lined up next to each other with grandma's feet facing them

"It is not appropriate for state child protection agencies to regulate family arrangements for the purpose of financial assistance.

"Providing financial support to families is the responsibility of the Australian Government via Centrelink."

Mr Coakes said the response was a "shunting of responsibility".

"Because the department there is saying quite simply, look to everybody else. What they ought to say perhaps is, if there's no other assistance available or not enough assistance, then yes, we would look at providing the supplementary assistance that's necessary."

Sentenced to struggle

For Margaret and many others, their battles continue day in, day out.

"I saw a need and I saw a suffering, so I stepped in to help," Margaret said.

"And now I get to struggle, and these kids get to struggle in a financial way because we're not on equal terms with other foster carers."

*Some names have been changed for legal reasons.

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