Kids in out-of-home care 'screaming into the void' for help

Kids in out-of-home care 'screaming into the void' for help

Tobias Lindholme was just 11 years old when he was reported as a missing person.

He was living in out-of-home care and said he repeatedly tried to tell carers the placement wasn't working and he didn't feel safe.

"It got to the point where we were just screaming into the void," he said.

So, one afternoon at the park, he and his younger sister decided not to go home.

"And so I just left, hoping that something would change instantly, but knowing that they'd have to listen to me eventually," he said.

A new report has highlighted, for the first time, the disproportionate number of young people in out-of-home-care who are reported as missing nation-wide.

The report, prepared by University of New South Wales for the Australian Federal Police (AFP), found that while young people aged 13 to 17 in out-of-home care made up less than 1 per cent of the youth population in Australia, they made up more than 70 per cent of missing youth reports.

"They're staggering numbers when you look at such a tiny percentage of the population going missing from what's meant to be a safe and secure environment and often repeatedly," she said.

She said going missing was a sign something was going wrong in a child's life.

"Young people go missing because they feel unsafe, unwanted, unhappy," she said.

She added it was hard to know more about why young people in out-of-home care were over-represented in missing persons data, because the police records did not include information like how long they had been in care or who they were living with.

"I think that, so far, there has been a lack of curiosity from the police and child welfare agencies about the overlap between missing and out-of-home care experience," she said.

"I think it's to the credit of the AFP that they commissioned this report to look at what they don't know enough about."

The report found 77 per cent of young people who were reported missing disappeared more than once.

"That ushers in a whole lot of questions about their vulnerability around exploitation, child sexual exploitation, involvement in criminal gangs," Dr McFarlane said.

"You had evidence of girls as young as 8, 10, 13 being described as having boyfriends, and there was some evidence those men were actually adult males, some of whom had come to the attention of police for predatory or pedophilic activity."

The report also found almost 40 per cent of children reported missing were just 12 years of age, and the peak age for going missing was 14.

The report found indigenous young people made up 34 per cent of young people going missing.

Dr McFarlane said that partly reflected the high number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care, but that didn't explain it completely.

"It's about the care experience and the overlap with separation from family, separation from culture, removal to placements off land, removal from everything familiar," she said.

Jacynta Krakouer is an Associate Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Melbourne, and said out-of-home-care was a complex system that could actually cause harm.

"We see a lot of Indigenous young people still being removed as infants from the arms of their mums in hospital, their culture being foreign to them, and feeling they don't belong where they live," she said.

She said in her experience, young people commonly go missing from their placement because they don't feel safe, particularly in residential care.

"We need to invest more in foster care and kinship care placements, particularly kinship care placements," she said.

AFP National Missing Persons Coordination Centre Coordinator Jodie McEwan said the report would be handed to the missing persons units at all the states and territories.

"While police stand ready to respond to missing persons reports and bring these young people home, we want to take preventative steps to support these vulnerable children before harm comes to them," she said.

Tobias Lindholme is now 21, studying at university in Melbourne, and he has some thoughts on how to prevent more young people from going missing.

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