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Nikita Martin-Cu had been a ward of the state since the age of seven when, as a vulnerable 16-year-old, traumatised and with nowhere to live, the child protection system waved her goodbye.
The now 20-year-old does not regret being emancipated that young. It was the right thing for her, but she remains disappointed that the state – her legal guardian – saw fit to leave her without any support once she was legally declared an independent minor.
Nikita Martin-Cu was just 16 when she was declared an independent minor and told to fend for herself. Credit: Chris Hopkins
“The solution from child protection was to just make me grow up faster, so I could be pushed out,” Martin-Cu said. “I was pushed out because it was too difficult for them, and because their caseload was too much – that’s how I was made to feel.”
Within a year, she became homeless and a victim of an abusive domestic relationship, and she got involved in the youth justice system. But despite all that, she graduated from high school – a source of great pride for her.
Martin-Cu is now working to improve the lives of other vulnerable children and, like many in the sector, is advocating to raise the age at which young people can stay in foster care to 25.
She was part of the ministerial youth advisory group that pushed for a trial of the Home Stretch program to allow young people in state care to remain with foster families until they turn 21. It was supported by both Labor and the Coalition in the lead-up to the 2018 state election.
Coalition MP Matt Bach is backing a push to extend Home Stretch to 25.Credit: Wayne Taylor
The scheme has bipartisan support, but the Andrews government’s promise to legislate Home Stretch has stalled in the Victorian parliament for almost two years.
This week, the opposition’s child protection system spokesman Matt Bach introduced a private member’s bill to legislate Home Stretch to extend out-of-home care to people until 21, but also announced the Coalition would back a push to lift the age to 25. The Victorian Greens say they will support the opposition’s bill.
Bach said extending Home Stretch to 25 would give young people who have often experienced significant trauma the support they need to study, establish networks, find work and start planning for a life of independence.
“These young people have been failed by the state at every turn: bounced from temporary placement to temporary placement, and often subjected to sickening abuse and violence – while in the care of the state. So many of these traumatised young people – through no fault of their own – are then funnelled into youth prisons, to be further brutalised,” Bach said.
“All these young people are asking for is for the state government to act as a good parent would. Today, few supports exist for kids leaving care after the age of 18 – which is crazy. No one leaves home at 18 any more. Few fly the coop by the age of 21. Instead, most young people remain at home – supported by their parents – until well into their 20s. So, why does the state kick the most vulnerable young people in the state out at 18, or 21, with little more than a goodbye?”
Introducing the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Child Protection) Bill into parliament almost 600 days ago, Minister for Government Services Danny Pearson acknowledged that many people leaving the child protection system experienced difficult transitions and had poorer life outcomes than their peers.
“Evidence shows that supporting care leavers is not only the morally right thing to do, it makes good economic sense, with downstream savings across other areas of support including homelessness, mental health and the criminal justice system,” Pearson said at the time.
Martin-Cu describes lifting the age to 25 as giving people like her a chance to break the cycle of disadvantage.
“Every kid starts counting down until 18 because they’re excited, and they can have a drink for the first time or drive a car,” she said. “Every kid in care was scared about turning 18 because they were worried about being kicked out and ending up homeless. Kids were getting kicked out on their birthday, and that was their birthday present.”
Paul McDonald, chair of Home Stretch, said while he welcomed steps to eventually extend out-of-home care to 25, it was vital the government properly resourced the program in its current form.
He said lifting the age from 18 to 21 “didn’t bring on additional housing stock, didn’t open a mental health door and it didn’t bring employment”.
“I’d like to see the government get right the provision of services for 18- to 21-year-olds,” McDonald said. “The government needs to prioritise this group for housing, mental health, employment. The minimum I’d like to see is guaranteed housing for young people transitioning out of Home Stretch.”
The Greens and Victorian government were contacted for comment.
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