Why is permanency important?

For children in the child protection system, permanency is about securing a safe, stable and loving home with families that can offer lifetime relationships and a sense of belonging (Tilbury and Osmond 2006; Wright and Collings 2021).

As at 30 June 2021, there were just over 46,200 children in out-of-home care – an increase of 7 per cent (from 43,100) at 30 June 2017 (AIHW 2022a). About 19,500 (42%) of these children were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Nationally, 7,500 children in out-of-home care (76%) received a permanency outcome or long-term guardianship order within 2 years of admission to out-of-home care (AIHW 2022a).

What is permanency?

Permanency is a multifaceted concept, with at least three dimensions including:

  • relational permanence: the opportunity to experience positive, caring and stable relationships with significant others
  • physical permanence: stable living arrangements
  • legal permanence: the legal arrangements of a child’s custody and guardianship (Osmond and Tilbury 2012; Wright and Collings 2021).

State and territory departments responsible for child protection start planning for permanency when a child enters out-of-home care. This planning supports families for the return of children to home, where it is safe to do so. At the same time, planning processes also explore alternative long-term arrangements so that they are available if needed.

The importance of permanency

Research shows that a sense of security, stability, and permanency are strong predictors of better outcomes for children and young people after they leave care. The long-term consequences of a poor start in life flow through to adulthood, including increased reliance on welfare and health systems and other programs (Walsh et al. 2018).

Children in long-term out-of-home care, and those who experience multiple placements, are at greater risk of adverse outcomes for mental health and wellbeing, suitable accommodation, employment and relational stability, as well as disproportionately high rates of substance abuse and over-representation in youth justice systems (Malvaso et al. 2017; Lima et al. 2018; AIHW 2022b).

Permanency provides children in out-of-home care with the foundation to prepare for and participate in adulthood, and to pursue life goals such as education and employment. The achievement of a permanent placement for children in out-of-home care is considered to be crucial for a successful transition to adulthood (Salazar et al. 2018).

What are permanency outcomes?

Permanency outcomes for children in out-of-home care include preservation, reunification, third-party parental responsibility orders and adoptions. For some children a long-term placement in out-of-home care is also considered a suitable outcome.

Legal permanency can involve full or partial transfer of legal guardianship to the relevant state or territory department or non-government agency. It encompasses the following types:

  • Finalised care and protection orders involve transfer of some responsibility for the child’s welfare to the relevant child protection department or a non-government agency.
  • Guardianship orders (excluding third-party orders) involve transfer of legal guardianship to the relevant state or territory department or a non-government agency.

This range of permanency outcomes reflect the different needs of children and that for some children, especially those with complex needs or those requiring ongoing case management, the most suitable outcome can be a long-term placement in out-of-home care.