In 1994 the world marked the International Year of the Family, and this fact alone is testament to the importance that cultures everywhere ascribe to the family. Like it or not, families are the most basic and enduring institution governing society. They mediate and interpret society to us as we grow to adulthood. More than this, family for most of us means home, and home, as Robert Frost once put it, ‘is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in’ (‘The Death of the Hired Hand’). But, for some children, the family home can be an impossible place to be. Sometimes the problem is abuse or neglect, sometimes it is parental illness, drug use or incapacity, and sometimes it is not a single problem but a combination of factors that means you’d better not go there, at least not at the moment. It is the mark of a civilized society that it provides alternative arrangements for children in this position, and it is the objective of such societies that they seek to make those arrangements as close as possible to the sanctuary that Robert Frost had in mind. In Australia, child protection is primarily the responsibility of state governments, and the child protection acts under which the states operate require the relevant Minister to ensure that all children have a satisfactory place to live. In theory, out-of-home care can take a variety of forms, and it can range in time from emergency care to long-term and even permanent care. In the main, however, out-of-home placements in Australia are primarily made with foster carers who are recruited, trained and supported by child welfare professionals.
One reason why family-based foster care deserves to be the preferred mode of temporary out-of-home care is because it is as close as you can get to the way most of us actually live. Besides, there is now considerable research evidence to suggest that conventional family-based care is the best option for most children (see, for example, McDonald et al. 1996; Minty 1999). Generally speaking, the research indicates that children from foster family care are more likely than children in group or institutional care to grow into well-functioning adults, as demonstrated by a wide range of social