Out-of-home care (OOHC) continues to gain popularity in Australia. According to Herrman et al. (2016), more than 60 children join OOHC weekly. Each day, about 7,700 children are in OOHC. Statistical data showed that the numbers doubled between 2001 and 2014, and expenditure on OOHC accounted for 65% of the funds allocated to child protection services from 2009 to 2010 (Herrman et al., 2018). Apart from the increased spending on OOHC, the rate at which children are maltreated in foster care grew by about 155% from 2000 to 2016 (Sammut, 2018). As many as 31,000 children also remained in care for over two years without the possibility of reuniting with their families.
To solve these problems, NSW Government introduced the Permanency Support Programme. The programme is intended to enable finding of permanent homes for children within two years stay in OOHC (NSW Government, 2019). Although the Permanency Support Programme helps to decongest OOHC agencies and find stable homes for the children, it may inconvenience parents that want to reunite with their children beyond two years. Ethics must thus be applied to ensure OOHC agencies perform their responsibilities appropriately. Ethics enables recognition, support and application of principles that determine right and wrong decisions or actions.
The Ethical Theories and Principles related to Permanency Support
This section provides detailed description of utilitarian and deontology theories as well as the four principles of service. These theories and principles are important in implementing the policies of the Permanency Support Programme.
Utilitarian theories was advanced by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). He stated that morality of any action depends on outcome or consequences. This outcome is the amount of happiness or happiness the action causes (Rachels and Rachels, 2014). In utilitarianism, it is acceptable to harm others as long as the harmful action increases welfare of a larger number of individuals (Conway and Gawronski, 2013). Ethical theories under utilitarianism rely on personal ability to forecast an action’s outcome.
From a utilitarian perspective, the ethically correct option is one that produces greatest good (benefit) to the largest group of people (Rachels and Rachels, 2014; Mandal, Ponnambath and Parija, 2016). Staveren (2007) stated that utilitarianism enables people to choose moral preferences and take actions that meet interests of others. According to Chonko (2012), utilitarianism upholds justice and shows concern for beneficence.
One disadvantage of this approach is the lack of certainty when attempting to predict results. A decision maker appears unethical whenever the expected results are not obtained. Again, the decision maker is presumed to have ability to compare various outcomes. In reality, however, the comparison between tangible and intangible gains is very difficult.
Deontology explains that morality of an action is determined by its inherent features. Any action that brings harm to others is not right, irrespective of its implications (Conway and Gawronski, 2013). The theory is founded on the ideas of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Deontological approach promotes adherence to universal norms that guide peoples’ actions, the proper behaviour, as well as right or wrong choices. Unlike utilitarian that is based on utility, deontology builds on reason (Rachels and Rachels, 2014a).
A very essential claim from Immanuel Kant is that human beings are equal and should not be considered as ends for others. In other words, everybody should be an end to themselves (Staveren, 2007; Rachels and Rachels, 2014a). With this, therefore, deontologists promote mutual respect as well as safeguard for human dignity.
The people that are involved in making ethical decisions must stick to remember their duties and obligations to other individuals or society. Mandal et al. (2016) explained that what makes deontological approach different from utilitarian is that expected outcomes do not always shape the selected means. Again, deontology focuses on individuals’ needs while utilitarianism is society-oriented.
The 4 Principles of Service
The principles in this category include beneficence, justice, least harm and regard for autonomy.
This principle directs an individual to choose the right and good decision in situations where ethical dilemma is accepted. In relation to the utilitarianism, beneficence encourages generation of greater good over evil (Chonko, 2012). Beneficence promotes highest amount of good because this has most benefits for people.
The ethical principle argues that those charged with decision-making should select actions that show fairness to the concerned parties. It requires ethical judgement to be observed at all times unless an extenuating situation is justifiable (Chonko, 2012). Although the push for fairness connects this principle to both utilitarian and deontological theories, its emphasis on adherence to ethical rules places it on deontologists’ side.
Least Harm
This principle applies to cases where there is no beneficial option. The best choice in such circumstances is usually the one which minimizes harm as much as possible and exposes fewest individuals to harm (Chonko, 2012). This aspect links the principle to utilitarianism.
Respecting Autonomy
The principle supports Kant’s idea that humans are rational beings (Rachels & Rachels, 2014b). It states that the decision-making process should allow individuals enough opportunities to control their lives as they are better aware of their preferred lifestyles (Chonko, 2012). Autonomy encourages the attainment of independence which enable people achieve the living conditions that they enjoy most.
Applying the Ethical Theories and Principles to the Two Options facing Sylvia
Option 1 asks if Sylvia should tell her manager to allow Laney spend extra time in the foster care so as to open possibility for restoration by all family members.
Argument for Option 1
Jeremy Bentham argued that morality has nothing to do with pleasing God or remaining loyal to abstract rules (Rachels & Rachels, 2014). This means that application of utilitarian theories to the situation would encourage breaking of the rules that limit stay of a child in foster care to two years. The case study indicates that Laney’s family had faced long-term/complex trauma and there is a possibility that permanent loss of the child’s care will subject the parents to further trauma.
Thus, breaking the rules to enable restoration of the child will make the parents happier. The Permanency Support Programme already allows for a little extension of time-frame to enable a child stay in foster care longer. However, this can only be done if parents are making good progress towards the Restoration Plan (NSW Government, 2019). Sylvia assessed the situation of Laney’s parents and even offered assistance but the parents’ progress towards the Restoration Plan is not good. If Sylvia chooses to make the parents happier, therefore, she still has to break the rules. In other words, if Sylvia relies on the principle of utility, she has to tell her manager to allow Laney stay longer in foster care.
Beneficence is also based on utility principle and pushes for generation of greater good for a larger number of people. The principle will thus require Sylvia to choose the action which will raise the level of happiness in the world (Rachels & Rachels, 2014b). This would mean telling her manager to keep Laney under foster care for longer than the stipulated time-frame. Sylvia will also have to take similar actions if she employs the principle of ‘least harm.’ While it is unreasonable to restore the child to unprepared parents, keeping the child in OOHC beyond two years is a breach of Permanency Support Programme rules (NSW Government, 2019).
Thus, Sylvia does not have a beneficial option. In such circumstances, the least harm principle would involve selecting the alternative that exposes fewest people to harm (Staveren, 2007). This means going against the manager’s commitment to the time-frame to allow the parents take Laney home whenever they are ready.
Argument against Option 1
Immanuel Kant understands morality as the set of rules that a person must respect from a sense of duty (Rachels & Rachels, 2014a). Additionally, the moral judgement has to be supported by meaningful reasons. Deontological approach to Sylvia’s situation thus requires that she follows the universal laws. Based on the case study, Sylvia has established her agency under NSW Government’s Permanency Support Programme. The programme’s policy requires her to meet the 2-year time-frame and her manager is loyal to the regulations. Moreover, Sylvia adheres to the directive to review family’s progress in accordance with the Restoration Plan in the first year (NSW Government, 2019).
Sylvia even made the appropriate changes to help Laney’s parents to access services and supports they need to bring the child home. However, Sylvia has realised that the progress is not good and she feels that the parents may only complete restoration over a longer period. From deontological viewpoint, Sylvia must not ask her manager to retain Laney in foster care for longer. Such a move may show that she is immoral and irrational. Deontologists argue that a moral act holds in all circumstances (Rachels & Rachels, 2014a; Rachels and Rachels, 2014c). Therefore, there cannot be exceptions.
Similar to the above, the principle of justice requires decision makers to comply with ethical guidelines unless the reason for exception of the rules is justifiable. According to Rachels and Rachels (2014c), virtue should be part of habitual behaviour. Therefore, Sylvia has to comply with the Permanency Support Programme policies at all times. The case is especially reasonable because she has confirmed the inability of the parents to take Laney home any sooner. The justice principle thus prevents Sylvia from extending Laney’s stay at the OOHC.
The last principle promotes respect for autonomy. It is founded on Kant’s argument that human beings have the right to make personal decisions, set goals and use reason to direct their behaviour (Rachels & Rachels, 2014b). Given that Laney is only 4 years old, the child might not be in a position to apply reason. This means that Sylvia has to take the action on Laney’s behalf. Sylvia already knows that the Restoration Plan is unsuccessful and can see that extending the child’s stay in foster care is unnecessary.
Option 2 asks if Sylvia should proceed with finding alternative permanency options for Laney by the end of the 2 years’ time-frame (April 2021) since entry into out-of-home care (OOHC) system.
Argument for Option 2
From a deontological perspective, there is need to act in good will to attain moral goodness (Rachels & Rachels, 2014b). Sylvia must understand what should be done and take actions based on sense of duty. Also, the caseworker’s decisions must be guided by reason. If Sylvia relies on Kant ideas and focuses on Laney’s welfare, rights and protection from harm (Rachels & Rachels, 2014b), finding alternative permanency choices is reasonable. As it is, the Children and Young Persons Act 1998 states that other permanent placement alternatives may be considered if restoration of a child to the parents is impossible (NSW Consolidated Acts, 2020).
Also, the Adoption Act 2000 (No. 75) encourages caseworkers to consider what is best for the child’s childhood and later life (NSW Government, 2020). This action also complies with justice principle in that it expresses fairness to the child, and is in accordance with ethical conduct (Chonko, 2012).
In regard to the respect for autonomy, the child’s opinion regarding other permanency choices is important but should be weighed based on the child’s developmental potential and the situation at hand (NSW Government, 2020). Sylvia’s decision to find Laney a different permanency option is ethical because it will ensure the child achieves the most enjoyable living conditions.
Argument against Option 2
The utility principle would recommend a step that yields the most amount of happiness (Rechels & Rachels, 2014). According to the Children and Young Persons Act 1998 section 10A, the first option for permanency placement is restoration of the child to the parent (NSW Consolidated Acts, 2020). This promotes preservation of family ties. Utilitarian approach goes well with this perspective. Adoption or other permanency options take the children away from their family members.
Such separations result in increased unhappiness and are not supported by utilitarianism. In fact, Sammut (2018) reported that Australians still consider adoption a ‘taboo’ because of the cultural legacy left by historical practices related to it. It is, therefore, apparent that utilitarianism does not support Sylvia’s search for an alternative permanency placement option.
Due to their close association with utilitarianism, the principles of beneficence and least harm also oppose the consideration of permanent placement options other than taking the child back to the parents. Beneficence supports the increased happiness gained when the family members stay together. On the other hand, least harm focuses on the greater happiness achieved by Australian communities when adoption is discouraged.  
The Choice that Sylvia should make
Sylvia should proceed with the pursuit of other permanency choices for the child by April 2021. NSW Government (2019) stated that it is not appropriate for the child to return home before the parents are ready. The child should only go home if they will stay with the parents. Besides, the Permanency Support Programme policy requires a caseworker to determine the realistic restoration possibility.
As such, no decisions should be based on mere hope in improvement of the parents’ situation (NSW Government, 2019). The situation must be practical and real. Although the 2-year time-frame is relatively short for vulnerable families seeking long-term support (Tune, 2018), extended stay in unstable government-supported OOHC has had harmful impact on the lives of Australian children (Sammut, 2018).
Maltreatment of children in long-term foster care (Herrman et al., 2016) is a major of the ‘drift’ which the Permanency Support Programme was established to address. Again, in Laney’s case, Sheila’s agency does not have personalised support packages suggested by Tune (2018). The fact is that children can only thrive if they have stable homes and family members (Sammut, 2018). Unfortunately, this is something Laney cannot get from the parents.
This is why Sylvia must open adoption options for Laney. On the good side, the adoption framework prioritises finding of stable permanency alternatives locally and within Australia (NSW Government, 2020). This means that even after adoption, Laney’s parents will know where their child stays. This right may only be denied if it can pose harm on the child or adoptive parents.