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Professional foster care as an alternative to residential care: it makes economic sense

Child abuse Foster care Home care Residential care Children Youth Victoria
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There is growing concern in the child welfare sector with the quality of care being provided through Residential Care out-of-home care services. In Victoria, the recommended policy direction is to move away from standard Residential Care as much as possible (Auditor-General Victoria, 2014), largely because it is both expensive and largely seen as ineffective, or even harmful to young people.

Experience internationally, however, suggests that placing children who have a high level of need and behaviour issues into home-based care is problematic (see, for example, Child protection Development, 2011). Volunteer foster carers normally lack the training, skills and availability to provide the level of care that is required. Consequently, high-needs children and young people who are in foster care tend to experience a high rate of breakdown of placements. This is particularly problematic because such high turnover of placements is itself a major contributor to behavioural difficulties and longer term attachment problems, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.

The message of this experience is that reliance on residential care can only be phased out (or reduced) as an alternative and viable model is brought into place. This model would need to be sufficiently robust to avoid the difficulties associated with high failure of placements as described above. A number of recent studies have pointed to the introduction of Professional Foster Care as a viable alternative to Residential Care placements.

In this report we describe a Professional Foster Care Model, based on variations of existing models developed both in Australia and internationally. The report will present an analysis of its economic viability as compared to the current system.

We stress that the model presented in this report is developed at a relatively high level. It is not in a form that can be implemented as is. More work would need to take place by experts in the policy and regulatory environment to detail its implementation. The main contribution here is in some estimated costings that show the move to a new model actually makes good sense financially. The costings themselves are based on estimates and approximations due to lack of availability of some information or data. Having said that, the analysis is sufficiently conservative that the underlying message is robust to these approximations.

The costing story is compelling: there are substantial savings to be had by following a model along the lines of what we present here. Any variation on this model throughout the stages of critique and implementation is very unlikely to change that story. We hope that by presenting a robust economic analysis, policymakers can find the courage to take on the journey of transformation, ultimately motivated by the desire for long term improved quality for care for children and young people who are most at risk.

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