Invest in more support care for families in crisis, local authorities urged
Research suggests that short-term care is a cost-effective solution
Local authorities in the UK should invest in support care schemes as a cost-effective way of supporting families and keeping children out of more expensive full-time care, the Fostering Network is urging.
The charity's call comes with the publication of new research – The Unit Costs of Support Care – by Loughborough University showing that support care, including the accompanying support services for families, has a far lower unit cost than the foster care it replaces and aims to avoid longer term.
Support care is short-term preventative foster care aimed at families in crisis with a view to avoiding a child being take into care full time and long term. Support carers look after the child on a part-time basis, for example one night a week or one weekend a month, for a time limited period. At the same time a package of other support services is offered to the family, giving them space, guidance and help to work through their problems.
The research, by the university's Centre for Child and Family Research, studied two real life case studies, and for the first time estimated and compared the annual unit costs of providing support care and accompanying services –for example attending a parenting programme or being given housing support and budgeting advice – with full-time foster care for the same children. It found that foster care was four to nine times more costly than support care, which had an annual cost per supported family of between £10,800 and £14,400.
Even more importantly, says Fostering Network, support care is effective – the input of the support carer and the help provided alongside support care can often means that the child does not need to come into full-time care. It is estimated that just two or three children end up in the care system for any length of time out of every 100 support care referrals.
However, despite the low cost and effectiveness, very few local authorities have support care schemes. Currently there are around 16 local authorities in England and four in Wales running support care schemes.
Philippa Williams, who runs the Fostering Network's support care project, said:
"At a time when local authorities are facing budgetary pressures and too often cutting support services for families, this research shows the real value of investing in support care.
"Unfortunately the "invest to save" mentality is not prevalent at the moment, and we are seeing local authorities cutting early support services such as support care. This research shows that this is a false economy. The more innovative fostering services are already recognising the value of support care, and we are urging others to do the same."
Fostering Network says that support care is an extremely flexible service, and helps families to grow in confidence and skill, as well as introducing them to wider support. In addition to helping struggling families stay together, support care can help family and friends carers such as grandparents who report that they struggle when children are first placed with them. Support care is also effective in helping to prevent adoption breakdown, especially during teenage years, as well as supporting families whose children do not hit the criteria for short breaks for disabled children but desperately need help.
The Unit Costs of Support Care is available to download here.