Finding the right foster carers for children in need

About 24,000 children live in foster care in Australia. However, with an increasing number of children requiring care and a fall in the number of people wanting to look after them, recruiting carers has become increasingly difficult.

Even where carers can be found, foster arrangements do not always work out. Around 50% of long-term foster parents ‘return the child’ before the end of the intended term.

Recruitment has been a particular problem in NSW following the state government’s decision to transfer responsibility for foster care from government to non-government agencies, which as a result have had to significantly increase their numbers of carers.

The situation could have led to increased competition for carers. Instead, three agencies in NSW - CareSouth, the William Campbell Foundation and CatholicCare - decided to take a collaborative approach and joined forces to find a better solution.

Working with UQ Business School and the University of Wollongong, and backed by $1m grant funding from the Australian Research Council, the partners set out to discover what type of people made particularly good foster carers and how to develop marketing strategies to attract them. 

Historically, foster care agencies have not had the funds to employ marketing specialists. Instead, campaigns were often designed by social workers based on their ‘best guess’ rather than scientific evidence.

Typically, these campaigns have involved community-wide calls for foster carers rather than targeted marketing strategies. As there has been virtually no research into foster carer recruitment, there has been no information on which to base marketing decisions. The research partnership aimed to fill this gap in knowledge.

The project, carried out over a period of eight years, focused on the characteristics and experiences of the carers themselves. It also provided insight into the children’s experience, for example by speaking to adults who had themselves been fostered as a child. Meanwhile dedicated teams were set up to focus on marketing and public relations.

The project has resulted in more effective marketing strategies to attract high quality foster carers. It has provided insight into the enablers and barriers to foster caring which has been used to redesign the marketing of foster care programs. New advertisements use more motivating messages and are placed where they are most likely to be seen by the right types of people.

The partnership has attracted local and national media coverage and was the winner of a Service Partnership Award in the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies (ACWA) 2014 Achievement Awards. Most importantly, however, it has resulted in significant increases in the number of carers for all three agencies.

CareSouth has more than doubled its number of placements since 2007 from around 60 to around 125 households; William Campbell Foundation has attracted 55 additional foster carers in the past five years, increasing its capacity by more than 300%; whilst in some regions such as Macarthur, CatholicCare has tripled the number of children placed with foster families between 2010 and 2011.

Efforts have been made to disseminate the results. Presentations have been given at ACWA conferences and other industry forums and reports have been made available to the sector.

This partnership has ultimately enabled more effective delivery of foster care programs and therefore improved outcomes for some of society’s most vulnerable children.

Are you an organisation in need to solve a business issue? Contact Sara Dolnicar and Melanie Randle to know more about their work and benefit from their expertise.

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