Throughout the western world, family-based foster care is facing similar challenges, to which most governments are responding in broadly similar ways. Among the most important of these challenges are declining numbers of carers coupled with growing numbers of children who are displaying more serious and intractable problems than was the case even a decade or so ago. In the USA, Britain and Australia, one predictable response to the crisis has been ‘outsourcing’ or devolution of the foster care system to non-government agencies operating under contract to government. In this chapter we describe how these factors came together in South Australia just as our research was getting under way. Because it sets out the policy context of our work, this chapter helps to explain many of the issues and problems our work uncovered. Although the details of this outline are necessarily limited to Australia, readers from North America, Britain and continental Europe will no doubt recognize many of the issues within their own countries.
In South Australia, as in all Australian states except New South Wales (see Chapter 1), adoption is not an option for most of the children in alternative care and there is no provision under South Australia’s Children’s Protection Act 1993 for permanent termination of parental rights, although in extreme cases the court may proscribe contact with certain family members. In most cases, social workers are required to ensure that the child has the best possible connection with their birth family, even in cases where the family has been abusive (Department for Family and Community Services 1996). Although state government ministers are ultimately responsible for providing out-of-home care for children, governments have never worked alone. Throughout Australia, state governments have traditionally provided some out-of-home care placements, but they have also licensed and funded alternative care providers within the non-government sector. Indeed, non-government welfare agencies have been involved in the provision of alternative care services from the very earliest days of white settlement in Australia (Dickey 1980). Prior to the restructuring of foster care services that occurred