• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 25th October, 2011

Transatlantic calculations

A “Cost Calculator” developed in England will help US child welfare systems make more informed decisions about interventions, a transatlantic team of researchers claims.Researchers at Loughborough University, UK, developed the Cost Calculator to estimate the costs of different intervention options in children’s services, and to estimate how these options will impact future costs. Supported by government funding, the calculator is already being used by several local authorities in England. Now, researchers are working on a translation of the calculator for use in the US.The costs and savings associated with child welfare programs are notoriously difficult to calculate, partly because the costs and savings of interventions for families and children stack up over years, not weeks or months, and partly because many of the personnel costs incurred by the CWS through case worker and supervisor time are not usually tracked.However, as CWS strive to balance the demands of short-term cost-cutting with the need for long-term effectiveness, a tool that would provide better cost information could be a big asset for decision-making.The international team of US and UK researchers believe the Cost Calculator could be the right tool. The calculator takes into account the service costs for each step in the process of placing a child in care. This is done by analyzing practitioner time, gathered by having a sample of workers record their time spent on various processes, and then taking into account salaries and overhead costs. The time, salary and overhead information is used to calculate standard unit costs for each activity in a set of casework processes. The variation in these costs due to local differences, child factors such as level of need, and placement types are then incorporated into the calculations.The calculator then enables services to estimate the costs of various service options for the children that they serve, allowing for individualized estimates for local areas.Balancing cost and effectivenessWhen making decisions about which practices to implement, a key concern is cost – especially when all the options are considered to be effective. As the researchers point out, this problem is likely to arise when decisions are made from a short-term perspective. They argue that short-term thinking may only shift costs down the line, if more expensive but more effective interventions are not used or are postponed to save money in current budgets.Using evidence to estimate the long-term costs and savings in a tangible way could help policy makers to make decisions about investments that will generate both cost savings and benefits for children. Translating the Cost CalculatorThe translation of the Cost Calculator is being done by researchers involved in investigating the effectiveness of an evidence-based program, Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC). The first step of the translation was a study to estimate the short- and long-term costs of MTFC alongside other placement options in England and Wales. The study showed that although MTFC is an expensive intervention, the costs of social care were reduced after its implementation. The average annual costs per child were similar to those for agency foster care and around half the costs of residential care. This study allowed for a comparison of the service structures in both countries and concluded that translation is possible.The next steps in translating the Cost Calculator involve collecting data from the US that follow the structure of the original model. Data on service time and costs will be collected from two states using focus groups. The US version will be used to look at placement stability and the costs of placement disruptions in particular.The Cost Calculator addresses an important part of the cost-benefit equation – the costs of interventions to the CWS, including the personnel costs and overhead costs that are often difficult to measure, and the savings that accrue when an effective intervention reduces the amount of time CWS staff need to spend on particular cases. However, it doesn’t claim to be a complete cost-benefit package. As the authors note, many of the costs related to child services that are the most difficult to track come from outside the child welfare systems (CWS) – from education, mental health, and juvenile justice – and can’t easily be tracked. The Cost Calculator doesn’t offer a way to estimate these costs. Moreover, the focus of the Cost Calculator is, unsurprisingly, on the relative costs of various interventions over time, rather than on the benefits to children and families. The Cost Calculator will continue to be developed in both countries to incorporate costs and cost offsets in other public sector systems such as mental health and criminal justice. Reference:Chamberlain, P., Snowden, L.R., Padgett, C., Saldana, L., Roles, J., Holmes, L., Ward, H., Soper, J., Reid, J., and Landsverk, J. (2011). A strategy for assessing costs of implementing new practices in the child welfare system: adapting the English cost calculator in the United States. Administration and Policy in Public Health, 38(1), 24-31.Link to Cost Calculator:http://www.ccfcs.org.uk/

Back to Archives