All families draw on the implicit social contract that exists in
the UK between families and the state when bringing up their
children. Every day families depend on education, health,
financial, leisure and care services, including child care, day
care and elderly care. Some of these services, for example
schooling and primary care, are paid for indirectly through
taxation. Increasingly, other services, especially day and
residential care, require full or partial contributory payments at
the point of delivery.
For those kinship carers, mostly women, who bring up a “second
family” as a direct result of welfare concerns about a child in
their family – often but not always their grandchild – what
community supports are needed and what is available?
Recent research from the US1 and from the UK2
highlights the fast-growing popularity of formal kinship care. This
research indicates that for many children and young people who face
serious welfare difficulties at home, and who would otherwise
likely be removed from home and taken into care, a planned move to
live with a member of their extended family or friend is often the
Informal kinship care is not new. Many African, Australian
Aboriginal, Maori, Inuit and African-American cultures have raised
their children this way for centuries. There is also an increasing
diversity in family types and structures within the UK, but we do
not yet have sufficiently detailed census information to know about
patterns of grandparent and kinship care.
In the UK, children in a formal kinship care placement are known to
social services, and recognised under the Children Act 1989 either
as in need or looked-after. The research evidence indicates that
the main reason these children live in kinship care is child
protection concerns which mean that they can no longer remain
living with their birth parent or parents.
There were an estimated 8,000 children living in a formal kinship
care placement in the UK in March 2001, compared with 6,000 looked
after in residential care. The number in formal kinship care
(foster care) with a relative or friend increased by 34 per cent
from 1997 to 2001, compared with a 15 per cent increase in all
foster placements over the same period.3
Against a backdrop of increasing numbers of looked-after children,
a shortage of foster placements and poor outcomes for young people
leaving care, kinship care is emerging as another placement choice
for local authorities and, for the family, a way to safeguard the
child’s welfare and preserve the family. In this context our
research4 explored the experiences and views of young
people in kinship care, their kinship carers and social
Our in-depth studies of 120 kinship care placements of children
between the ages of one and 20 found the following:
- The reasons for the young people in the study being in kinship
care included child protection issues, the inability of a previous
carer to cope and difficult behaviour by the young person.
- Kinship carers were older than either foster carers or the
general parent population, with nearly three-quarters being over
50. Nearly half the carers were grandparents, nearly a quarter were
aunts and the others were sisters, uncles or friends.
- The young people were overwhelmingly positive about being in
kinship care: they reported feeling loved, settled and safe. Some
negatives were also mentioned, including restrictions to their
freedom and financial disadvantage.
- According to the social workers interviewed, the main reasons
for the children being in kinship care were child protection
reasons, often stemming from substance abuse by the birth
- Almost all carers believed that the overall impact of the
placement had been positive in terms of improving the young
person’s feeling of security, behaviour, educational achievement
and links with the birth family.
- About half the carers were struggling to cope with the
difficult behaviour of the young person and there were problems
concerning money, loss of freedom and overcrowding.
- Carers wanted more flexible non-stigmatising and responsive
education, health, and financial and social support.
There are also concerns about the disproportionate percentage of
young people from black and other ethnic minority groups in kinship
care (in our study within an inner London local authority the
figure was 43 per cent), in the looked-after system, among young
people leaving care and in the criminal justice system. The issue
of achieving appropriate high-quality services for black children
and families, including “cultural competence”, is of special
relevance in kinship care.
Kinship carers and children and young people living in kinship care
need a range of supports. There is no one “fit for all” approach
that would work for all kinship carers: kinship carers need various
types of support from different agencies. If our research findings
are reproduced elsewhere, then the carers of the estimated 8,000
children living in formal kinship care in the UK will need to be
given information about services and resources that are needed for
them as well as those children for whom they care.
A case management approach by one lead agency, perhaps a national
voluntary organisation working alongside social services, could
identify the sorts of family, educational and health supports
One such multi-agency model is found in New Zealand where the
voluntary sector undertakes family support, including kinship care
work. The statutory social services departments focus more on child
protection duties. Thus, kinship care support services are
delivered by voluntary organisations funded by the state.
Additionally, there is an entitlement to an allowance for any child
living in kinship care. This is called the “unattached child
allowance” and is payable by the Department of Social Security, not
social services. This allowance is attached to the child rather
than the carer and is at foster care allowance levels.
Here, a range of organisations and projects such as Connexions,
Sure Start and the children’s fund have the brief and
cross-disciplinary capacity to provide practical help, advice and
supports for troubled and in some cases socially excluded children
and young people living in kinship care and their carers.
The government’s social care minister, Jacqui Smith, has shown a
keen interest in kinship care and wants to take it forward. What
needs to be more fully acknowledged is the critical role that
community agencies, not just social services, play in supporting
children and young people at risk of social exclusion; ensuring
that kinship carers receive proper financial remuneration and
retain their health, well-being and goodwill.
Only in this comprehensive, planned and purposeful way can the
social contract, assumed to apply to everyone, reach out to those
most in need.
The main reasons for young people living in kinship care
- Child protection issues such as violence or abuse in the
- The inability of previous carers to cope, for example as a
result of a death.
- The young person’s problems or difficult behaviour, such as
offending or substance misuse.
According to the kinship carers interviewed, the advantages of
kinship care were:
- Providing emotional stability and cultural continuity for the
- Avoiding local authority care and being looked after by
- Feeling safe from adults.
- Maintaining links with family, siblings and friends.
- Getting support with education.
Almost all carers also described a number of drawbacks. The main
- Lack of advice about educational issues.
- Lack of acknowledgement of carers’ health issues.
- Shortage of money.
- Loss of freedom and independence.
- Difficulties with the young people’s behaviour – in some cases
Bob Broad is professor and director at De Montfort
University’s children and families research unit.
1 E J McFadden, “Kinship care in the United States” in
Adoption and Fostering, Baaf Adoption and Fostering,
2, B Broad, R Hayes and C Rushforth, Kith and Kin
Kinship Care for Vulnerable Young People, NCB/Joseph Rowntree
Foundation, 2001; A Richards, Second Time Around, Family
Rights Group, 2001; B Broad, Child Placements with Relatives
and Friends, De Montfort University, 1999
3 Department of Health, Children Looked After by
Local Authorities Year Ending 31 March 2001, DoH, 2002
4 See Broad, Hayes and Rushforth, as 2