All-American families

It came down to a straight choice between Chicago and San
Francisco. Jill Parker, fostering social worker in Leicester
Council’s kinship care team, had to make up her mind before she
could apply for an Isabel Schwarz Travel Fellowship, funded every
year by Community Care and the University of Kent to
enable social care workers to travel abroad on study trips.

As she was planning to travel in the autumn, Parker was faced, she
imagined, with the prospect either of looking at kinship care in
the midst of a howling northerly from Lake Michigan or of a warming
westerly from the Pacific. No contest, then – San Francisco it was.

She knew of course that California’s superior climate wouldn’t
swing it for her in the formal application. Parker put a powerful
case that rested principally on the way kinship care – fostering by
relatives and friends – has flourished in the US and the lessons it
holds for the development of kinship care in her home city,
Leicester. Leicester is a multicultural city and many of the
children who come to the attention of the fostering and adoption
teams are black or “dual heritage”, the social services
department’s preferred term for mixed race.

In the US, kinship care is widespread, having grown exponentially
in the past 10 years. In the late 1990s, the most recent figures
available, 150,000 children in the US were fostered by relatives,
about one third of the total in foster care. Beyond the formal care
system, 2.5 million families were sustained by grandparents who had
one or more grandchildren living with them.

As Parker discovered, grandparents are the mainstay of kinship
care. Having trawled the internet for examples of best practice,
she settled on the Edgewood Centre for Children and Families, in
San Francisco, and the Grandparent Caregiver Resource Centre, in
San Jose, both of which were able to offer advice and support on a
scale unrivalled in this country.

Parker says: “I phoned the Edgewood Centre out of the blue on a
Monday morning and they said they were about to hold their monthly
facilitators’ meeting. They have kinship carer support groups for
everyone – African-American support groups, Latino support groups,
men’s support groups, grandmothers’ support groups – and by a
fantastic coincidence I was able to spend the day with all the
facilitators of these groups. Our team in Leicester works with 52
carers; these people look after thousands.”

US agencies have recognised the extended family’s role in caring
for children and have begun to acknowledge it in their legislation
and practice guidelines, as well as in their policies on support
and training for kinship carers. It is the first and preferred
option for looked-after children, particularly black children.
Parker set out with the intention of looking specifically at the
training provided to kinship carers, especially any help they were
given to meet the identity needs of black and dual heritage
children; the range of support agencies involved; and the type of
support offered.

In California, the latest figures show that 25,000 of the 44,000
children looked after are in kinship care. Whereas Parker’s own
team would work only with children for whom statutory intervention
had been deemed necessary, the Edgewood Centre works with all
families regardless of whether the state authorities have impinged
on their lives. “That’s an important difference between the
American and British systems,” Parker says. “The centre is well
known so people are able to come to them looking for support, while
in this country either people are suspicious or we are gatekeeping
them out.”

The Edgewood Centre has about 60 staff, including teachers, nursery
workers, social workers and community development workers.
“Everything is there in one location with support and training
offered to all carers,” says Parker. It welcomes carers and cared
for, interlacing the serious business of learning with a liberal
sprinkling of fun. The timetable for the week of Parker’s visit
reveals a varied programme for enriching the mind, acquiring
practical skills and learning how to cope with life’s challenges.
There’s a class on jewellery making, which is one of several
“personal enrichment groups”, a choir group with lunch laid on,
tutoring for six to 12 year olds, an independent living school for
teenagers leaving home, a health workshop, a dance workshop,
recreation days for middle school children and “tiny tots” and a
“mystery night”.

“All of this is crucial to the carers,” says Parker, “because it’s
a place for them to come with interesting things to do, it has
activities for the children and it’s a chance for them to meet
other carers.”

Parker thinks that Leicester offers scope for kinship carer support
groups, if on a smaller scale than those at the Edgewood. One of
the activities that caught her attention urged grandparents to come
and experience “techniques to wellness”, focusing on ways to
decrease stress and improve health, enhancing family life in the
process. It’s a recipe that could work in Leicester, she thinks,
perhaps as part of a series of one-off area-based support groups.

“The main thing here is to look at carers’ health. Some of them
have significant health needs, just by virtue of being older – some
have had strokes, others have had mental health problems or are
overweight. And if you’ve brought up your own children, it’s very
hard to start over again.”

For many kinship care families, starting over is half the battle.
One of the main lessons from the US has been the need for social
workers to be more aware of how family patterns differ between
cultural groups. Professor Bob Broad researches kinship care at De
Montfort University and works closely with the Leicester team. “It
was realised that there were often many more relatives that black
families could call on than white families to look after a child in
need and this was not necessarily being acknowledged by white
social workers,” he says. “At the same time social workers had to
avoid the crude stereotype that extended families can manage on
their own. Active consideration had to be given to the question of
what further support they needed to take on caring

Broad says that kinship care is the fastest growing option for a
child taken into care in the US, driven by the shortage of
mainstream fostering places and the child protection implications
of rising drug misuse among parents. “We have to be conscious of
the changes in family structure. What is a functional family and
what is a dysfunctional family? I’m not sure I know any more. We’ve
moved away from the idea of a traditional nuclear family to the
idea of diverse family types. Kinship care, say a child living with
their maternal grandmother, is just another type of family

Parker’s career history includes child protection work and
community development, both of which inform her current practice.
The job, she says, is “nice and juicy” because you must understand
the attitudes and relationships, sometimes sustaining, sometimes
damaging, that hold between members of the extended family.

“The complicated family dynamics are why I love it,” she says. “Not
only are grandparent carers having to deal with their grandchild’s
loss, but they may also be having to deal with the loss and anger
they themselves feel with their own child, who has perhaps been
misusing drugs or abusing the grandchild. They may have split
loyalties. The question for me is, can they manage not to expose
the grandchild to their feelings about the child?”

In making such judgements there is no substitute for the practical
wisdom that accumulates from experience and, if the social worker’s
call is correct, the benefits are clear. The sense of displacement
that children in mainstream foster care may feel is often absent.
That was another lesson from the US. Parker sums it up: “The
emphasis was on positive, supportive ways out of a difficult

1 B Broad, R Hayes and C Rushforth, Kith and
, NCB, 1992

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