In recent years, social workers have discovered the advantages of
children being cared for and fostered by relatives, otherwise known
as kinship care. The word should be “re-discovered”, for kinship
care is not new.
Ian Brown, born in 1903, and his brother were taken into care in
Northamptonshire under the Poor Law while their sister was left
with an aunt. After a period in the workhouse, they went to a
children’s home and then to a foster home from where they
absconded. Finally – and happily – they were placed with their
In 1948 Brown was appointed the first children’s officer of
Manchester’s new children’s department. He was small, dapper and
given to wearing a bowler hat. It was hardly the image of a welfare
reformer. But his childhood experiences equipped him with a passion
for child care. He had the job he wanted and never used it as a
stepping stone to a higher post. In short, he was committed to the
children of Manchester.
His first aim, in a department that was short of resources and
qualified staff and over-burdened with applications for receptions
into care, was to increase the number of children in foster homes.
He skilfully won over a cautious children’s committee and, at a
time of economic crisis, persuaded it to approve funds with more
trained officers. He divided them into teams which then led a
fostering campaign. Within a few years, the percentage of children
in Manchester with foster carers had risen from 35 per cent to 51
per cent, which was the national average. It was a remarkable
achievement for a large, urban authority.
Brown never forgot that he had been separated from his sister. He
argued that, wherever possible, children in care should remain in
touch with relatives. He encouraged his child care officers to help
foster carers understand the advantages of visits from birth
parents and siblings. In his annual report of 1960-1, he wrote of
the policy of regular contact: “This not only helps the children to
settle happily into their new environments but maintains a
continuous contact between parent and child, which is so essential
to the process of rehabilitation.”1
The children’s officer then had to develop fostering by relatives –
kinship care. When children had to be separated from their parents,
Brown instructed his staff to consider the possibility of placing
them with grandparents, aunts and uncles and older siblings.
Manchester’s children’s department probably had more children
fostered with relatives than any other authority in Britain. On 31
March 1964 44.6 per cent of its children were with relatives
compared with the national average of 21.2 per cent.
Again, Brown’s policy stemmed from his own positive experience of
living with his grandmother rather than from research. Although not
a qualified child care officer, he did study closely the case
reports of his staff and he personally got to know many children.
He observed that kinship care often avoided the trauma of children
having to be removed into a completely new setting, enabled them to
stay with people they already knew and gave them some continuity in
their lives. He acknowledged that relatives were not always as
skilled as some professional foster carers and that conflict could
occur between the birth parents and relatives who looked after
their children. Nonetheless, his hunch was that the advantages of
kinship care outweighed the disadvantages.
It is worth noting that in the 1950s and 1960s, Brown was acting
against the social work grain which was suspicious of the close
involvement of relatives. Yet, in 1984, the doyen of child care
researchers, Jane Rowe, upheld his hunch. She concluded from her
research: “To our considerable surprise our data showed that
children fostered by relatives seemed to be doing better in
virtually all respects than those fostered by
So kinship fostering is not new. Social work history shows that it
took off under the now almost forgotten children’s departments.
These departments lasted only from 1948 to 1971. They had
shortcomings but their many successes seemed to stem from being
entities whose sole concern was child care.
All this nearly did not happen because, during 1947-8, health and
education departments wanted the proposed service to be placed
under their wings – and probably submerged under them too. Perhaps
there is a lesson here in 2003 as social work itself is in danger
of being incorporated into larger services whose main function is
not social work.
1 B Holman, The Corporate Parent,
Manchester Children’s Department 1948-1971, National Institute for
Social Work, 1996
2 J Rowe et al, Long Term Foster Care, Batsford
Academic, 1984, page 175
Bob Holman is associated with a locally run project in Easterhouse,