Steps must be taken to ensure local authorities do not use special guardianship orders to further restrict access to services and financial support for kin carers, experts have warned.
A new government-commissioned study into children placed with family and friends reveals that, despite suffering higher levels of financial hardship, kin carers are often paid less than unrelated foster carers.
They are also more likely to receive little or no social work support, have no family placement worker, and have no access to training or foster care support groups.
The report suggests that the situation is in part due to kin carers being encouraged after being assessed as foster carers to apply for Residence Orders, under which social work visits cease and payments become lower and discretionary.
Worryingly, kin carers who fail to meet the standards for approval as foster carers because of past difficulties or current health problems are also sometimes advised to go down this route, further disadvantaging those children placed with kin where there is greatest need or risk.
The report, by researchers at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, warns that Special Guardianship Orders could similarly be used by local authorities to restrict services for kin carers.
The new orders, introduced in December 2005, give the carer responsibility for all aspects of caring for the child, who will no longer be looked after by the local authority. Although carers are entitled to an assessment of need, local authorities are free to decide what level of support to provide and guidance does not specify much allowance should be paid.
Kirklees Council is already facing a possible legal challenge over its decision to offer rates to special guardians which are two-thirds of the level of equivalent fostering allowances.
“The introduction of Special Guardianship appears to offer both opportunities and risks,” the report authors warn. “Local authorities committed to enabling practice with kin carers may use it well. However, it could also be used to restrict services for kin carers.”