Jean Stogdon is chair and co-founder of Grandparents Plus, and a keynote speaker at Community Care’s Kinship Care conference on 12 March.
While the idea of children being looked after by members of their extended families is as old as the hills, the notion of kinship care in social policy is relatively novel.
The Children Act 1989 prioritised the placement of children needing substitute care with relatives or other members of their social network, marking the rediscovery of the extended family after a lengthy period during which such placements appeared to have fallen from favour.
In its relatively short history, social work has had many phases. Currently, we seem to be in a phase which places less emphasis on working with relationships. By comparison, 30 years ago the picture was very different: many social workers were motivated into the job by a wish to work with challenging relationships to overcome what we would now call the barriers to social inclusion.
Long-term casework has been replaced by short-term work, short-term relationships and a culture of case closure and onward referrals. As a model for stabilising unstable situations, this is inadequate, leaving social workers with low morale and children often neglected by the professional services set up to protect and sustain them.
It is no wonder that, in this context, the difficult and often painful role many grandparents undertake in family life is at odds with the prevailing culture. Grandparents have responded to the changing challenges in family life most who care for their children’s children second time around do so because of drug misuse. But while those looking after children with the same complex needs in foster or residential placements are well supported, kinship carers are not routinely supported.
The difficulty for social workers is disentangling family mythologies. Perhaps because of time constraints and loss of skills, many prefer to use unrelated foster care. Another element may be highly restrictive notions of safety which persuade social workers it is better to place children with strangers than kinship carers – no matter how unfulfilled emotionally a child may be – because of the apparent risks associated with family placements.
The so-called safe option is taken despite what must be the experience of every social worker that some foster carers are better than others, and despite the fact that a move to foster care often also involves other changes such as a new school. Given these factors, we must ask why the bar is raised so high with regard to kinship carers. One reason could be that, if a social worker advocates keeping a child within the extended family and it goes wrong, it may well be seen as the social worker’s individual decision. By contrast, responsibility for making a foster care placement work automatically becomes a corporate responsibility, with the link worker, foster carer and social worker involved.
As a result, anything social workers may have learned from personal experience of extended family care seems to be overshadowed by the view that such care is not suitable for vulnerable children. As a result, social workers initiate only a tiny proportion of relative placements, with most initiated by children’s relatives and friends.
Charities like Grandparents Plus are pushing for better policies on kinship care, targeted particularly at the mainly older grandparents who care and are often stressed and isolated by their experiences. And social workers need to acquire new skills or revise old ones to work effectively with kinship complexities, including mediation and negotiation skills.
There is a deep gulf between the official idea of how families operate and the real lives of ordinary people. Social workers need the support of managers and policymakers to put kinship care and the long-term interests of children properly on the map.
This article appeared in the 31 January issue under the headline “Time to lower the threshold”