The US president-elect’s family relationships show the value of kinship care, something we in the UK may have lost sight of
Barack Obama’s moving tribute to his late grandmother and his reference to the many other “quiet heroes” like her demonstrates one thing above all else. Those who matter most to us and who have the most influence over our lives are not necessarily our parents. Obvious? Well, maybe, but it’s striking how policy-makers and service providers focus their attention on parents when they discuss child welfare but fail to think about the extended family who play such a significant role in bringing up the next generation.
There are 200,000 grandparents raising grandchildren and a further five million provide childcare. Many step in at short notice as emergency back-up when formal childcare breaks down or pick up the pieces when families are in crisis. They do so often at great cost to themselves, but they do it out of a sense of love, duty and simply because if they don’t their grandchildren could end up in care.
In cases where families are in crisis, perhaps through drug and alcohol abuse, violence or bereavement, the children may well have behavioural problems or be traumatised in some way. Grandparents take this responsibility on but often find that the resources and support that the children need simply do not follow.
Because they are not formal foster carers they don’t “fit” into an inflexible and often insensitive care system. The Children and Young Person’s Bill, shortly to complete its passage through parliament, places greater emphasis on the role of the extended family or “kinship care” in providing care for children who would otherwise be in non-relative foster care. It is a piece of legislation that we support but unless professionals are taught how and why kinship care should be used, we will be no further forward. The Children Act 1989 requires kinship care to be considered as a first option but only 4% of children placed into care by local authorities are placed in kinship care.
So we need more than legislation. We need some new thinking.
If we consider our own family experiences how many of us can say our family fits the 2 parent 2.4 children model? It is time for the people who design and deliver our services and those who make our laws to reflect on the gap between their family model and our family lives.
Sam Smethers, chief executive, Grandparents Plus, for children and extended families
picture by Rex Features/KPA/Zuma