There are an estimated 200,000-300,000 UK children in kinship care and yet many in the sector feel it is unrepresented, undervalued and under-used.
One of the fundamental differences between kinship carers and foster carers is that family members do not automatically receive training. This fact is often used by local authorities to justify their lower or lack of payment, yet often these carers are dealing with children as traumatised as those who go into foster care.
According to research by the Who Cares? Trust, 24% will have lived with abuse, neglect and violence, and 23% will have been deserted by parents, often as a result of drug or alcohol abuse. Sixteen per cent go into kinship care after a family breakdown, 10% after a parent’s illness, often mental illness, and 10% after a parent’s death.
Their status was recently highlighted by a High Court victory of a grandmother in Kent. She won the right to the same pay as a foster parent for looking after her granddaughter. That status means Kent Council must pay the grandmother £146 a week, the same payment that would go to a foster parent in the area, instead of the £64 in benefit support that she is currently receiving.
The council now plans to appeal. But many say the ruling confirms what should have been the case for a long time.
“It’s high time kinship carers had their needs properly assessed and fully met,” says Jeffrey Coleman, southern England director of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. “We know from research that family and friend placements are very positive, but they’re not as resource-rich in terms of opportunities for maximising children’s development and life choices.”
Although many predict that the Kent ruling will become a precedent that could sway local authorities away from using kinships carers – the lack of carer payment an enticing incentive – the truth is that few social workers currently consider this kind of care to its full extent.
According to the Children in Care Working Group’s 2008 report Couldn’t Care Less, in more than half of cases where children are placed outside their network of family and friends, there is no evidence of kinship care being considered. This is despite guidance and research saying it should be social workers’ first choice for children entering care.
The Children Act 1989 says social workers should consider the option of kinship care before placing the child in a formal fostering arrangement. The Children’s Plan 2007 backs this up, stating: “We will require that relatives and friends are considered as potential carers as part of a child’s care plan.”
The last government’s Green Paper on families promised parity between kinship carers and foster carers. Meanwhile, the Conservatives set out their stall by unsuccessfully attempting to amend the Children and Young Persons Bill so that kinship care became the preferred placement and kinship carers were paid the same rates as foster carers.
But equality may not necessarily be the answer. A publication of care planning guidance is currently being drafted by the Kinship Care Alliance, an informal group of organisations and individuals working to improve support for kinship carers. The guidance is due out in April 2011.
Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network and chair of the alliance, says the guidance will make clear that if a local authority is key to arranging for a child to live with a relative, that child should almost always be regarded as being in care.
“As a result,” Tapsfield says, “the carer would be classed as a foster carer and should receive the same level of allowances.”
But, he says, there is concern that a transformation of kinship care placements into more formal arrangements would deny the carer a certain level of control over the child’s life – a current complaint of many foster carers.
Tapsfield believes this issue could be avoided by the creation of a completely separate status for kinship carers.
“They should be regarded as a distinct group of families who need a particular kind of support services,” he says.
“Children can live with relatives under a number of orders. What we’re saying is that in terms of the provision of support and financial services, as well as level of control, it would be better if kinship carers were categorised as their own, unique group.”