Ties that bind

For the past six years Dorothy Bremner and her husband, who live in
Edinburgh, have been caring for their grandson, who is now 16. They
adopted him when he was 10 because his mother, Bremner’s adopted
daughter, had been involved in the city’s drug scene. Although her
daughter’s involvement in drugs had been mainly through boyfriends’
misuse, Bremner says her daughter was taking “a cocktail of party
drugs” for a year before social workers took her two children into

Once in care, the plan was for the two children to be adopted but,
although an adoptive family was found quickly for Bremner’s
granddaughter, this was not the case for her grandson, who has
challenging behaviour. When they realised this, Bremner and her
husband stepped in and legally adopted their grandson. They remain
in touch with their granddaughter and their daughter, who is now
clean of drugs.

Bremner’s story is not an isolated case, particularly in Scotland,
where levels of drug misuse are high. Parents who misuse drugs or
alcohol may struggle to care for their children and, when this
happens, responsibility for bringing them up often falls to

Bremner’s experience gave her the motivation to set up a
grandparents’ group within the Sunflower Garden Project, an
initiative which works with children whose families are affected by
drugs and is run by Simpson House, an Edinburgh-based drugs
counselling project.

Bremner says the main problem faced by grandparents is a lack of
financial support: “I know of one grandmother who is looking after
three grandchildren and gets no financial help because she is

The problem of funding is emphasised by Bob Broad, director of the
children and families research unit at De Montfort University,
Leicester. He says that, although kinship care can help provide a
child with continuity and a sense of identity, there are clear
downsides. “These kinship carers bring up the children in spite of
the authorities. Grandparent carers are older and financially worse
off than approved foster carers and are often in poorer health,” he

Grandparents who have already invested heavily in raising their own
children may not have money spare to bring up another generation.
Broad says: “Grandparents have less money to give to their
grandchildren. Often they are not working so it is difficult to
fund things like school trips.”

To make matters worse, grandparents are not entitled to the same
payments as approved foster carers. Councils are not obliged to
make some payments. And, often, grandparents are unaware of what
mainstream benefits are available to them.

Ruth Stark, a professional officer for the British Association of
Social Workers and an independent safeguarder for children, has
personal experience of caring for her own grandchild (see
. She often hears grandparents say how complex
applying for child benefit is and how it can “take forever to come

Grandparents can find themselves caring for their grandchildren
without the necessary professional support. Glenn Liddall, manager
of the Sunflower Garden Project, says that, when faced with the
option, many grandparents feel they should take on responsibility
for their grandchildren because they are related. But this can
result in frustration. “As a grandparent they are supposed to have
the children over on a Saturday afternoon and take them to the park
before giving them back again, not care for them full-time,” he

The nature of the grandparent-grandchild relationship can also take
its toll as the placements tend to go on for longer than expected.
“Grandparents may think it is only temporary but before they know
it they are caring for their grandchildren full time for

So how can social workers better support these clients? Bremner
urges councils to recognise that grandparents are committed to
their grandchildren and to suitably support them. Liddall says
practitioners need to ask grandparents what help they need.

For Stark, the answer is for the benefits agency to be more
flexible in its approach to awarding funding and to listen to what
grandparents say about their experiences. Broad agrees and calls
for the financial benefits to follow the child, regardless of where
and with whom they live.

In Scotland, a spokesperson for the executive confirms that it is
up to councils to pay allowances to grandparents involved in formal
kinship care, as it is elsewhere in the UK, but adds that it will
consider the issue further after two relevant reports have been
published this autumn: one from the Social Work Inspection Agency
and another from the Fostering Network, which has been auditing
foster care in Scotland on the executive’s behalf.

So for the time being those involved in supporting kinship carers
will have to go on waiting for the government to address their
clients’ needs, knowing full well that, if it fails to do so, they
too will suffer the consequences.

‘my daughter can’t care for her child’ 
Ruth Stark and her husband have been caring for their
granddaughter Sophie (not her real name), now aged four and a half,
for the past two years. Sophie’s mother – Stark’s adopted daughter
Deborah (not her real name) – is a drug addict who looked after her
child for the first few years before finally admitting she could no
longer cope. For Stark the situation proved particularly
challenging because as an experienced social work professional she
knew that drugs had an incredible hold over her daughter: “I’ve
worked with a lot of clients who’ve taken drugs over the years and
know the attraction to it is much greater than anything

It was at Christmas 2003, after Deborah said that she needed some
space to herself, that Stark and her husband began the process of
applying for a parental responsibility order for Sophie. They had
helped Deborah raise Sophie from birth and did not want to lose
their granddaughter. Stark says: “Deborah said it was fine and she
accepted that she wasn’t in a fit state to look after her daughter
at that moment.” Deborah still uses drugs and visits

So how did Stark feel about becoming a parent again in her early
fifties? She is philosophical: “Practitioners are part of society
as much as everyone else and it is naive to think we won’t have
difficult times too. It is about using what you know from your own
experiences in your work.” Stark says grandparents involved in
kinship care need more support on the legal process of gaining
official approval of their decision to care for their
grandchildren. This process can be long and draining.

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