Title: Looking after the family: a study of children looked after in kinship care in Scotland
Authors: Jane Aldgate and Miranda McIntosh
Institutions: The research was carried out by Jane Aldgate, who is professor in social care at the Open University and Miranda McIntosh, inspection project manager at the SWIA
Available: The research was published by the Scottish Social Work Inspection Agency in 2006
When children and young people are not able to live with their birth families, the most common solution in all societies is for them to be cared for by wider family or friends. Kinship care, as it is commonly referred to, is usually negotiated by individuals with little or no reference to professionals or the state and, as such, there are no accurate statistics available.
Nevertheless, the Family Rights Group estimates that 200,000 children may be cared for in this way. Most manage without professional support. However, a significant proportion of these arrangements involve vulnerable children either in or on the edge of the care system.
Research carried out with this vulnerable group has consistently highlighted that their carers are often isolated with little support. Sometimes they care for children and young people with complex needs along with their own needs and stresses. In response to this, the Care Matters white paper has sought to create a policy framework that leads to more responsive services to this group of families.
The study in Scotland by Jane Aldgate and Miranda McIntosh is therefore an important contribution to the debate about how these placements can best be supported. Focusing on looked-after children in these types of placements, they undertook their study of kinship care in Scotland with the aim of gaining a much clearer picture of:
● The nature and characteristics of the children and their carers who live in kinship placements.
● The legal arrangements that underpin such placements.
● The professional support that these placements get from social workers and other services, including the financial arrangements.
● The experience of the children who live in these placements.
● The issues that affect kinship carers.
The study found a wide variation in the age of the children who lived in kinship care. At the time the survey was carried out they ranged from eight to 16 but many had lived with their carers for most of their childhood. In most cases, the carers were grandparents, which reflects research in England, and the most likely reason for the arrangement was parental substance misuse.
Given the demographics of Scotland, this research did not reflect the studies south of the border, which have found these types of placements particularly common in some ethnic minority communities.
Although there was a range of legal arrangements, ranging from voluntary arrangements to the equivalent of care orders and residence orders, there were three proportionally equal routes by which the children had come into these placements.
First, in one-third of cases the carers had directly intervened when they could see that the parents were not coping.
Second, in one-third of cases social workers had been involved and approached the carers to take the children. Several carers describing being “begged” to provide a placement.
Third, the remainder was placed as a result of negotiation between all the parties: parents, carers and social workers.
Aldgate and McIntosh found that, although many of the carers reported finding the role rewarding, it did nevertheless bring real pressures. Most carers reported finance being a key issue and the degree of support varied widely across the authorities, sometimes reflecting the different legal status of the children. Poverty among carers was therefore an issue with more than half reliant on state benefits.
Other recent studies have highlighted the pressure poverty places on parenting. Many of the carers believed they had little support and some went as far to say that the lack of support made them feel they were being punished for their children’s difficulties. This was felt all the more acutely given most of the carers had not anticipated taking on this role and many felt pressured by professionals into intervening, feeling that there was a shift from them being seen as helpful figures stepping in at the point of crisis to being seen as demanding and needy.
Having acknowledged the pressures, most carers did say they found the role rewarding. Also, the outcomes for the children in the study were by and large positive. For example, all 30 children examined in the second phase of the research were doing well in school and had only slightly more behavioural and emotional difficulties than the average.
The picture that comes across from the research and is reflected by the views of the children is one children and young people living “normal” childhoods. Most understood why they were placed with relatives and the researchers found relationships based on “deep reciprocal affection”. Besides attending school, they took part in normal leisure activities and most reported wide networks of friends.
One of the most positive features of these placements was the continued contact that they enabled children to have with their birth parents and siblings. The children all reported this to be an important part of their lives and this was also one of the sources of satisfaction for carers. The researchers found that this had a profound impact on the children’s sense of identity and self-esteem. That is not to say some carers did not find managing contact challenging and this was again identified as an area that they would have appreciated more support.
Despite all of these positives, Aldgate and McIntosh found many of the parents to have a sense of insecurity about the future. Although most believed they had made a lifelong commitment, a combination of factors including financial hardship, their own health and age left them facing the long term with a degree of trepidation and many of the children in the placements were aware of these concerns. This made the issue of support for these placements all the more important.
Although Aldgate and McIntosh did find a range of variation in the support offered to these placements, most reported that they found their social workers to be very helpful. This was also the case for the children who perceived their worker to be a helpful and important figure in their lives. Carers and the children and young people did not always feel consulted about plans for the future and this contributed to a strong sense of wanting to see more of the professionals involved in their lives.
Aldgate and McIntosh also highlight many examples of good practice, with good direct social work support, local authority organised support groups and close working between adults’ and children’s services particularly important.
The overall message from this study was that this is a group of carers doing a good job in difficult circumstances. While most were very committed they did not always feel that this commitment was recognised or sufficiently rewarded. Aldgate and McIntosh, therefore, build both a strong moral and practical case for a more consistent approach to kinship care that includes a greater professional and financial support. Not only should these carers have a right to help and support but they can play a crucial role in helping a vulnerable group of children achieve better outcomes in all parts of their lives.
James Blewett is research director, Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College, London
LINKS AND RESOURCES
● Care Matters: Time for Change, white paper which includes government proposals for supporting families and friends caring for children can be found at
● The Family Rights Group has useful resources for both wider family members caring for children young people and for practitioners who work with them
● The Fostering Network also provides a helpful website that includes a resources section for family and friends care and covers key practice issues based on current research and the perspectives of families involved in the care