Title: Keeping them in the family: outcomes for children placed in kinship care through care proceedings
Authors: Joan Hunt, Suzette Waterhouse, Eleanor Lutman
Institution: Joan Hunt and Eleanor Lutman work at the Centre for Family Law and Policy in the department for social policy and social work, University of Oxford. Suzette Waterhouse is a freelance social work practitioner and researcher.
Publisher: The study is published by BAAF.
The Children Act 1989 established a priority for placing children with family or friends if they were unable to live with their parents. However, there was little interest in developing policy and commissioning research into kinship care for many years following the implementation of the Act.
Since Labour was elected there has been more attention paid to the development of kinship care, although less than other substitute care options, such as adoption. The study discussed here was commissioned by the government as part of the Quality Protects research programme.
This study related to objective one of the programme: to ensure that children are securely attached to carers capable of providing safe and effective care during childhood. The focus of the study is children who were placed in kinship care placements after care proceedings.
The research study considers the outcome measures of placement stability, placement quality, relationship quality and child well-being. Decision-making, support provision, contact with parents, and the views of kinship carers and children are also explored. The specific aims of the study were to:
● Measure placement stability and identifying the reasons why placements ended.
● Assess welfare outcomes for children in continuing placements, including their sense of permanency.
● Identify the factors that contributed to better or poorer outcomes in terms of placement stability and child well-being.
● Record the views of carers, children and, if possible, parents about their experiences of kinship care and service provision.
● Consider what changes in policy or practice might be needed to develop the objectives of Quality Protects and maximise child well-being.
The research drew upon an existing four-year cohort sample of all children from two local authorities who were placed with family or friends at the end of care proceedings between 1995 and 1999. Additional information on children was also used from the same two local authorities involved in care proceedings ending between 1999 and 2001.
The data were collected through analysis of case files on 113 children interviews with kinship carers (37) interviews with social workers (24) interviews with children and young people (14) interviews with parents (two) and standardised measures of well-being completed by teachers in relation to 25 children. The research also involved a small comparison group of 31 children under the age of five from the same local authorities, whose care plans at the end of care proceedings were for “non kin” placements. Information on these children was collected only from case files because of resource constraints.
The authors acknowledge some limitations of the study. They had great difficulties engaging birth parents, and only two were interviewed. The children and young people interviewed were mainly from successful placements, while the perspectives of children whose placements were less satisfactory were relatively poorly represented. The authors acknowledge limitations of file-based information which is dependent on the quality of recording. One further limitation is the absence of significant numbers of children from ethnic minorities because of to the location of the study.
Findings and Conclusions
The study concludes that kinship care can be a positive option for many children. But it is not straightforward and requires careful assessment and support. Of the kinship placements considered, only one-third were instigated by social workers. The researchers recommend a more systematic exploration of kinship care options for all children before care proceedings.
This expectation has been incorporated into Public Law Outline and is welcomed by the researchers. However, guidance on its own will not necessarily improve practice and the study recommends that social workers be provided with training to enable them to explore the impact of their values, attitudes and belief systems.
There is also a need to be realistic about kinship care expansion. It is suggested that successful expansion is more likely through encouragement and support for relatives that have shown an interest in and potential to care for the child rather than the recruitment of those who have had little or no involvement in the child’s life.
Although kinship care can provide a good home environment for many children, it is not a panacea. There was a core group of children (between 5% and 17%) that did not have positive experiences of kinship care. The study considered protective and risk factors and found better outcomes for children who were placed at a young age, had low-level difficulties before the placement, had lived with the carer full-time before, and had not asked to live elsewhere.
The types of placements with better outcomes were ones with a single carer such as a grandparent where there were no other children in the household other than siblings and where the placement was instigated by the carer. The age of the child had the greatest predictive value. As with other substitute care options, older children placed in kinship care were more at risk of poorer outcomes. The authors say it should be assumed that these placements would need support. Surprisingly, the study found better outcomes for placements where there was disagreement during proceedings.
The study reinforces the need for careful assessment of the parenting capacity of potential carers and the support services required to enable them to care most effectively. An assessment before the child is placed and a positive assessment of parenting capacity during proceedings were two statistically significant factors linked to better outcomes. The authors recommend a two-stage process involving an initial viability assessment pre-placement, followed by an in-depth assessment of parenting capacity that engages kinship carers in participatory ways to consider possible vulnerabilities and ways of addressing these. Initial viability assessments need to be done quickly to minimise the number of children having to move to non-kin foster placements.
The study found that professionals were often poor at predicting future concerns. Predicted difficulties often did not occur and in other situations unanticipated problems arose. As a consequence of these high margins of error, the authors raise the issue that decisions not to support kinship placements may also include similar inaccuracies.
A clear focus of the assessment process needs to be parenting capacity, and knowledge from non-kin family placement assessments can be useful. However, it should also be recognised that assessing kinship carers is different from assessing stranger carers. The study suggests a role for specialist kinship assessment workers.
As with other research on kinship care, this study found inconsistent and inadequate financial and other support provision. One recommendation was for support needs to be met more adequately – inadequate financial support was identified as an issue for many carers, with almost two-thirds reporting difficulties – with a national carer’s benefit as a right.
Placements outside the local authority were particularly poorly supported and improvements in service provision for these placements, as well as a named point of contact for closed cases, were also suggested. Contact arrangements proved problematic for some carers and contact with one or both parents tended to diminish over time. This was another area where kinship placements could be better supported.
Policy and practice developments in kinship care have been slow to develop, and it is encouraging that the white paper, Care Matters: Time for change (DCFS, 2007) states government’s intention to improve services. It is hoped that lessons can be learned from this and other studies on kinship care that highlight the importance of assessments and services responsive to the needs of individual children and their families.
Anna Gupta lectures at the department of health and social care, Royal Holloway, University of London
Links and Resources
● Family Rights Group is an organisation that aims to promote policies and practices that assist children to be raised safely and securely within their families. It produces information and run a confidential telephone advice service for families involved with social care services.
● The Children Act Guidance and Regulations, published originally in 1991, has been updated to include the Public Law Outline. This guidance came into effect from 1 April 2008
● The Care Matters: Time for Change White Paper is part of a government initiative to improve the life chance and experiences for children and young people in care.
● Public Law Outline can be downloaded at www.legalservices.gov.uk/docs/fains_and_mediation/FAQsupdated20August2007.pdf
Early identification and assessment
When there are concerns that a child may not be able to remain with their birth parents, exploration of all potential kinship carers needs to take place. Rapid viability assessments need to be undertaken, in order to avoid children having to move to non-kin placements.
Consideration needs to be given to making the assessment process less stressful and more useful for kinship carers. Once a child is placed with kinship carers, meaningful engagement with them about possible difficulties and support needs is important.
Kinship carers require adequate financial, material and emotional support if postive outcomes are to be promoted effectively. This needs to be reflected in assessments by individual social workers, as well as local and national policy.
Consistent and effective support services.
This article is published in the 16 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Kinship care: messages for policy and practice