PRACTITIONER: Anna McMillan (pictured), senior practitioner with Circle, a Scottish charity.
FIELD: Children’s social care.
CLIENTS: Kevin*, 12, and his sister Jade*, eight.
CASE HISTORY: Kevin and Jade were removed from their parents, who have a history of problematic drug use. The children briefly resided with their grandparents but this was a struggle. They were then placed with short-term foster carers, but the placement is coming to an end.
DILEMMA: Both children were being considered for a longer-term foster placement. Jade had thrived during her time with foster carers. However, Kevin was unable to form any attachments. The grandparents have had a change of heart and want to look after Kevin once more.
RISK FACTOR: Professionals are wary of this arrangement because the grandparents struggled as kinship carers previously. There is a risk they might not be able to cope with Kevin or that the arrangement might not benefit either grandchild.
OUTCOME: Following a kinship care assessment of his grandparents, Kevin is placed with them once more. His sister goes on to live successfully with long-term foster carers.
* Not their real names
Relatives are often seen as the most suitable alternative when parents are unable to look after their children, writes Mark Drinkwater. However, while these arrangements preserve family contact, many kinship carers find their new role a challenge. This is particularly so for ageing relatives who might have assumed their child-rearing years were long behind them.
Anna McMillan, a senior practitioner with Scottish charity Circle, was commissioned by a local authority to carry out a kinship care assessment on grandparents who wished to look after their grandson.
As well as the practical difficulties associated with caring for young children, several tensions arose when Jade and Kevin stayed with them in the past. “When they were with the grandparents, their parents knew exactly where they were and could come to the door. This was one of the concerns the grandparents had raised,” says McMillan.
The grandparents found it difficult to cope with two young children and the siblings were placed with a foster carer in a location far from their parents’ home. This address was not disclosed and the children felt safe; free from a chance encounter with their volatile parents.
Unfortunately, the siblings did not benefit equally from this short-term placement. “The previous foster care placement had been an excellent placement, but because the two children had very different needs, the foster carer was struggling to balance the needs of each child. They needed separate attention. They needed to have a relationship [with each other] but they also needed to be looked after apart,” says McMillan.
Several options were considered and it was clear that Jade was going to continue to thrive in a long-term foster care placement. “The daughter was much more skilled at forming relationships. It was partly that she had been less damaged by the experiences,” McMillan adds.
Jade had greater resilience and an ability to form new attachments with carers. She had the sophistication to understand her own needs and could see that she had opportunities in her placement that she wouldn’t have had with her grandparents.
However, this was not the case for her brother, and the grandparents became increasingly concerned that Kevin was unsettled in his placement and unable to form new attachments.
“Kevin was emotionally very damaged. He was 12, but a lot of his behaviour and his emotional needs were more like a three or four year old. He was resistant to forming attachments to new people and would rely on the attachments he already had.”
A tense period in the case came when the grandparents decided, just before an important family group conference, that they had changed their minds and now wanted to look after Kevin once more. Up until that point there had been a shared understanding that both children would move from a short to long-term foster placement.
McMillan notes that such group conferences are usually hugely beneficial in helping families formulate plans to improve their circumstances. But, on this occasion, the grandparents’ sudden change of plan resulted in a meeting that was awkward and fraught with difficulties.
While professionals understood the grandparents’ concern, they were cautious over their about-turn and the motivation behind it. Yet, over a period of weeks, they began to accept the idea that the arrangement could be the best option and at a subsequent children’s hearing it was agreed that Kevin should stay with the couple.
McMillan reports that her assessment of the grandparents confirmed their suitability and Kevin settled with them much better than he had done with the foster carers.
Among factors that helped, she says, “it’s very important to be flexible and adapt to new information”.
The case has resulted in an unintended, though positive, outcome. Having coped with the difficulties they experienced, the grandmother has since spoken at several conferences and meetings about kinship care and how to navigate systems that can seem bewildering and stressful.
McMillan acknowledges that listening to the grandparents resulted in the best outcome for Kevin. “It’s about looking at what the risks are and what the resources and strategies are for managing those risks,” she says. “The most important thing for the boy in the end was that he felt safe in the relationship he had. He could cope with other potential risks while being in the care of his grandmother whom he trusted implicitly.”
WEIGHING UP THE RISKS
Arguments for taking the risk
● Foster care failure
The grandparents were concerned that their grandson was not settling in foster care. They were confident that they could care for him and could overcome the difficulties they had experienced when they had looked after Kevin previously.
● Grandmother vital
Key to the decision-making was the grand-mother. She was crucial to Kevin’s stability despite the risk of chance meetings with his parents.
● Best outcome
Provided grandparents are well supported, kinship care is often the best alternative when birth parents are unable to care for their children.
Arguments against taking the risk
● Change of mind
For some time the grandparents felt that foster care was the best option for the children. Will they change their minds again?
● Long-term doubts
The grandparents struggled when they had looked after the children previously. Even if they cope at first this time with Kevin, the risk is how long are they going to be able to care for him?
Sara Altman, senior social worker, Carmarthenshire Council
This case raises many issues faced by practitioners and families considering kinship care. Assessments should focus on whether family members share the view of the local authority that it is not in the best interest of the child to return to his or her parent.
This may mean grandparents agreeing with assessments that have concluded their own adult child cannot parent safely. Grandparents must demonstrate that they can protect their grandchild from the impact of their own adult offspring’s behaviour.
This offers practical problems regarding family contact and emotional conflict for a grandparent caught between the needs of their own child and their grandchild.
The assessment needs to look at evidence they have improved their parenting style, are able to reflect on the experience of raising their own children and the points where better outcomes could have been achieved.
In my experience, working with older kinship carers, and grandparents in particular, requires a creative, multi-agency approach to support the placement.
Kinship carers do change their minds then revert to the original decision, although this should be seen as part of the process, not as lack of commitment.
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