Kinship carers routinely turned away by social workers when they ask for help

We must treat kinship carers differently to make our care system stronger, writes Gerri McAndrew, a social worker and chief executive of the charity Buttle UK

In the last two weeks kinship care has had more than its usual level of exposure. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services launched research, calling for more support for kinship carers; in Scotland kinship carers launched a new Alliance receiving national coverage and we at Buttle UK launched the second part of our three-year study into informal kinship care.

Informal kinship carers are a largely hidden population who take on caring responsibilities, often at very little notice, for children who would otherwise end up in the care system. My career has shown me the care provided by these relatives – grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and friends – can be a very positive solution where children feel cared for and secure. Work we’ve done to support the Poverty Truth Commission in Scotland has revealed carers’ sense of injustice that they take on a burden that would otherwise be the state’s responsibility, but get little or no support in return.

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‘Children fare better in kinship care than formal care system’

The first part of our research, published in 2011 and based on the 2001 census, showed family members were raising around 173,200 children because parents were unable to care for them; that is 1 in 77 of all children nationwide.

Our second report, launched last week in Westminster, provides the most comprehensive and illuminating picture to date of childrens and carers perspective of living in informal kinship care. The majority of the placements in our study arose out of parental drug and alcohol misuse, and most children had suffered neglect and maltreatment, but nevertheless the family stepped in to provide a loving and secure home for these children. As a result most do well, with a strong attachment to their carers and good levels of academic attainment. It is a particularly striking, and important, finding that in the main these children are faring significantly better than those placed within the formal care system.

The human cost of kinship care: failed marriages and depression

However, this comes at a cost. Our research shows kinship carers can be plunged into poverty. They have to change their life plans, lose their freedom and, if they’re young, the chance to train for a job. Moreover, they lose friends, marriages and can become socially isolated. Nearly three-quarters have high rates of long-term health problems and as many as two-thirds are clinically depressed.

Our research shows that when they do turn to children’s services for help they are routinely being turned away. One carer told us: “Successive governments have never ever wanted to acknowledge this underclass of caring that is going on. I can’t tell you how hard it’s been…and the eternal phrase ‘But this is a private arrangement’.”

So, I’m pleased the ADCS has recognised kinship care should be considered as something beyond a merely private arrangement. Their position paper last week argues: “a family (by which we mean the extended familial network, not just the parents) has an obligation to look after its s own. This does not mean the family should be left to cope without support nor that a child or young person should be left in a dangerous situation. The focus of the states support, however, should be to help them meet their familial responsibilities and look after their own”.

‘Local authorities should never say no when carers ask for help’

To me this is the key change that must take place. We refer to it in our research as a cultural shift where services start from a point of never saying no. With the right support kinship care can be something that happens because all of those involved, state and family, recognise it is in the best interests of the child.

So what next? We’d like to see a national allowance for carers. We believe giving informal kinship carers adequate financial provision to bring up the children they care for would be an equitable solution and probably enable more relatives to take on this role. This may seem like a wildly unrealistic ambition, but there are other things that can be done in the meantime.

In England it’s clear some councils have not published a family and friends policy, which they were required to do by September 2011, and many of the policies do not cover the issues they are supposed to at all well. A first step towards a culture change would be for the government to actively monitor the implementation of the policies and hold those not following their guidance to account. A second step is for local authorities to never say no when families approach them for help and advice.

But then, as the ADCS has started to do, we need to look at what care is for. If we do, we may see supporting families to bring up their own when normal parenting breaks down is something we’re happy to support, rather than taking advantage of carers’ strong family values, or placing children in alternative care arrangements, which we know aren’t providing the best outcomes.

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