The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating gaps in support for kinship carers, putting children’s placements at risk, a charity has warned.
A Family Rights Group survey of nearly 700 kinship carers – many of whom had taken on children as a result of parental substance misuse, neglect or mental ill-health – found half had received no support during the crisis, despite high levels of need.
A similar proportion were self-isolating because a household member has an underlying health condition, while a quarter said they had experienced worsening financial hardship during the coronavirus outbreak.
The study, which was carried out on behalf of the Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care, did not specifically ask participants about their current level of involvement with children’s social care. But responses from those who reported recent experience of local authority processes indicated that engagement from professionals was inconsistent.
Many said they had not heard from social workers, or that meetings such as looked-after children reviews had been cancelled or postponed, the study report said.
Almost two-thirds of kinship carers had not been offered a school place for their children – because they were not classed as ‘vulnerable’ under government guidance – but a quarter of this group said they wished the option had been there to provide routine for a child or respite for them.
The vulnerable group encompasses children assessed as in need under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 – excluding children in kinship care arrangements without local authority involvement – those with an educational health and care (EHC) plan whose needs cannot safely be met at home and those otherwise classed as vulnerable by local authorities or educational providers.
Unrecognised needs ‘amplified’
However, despite not falling into this group in most cases, the report identified significant levels of need among the children concerned. One third of those who responded said their child had an EHC plan – indicating they have significant special educational needs – compared with a national figure of just 2.1% of 0-24 year-olds in England.
The report called for educational support, including free IT hardware and broadband, to be offered to all children in kinship placements and unable to live with their parents.
‘We feel we are the poor relations’
Community charity director Elaine Holness, 64, stepped in to look after her grandson after her daughter, who has special educational needs, was unable to look after him.
“He was classed as a child in need but never escalated above that,” she says. “That continued after he was born but there was no care plan, and children’s services tried to tell me that because this was a private arrangement between me and my daughter, they didn’t have to give any support.”
The judge who subsequently made her a special guardian ruled she must receive financial support to help her care for her grandson, now 10, albeit at a lower level than would be the case had she been a foster carer. But Holness said she has not received practical assistance from her local authority.
With the onset of coronavirus lockdown, Holness, who also cares for he mother, says: “I would have liked a call to see if we were OK, whether there was any help we needed.”
“If I was a foster carer, someone would have been checking in, and my grandson could have gone to school,” adds Holness, who acknowledges she would have been “torn” over whether to send him. “We often feel we are the poor relations – kinship carers shouldn’t be treated as inferiors because the needs of our children can be no less acute.”
The government has already extended this to children classed as looked-after or otherwise involved with social workers.
“Many kinship care families were already facing difficulties before this crisis, and our research shows that the pandemic has made it worse for the most vulnerable,” said Catherine McKinnell, MP for Newcastle North and chair of the Parliamentary taskforce. “The government has put some welcome measures in place to support some families, but many kinship carers are not eligible and we think ministers need to go further.”
The report said a national crisis fund specifically targeted at kinship carers should be established to enable local authorities to respond to local need.
“This was already a section of the population who are too often invisible both at national and local level – including around recognising the significant needs of their children, and what we see here is that being amplified during this crisis,” Family Rights Group chief executive Cathy Ashley told Community Care.
“We need the government to step up, because this requires specific attention and, if not, the danger is that some placements will break down, which is tragic for children and their carers and will also place a heavy cost on the system.”
Filling the gaps
The level of support – both personal and financial – and contact from social workers that kinship carers receive varies widely both within and between local authorities.
It is influenced both by whether they have taken on children following an order of the court, the nature of that order and the specific setup of services in their home borough. Where kinship carers have assumed the care of a child without the prior involvement of children’s services, there is no duty on councils to provide assistance.
“One of the concerns we have is that if a child has not been looked-after then they are in a system that is largely discretionary – and at a time when it is under severe strain, accessing help can be even harder,” Ashley said.
Some carers responding to the Family Rights Group survey praised the assistance they were receiving from children’s services, including providing telephone advice that was filling the gap left by family support activities being suspended.
“I’ve had weekly calls from the special guardianship order team, I receive emails with contact info for anything we may need and activity ideas,” said one.
Another said a social worker had helped set up a broadband installation – including paying for it upfront – in order that their grandson could continue his education.
Meetings cancelled without notice
Yet many survey respondents said they had been left to their own devices, with no contact from social workers to see whether they were in need of help, and scheduled meetings had been cancelled without notice.
Others provided mixed reviews of how contacts and meetings had translated into the remote formats necessitated by Covid-19.
While many local authorities’ enthusiastic embrace of video-calling, via apps such as Zoom and Skype, has received plenty of recent attention, survey respondents reported child protection conferences and looked-after children reviews being conducted via regular conference calls.
“It can be very hard to understand everything being said,” one said.