Many local authorities are failing to comply with statutory guidance around supporting the needs of children living with family and friends, fuelling a postcode lottery in how they are treated, research has found.
A report by the Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care, assisted by charity the Family Rights Group, found one in six English councils had no family and friends care policy, or were using a very outdated one.
In the West Midlands and North East, the proportion of children’s services without an up-to-date policy – required under the Family and Friends Care statutory guidance since 2011 – was one in three.
“The quality and consistency of the policies themselves are extremely variable, and indicate a failure by a significant number of authorities to comply fully with statutory guidance,” said the report by the group of MPs and peers.
Guidance on kinship care
Advice on when to consider kinship care placements, viability assessments and supporting carers is available for Community Care Inform Children users in this quick guide by social work lecturer Philip Heslop.
“Few local authorities appear to have developed their policy in consultation with local kinship families, despite this being a specific expectation set out in the statutory guidance,” it added.
The inquiry found kinship carers faced disparities in terms of their dealings with local authorities, which did not explore family and friends placements in a consistent or considered way.
Many carers described experiencing rushed assessments by social workers under pressure from the 26-week legal timetable for care proceedings, as well as inadequate advice and support, and financial insecurity.
The report called for a duty to be placed on councils to ensure kinship placements were explored as soon as practicable, with children’s and families’ needs – including around specialist advice – properly met. It recommended family group conferences be used “at an early stage to ensure families are engaged and well informed from the outset”.
Family networks ‘not recognised’
The report, the release of which was postponed twice due to last year’s general election and the coronavirus crisis, was conducted between December 2018 and September 2019. It drew on a wide range of sources including regional meetings with kinship carers, oral evidence sessions in Parliament and surveys of local authorities.
The research report noted that as of March 2018, almost one-third (32%) of looked-after children living with kinship foster carers had previously been placed with unrelated carers, while 2% had been in residential care.
“If earlier work had taken place with the child’s family network to identify, assess and support the potential kinship carer, some of those children may not have had to live temporarily with a stranger or experience multiple moves,” it said.
While reticence from family members could be one barrier to this process, the report said, local authorities “do not consistently recognise the family network as potential partners in safeguarding the child”.
‘Pressured into agreeing orders’
When potential kinship carers were approached, the inquiry found this was often done in a haphazard way. Some reported being cold-called by social workers – including at work – only to learn later that the conversation had been an initial assessment.
The research identified such assessments being rushed, leading to inadequate care planning – a factor identified in several serious case reviews – and that carers were frequently ill-informed as to their rights.
“Some kinship carers (who had formerly been kinship foster carers) told the Taskforce they had felt pressured into agreeing to the making of a special guardianship order, despite it having led to a drop in support for them and the child,” the report said. It added that only four in 10 councils published policies about the limited legal aid available to kinship carers, with it being “usually very difficult” for people to ascertain what help with legal costs might be available.
The taskforce also found “little clarity or transparency” in terms of what wider financial support was available to family and friends carers, some of whom ended up suffering severe hardship. “Kinship carers described having their allowances regularly reviewed, with local authorities sometimes changing their policies and reducing allowances as a result of their own financial pressures,” the report said.
Similar issues were identified around carers’ access to support and training around family relationships, both in terms of caring for trauma-experienced children and managing contact with parents. “Kinship carers were left unclear about what their legal obligations were in relation to contact,” the report said. “This continued to be the case during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
‘Time to do right by family carers’
Family Rights Group (FRG) chief executive Cathy Ashley said: “The evidence gathered showed extreme variations in local practice including in terms of early exploration of kinship care, access to legal advice, which children go into the care system, and what support is provided. The evidence from kinship carers reflects the challenges they face when trying to do right by children. It is time we – society, parliament, national and local government and public agencies – did right by them
“Local authorities and families are struggling under huge financial strain and the report sets out the steps that government could take, both in terms of investment, policy and legislation, so that children who cannot live at home, can live safely and thrive within their family network wherever possible.”
Lucy Peake, chief executive of kinship care charity Grandparents Plus, said: “The taskforce’s recommendations illustrate the step change that is needed to ensure kinship care families get the support they need. We hope this will signal an end of treating kinship care like the poor relation to adoption and fostering. We owe it to all the carers who contributed to the inquiry to work hard to improve recognition and support and we look forward to continuing to work with government, local authorities, children’s social care services and kinship carers to do that.
Association of Directors of Children’s Services vice-president Charlotte Ramsden said: “The report describes a system whereby kinship carers and the children they care for face a postcode lottery of support. Since 2010, funding for local authorities has halved and sustained increases in safeguarding activity and the overall care population is putting more pressure on resources. The forthcoming [government] spending review must provide proper, sustainable funding for children’s services that enables investment in earlier support for children and families before crisis hits.
“The taskforce highlights ways to improve the experiences of and support available to kinship carers and the children they care for, its focus on ensuring their voices are heard is welcome. We are certain this insight will be valuable to the government’s care review when it commences which should include a focus on formal kinship care arrangements; we would urge government to start this as soon as possible.”
The FRG is organising a virtual lobby of Parliament during Kinship Care Week next week (5-11 October), to call for change.