By Dr Lucy Peake
There are twice as many children in kinship care in the UK than there are in foster care, yet this type of care remains largely invisible – to the public and policymakers, but often to professionals too. This means that support for kinship care families often falls short of what is needed to help them cope, or is missing altogether.
With the right strategy and proper investment, kinship care offers the potential for better outcomes for children and considerable savings for local authorities and national government. But to achieve this there needs to be a strategic plan to develop properly resourced kinship care services.
Currently kinship care is wedged uncomfortably into systems designed primarily for fostering and adoption and is often the poor relation in a hierarchy of rights and support.”
While it is vital that the system recognises that the backgrounds and needs of children in any of these settings are likely to be very similar to those in the care system, it is also crucial that the unique challenges faced by kinship carers be acknowledged too.
A consequence of crisis
Kinship care commonly happens because of crisis, with carers taking in children in urgent situations. As a result, they are extremely unlikely to have had any substantial preparation for the upheaval to their lives and lack the advice and information they need about their rights in the short and long term.
In our 2019 survey, 95% of kinship carers said they had had no training to prepare them for the role at all. These immediate challenges are often accompanied by difficult relationships within the wider family, particularly if carers have personal relationships with the child’s parents or have passed through an adversarial legal system.
Ongoing support to navigate these relationships is desperately needed, yet kinship carers commonly find they are left to cope on their own with contact, which means a greater risk of families falling into crisis and ultimately breaking down.
The need for specialist practitioners
In Professor Joan Hunt’s 2021 study of social workers working with kinship carers, practitioners highlighted the unique complexities of carers’ roles. It showed that social workers need a good understanding of the complexities of kinship care, as well as having good social work skills to be able to work successfully with kinship families.
This means changes need to be made in the training and development of social workers to provide a more adequate and detailed focus on kinship care.
But it also means we need specialist kinship care teams – on a par with current looked-after children’s teams and adoption support teams.
Dedicated kinship specialists in every local authority – who understand the complexity of kinship care, can carry out assessments and offer support with family relationships and parental contact when needed – would go a long way towards smoothing the journey of children and kinship carers into their new lives.
More broadly, skills should be developed across the full range of roles in children’s social care and education, from early help to school leaders, and should also be part of the knowledge base of senior professionals. It should also extend to other services, such as housing, that kinship carers need help with.
Kinship carers often feel misunderstood by professionals and that practitioners do not understand the role they undertake or the complexities of being a kinship family.
‘Professional expect you to get on with it’
In our 2014 survey, a grandmother and kinship carer said:
“When dealing with housing, social services and benefit departments, they treat you as if you’re making a big deal and that you should just get on with it. They lack understanding of the complexities of your situation and the stress and anxiety it causes. They fail to see that these children suffer the same anguishes as looked after children. This total disregard from these departments adds to your problems, as you are always in battle with them. The time and energy spent fighting with these departments would be better spent investing into the children.”
An understanding by professionals of kinship carers’ situation and the unique legal, financial and practical challenges it can bring is essential to them accessing the services they need.
It is a feature of how much kinship care is currently overlooked that policy decisions are made with no regard for their impact, intended or otherwise, on kinship families.
For example, carers that Kinship works with often come up against blockages in healthcare in relation to issues such as consent or access to records, and they find it challenging to get a passport for their children. There is a need for all public services that encounter kinship families to have a specific kinship care policy that identifies the ways each service can specifically meet the needs of kinship families. And all staff working in these services should receive a basic level of training on kinship care.
A radically reformed system
The big message we hear directly from kinship carers time and again is that the support available to their families is inadequate. Despite the challenges they face, kinship carers fight to provide children with loving and stable homes. But many are now at breaking point.
Informed by Kinship’s extensive work directly with kinship carers, our own research, and consultation sessions with kinship carers, we recently set out our vision for a radically reformed kinship care system in England.
‘Out of the shadows: A vision for kinship care in England’ makes the case for better financial, practical and emotional support for kinship families.
With a long-term strategy and the right investment, kinship care should thrive as a place of safety, security and aspiration for even more children who would otherwise be in the care system. Central to this is a kinship care-aware workforce and focused development to provide specialists in kinship care practice in every local authority.
Dr Lucy Peake is chief executive of Kinship