How social workers can improve support for the ‘silent and unheard majority’ of kinship carers

Specialist social work teams are among initiatives that can tackle the multiple challenges kinship carers face in taking on the care of loved-ones, writes Ann Horne, in this piece for Kinship Care Week

Happy grandmother hugging her grandson
Photo: Stock

By Ann Horne, kinship consultant, CoramBAAF

Kinship carers are motivated by love, commitment and, sometimes, a sense of family or cultural duty. Their decision to care for a child is often made at times of family crisis, triggering heightened stress and anxiety, with little planning or preparation. They have not made a proactive choice to become a foster carer or adopter, but find themselves in a situation, not of their own choosing, but wishing to safeguard a child they love.

Kinship Care Week is an opportunity for us all to acknowledge the roles they play in children’s lives and join with them in pushing for improvements in much needed support.

A silent and unheard majority

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’s final report, published in May 2022, shone a spotlight on the experiences of many kinship carers, describing them as a “silent and unheard majoritin the children’s social care system”.

At CoramBAAF, we hear from local authority social workers and managers who are passionate about providing much needed support to kinship families. We also know there are many kinship carers who receive little or no support.

Some carers are raising children in informal arrangements with no court order, let alone a social worker involved to help the family to access support. Their lack of formal status means they struggle to have their needs recognized at all.

Meanwhile, other carers are raising children in arrangements formalised by pecial guardianship order or child arrangements orders, and they still struggle to access the support they need. Joan Hunt’s review  of two decades of UK research on kinship care (Family Rights Group, 2020) shows recurrent patterns of significant unmet need in the support provided to all types of kinship families.

Variability of support

At CoramBAAF, my role as kinship consultant is to support and promote good social work practice with kinship families. We recently delivered a webinar exploring relationship-based social work practice in the context of kinship care.

We heard from a special guardian, Michelle, who had a positive experience of the support from her local authority kinship care team. She spoke about the joys but also the challenges of taking on the care of her granddaughter. Her social worker “was always there at the end of the telephone”, supported her with family relationships and plans for family time, and helped her understand the legal and social work processes. She also received financial support that enabled her to give up work to care for her granddaughter, and that her social worker.

For the many kinship carers who haven’t been so lucky, it is easy to see the additional stress and anxiety caused by the lack of such support or a poor experience of the assessment process.

Hannah, a special guardian currently supported by Coram’s creative therapies team, experienced a lack of support after her niece and nephew first came to live with her.

She described feeling alone and isolated in dealing with challenging behaviours that I didn’t fully understand’.”

She was expected to manage family relationships and family time without any support, and her niece and nephew were left feeling “disappointed and abandoned which was traumatic and which is still felt today”.

The value of specialist teams

At CoramBAAF, we encourage local authorities to think about how service design and delivery impacts on the relationships social workers can have with kinship families, and we advocate for specialist kinship teams. There is more that brings kinship carers together – in the separation, loss and trauma the children they care for have experienced and in their common identity as carers – than separates them according to their legal status.

Research tells us that children in kinship arrangements do as well or better than children living in unrelated foster care (Hunt, 2020). But there are many complexities that can arise as a result of family relationships, poverty and poor housing, as well as the unplanned and often crisis driven nature of a child needing care. There are sometimes risks that need to be carefully balanced and mitigated against, in order to prioritise the pre-existing relationship, love and trust between a child and their kinship carer.

Social workers should be given the support, the space and the structure within specialist teams, to enable strengths-based, trauma-informed and relationship-based kinship social work practice.

This view is backed up by 2021 research from Joan Hunt (Kinship/Cardiff University) with kinship practitioners, in which she says: “Working in kinship care, practitioners argued, required a special mix of skills and knowledge, which draws on child protection and mainstream fostering practice, but also requires understanding of the particular issues kinship care presents, and the skills to work with this unique family form.”

The need for therapeutic support 

In addition to social work support, kinship carers also benefit from peer support, training, respite, financial support, information and advice, and support to meet children’s needs and therapy. Some kinship families can access funding for therapy from the adoption support fund, but only those whose child was previously in care, and now subject to a special guardianship or child arrangements order. This excludes many.

In 2019 only 8% of the fund was spent on kinship carers (Parliament, 2020). Despite small increases in subsequent years, unpublished data suggests it is currently only 14%. This is in a context where more children are leaving care under special guardianship orders than adoption.

Even those who are eligible are often not aware or don’t receive the support from a social worker needed to apply for funding. This needs to change. Therapeutic input can have lifelong impacts for children and young people, and there is a growing awareness from therapeutic providers about the needs of kinship families.

Hannah describes how the therapeutic support she received has had a significant impact.

“Coram Harmony Music Group provided music therapy to the children and therapeutic parenting to me. I was so relieved as this really helped strengthen the bond between the children and me. Therapeutic parenting armoured me with the knowledge and understanding of attachment issues and how to deal with challenging behaviours in a therapeutic way whilst getting to understand developmental trauma.”

Coram’s creative therapies team has designed bespoke services for kinship carers, receiving referrals from social workers through the adoption support fund. Its Harmony Music Group for under 5s uses music, movement and sensory-story telling to strengthen child and kinship carer relationships and build confidence and self-esteem in the children. These services are few and far between but they show the positive impact that much needed therapeutic support can have on children and their carers.

Time to listen 

Kinship Care Week is the perfect opportunity for us to pause and reflect on our work as professionals with kinship families. It’s an opportunity to listen to kinship carers and acknowledge their love and commitment to so many children.

But it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the impact of promising social work practice on kinship carers, as well as that of less promising practice, as this is how we can all learn and work together to improve the services kinship families receive.

Kinship Care Week runs from 3-7 October 2022


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