Key messages for social workers from research into kinship foster care

Children in kinship placements are more likely to find their lives meaningful and experience positive carer relationships than those in unrelated care, but many also face significant instability, a study has found

Happy grandmother hugging her grandson
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By Linda Briheim-Crookall, Coram Voice

In the first analysis of its kind, Coram Voice and The Rees Centre, University of Oxford, compared the wellbeing of children and young people in kinship foster care with those in unrelated foster care, generating important learning for social workers.

We looked at the views and experiences of over 1,200 children and young people in kinship foster care who responded to the Bright Spots surveys, which capture subjective wellbeing. On a number of wellbeing indicators, children (4-10 years) and young people (11-18 years) in kinship foster care were doing better, or at least as well, as those in unrelated foster care and that on some indicators they scored the same or better than their peers in the general population.

Relationships with kinship carers were generally very positive with the majority of children (94%) and young people (91%) reporting that their carers were sensitive to their feelings. One child (aged 8-10) said: “Nanny and Grandad help me with my worries, and they know when I’m sad.”

Young people in kinship foster care were more positive that the things they did in life were worthwhile than those in unrelated foster care (74% compared to 67%). Having a sense of purpose and meaning in life is an important indicator of positive functioning and a protective factor against risky behaviours and poor mental health.

A more complex picture

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these findings reinforce existing evidence that kinship care can be a positive experience for children who cannot remain with their birth parents and support the current requirement to give preference to suitable placements with family and friends. However, the whole picture is somewhat more complex and there are a number of issues that social workers need to be aware of.

Children and young people in kinship foster care were less likely to know their social worker than those in unrelated care (87% compared to 92%). Some of the comments left by young people revealed that they thought the social worker was for their relatives and not for them.

Worryingly, some did not even know they had a social worker at all.”

We know that kinship families living under informal arrangements without a court order tend to experience higher levels of deprivation, but children living in kinship foster care should, in theory, have access to the same financial support as those in unrelated foster care. However, compared to the 5% in unrelated foster care, significantly more of those in kinship foster care (8%) disliked their bedrooms. There were also complaints of overcrowding and comments about their carers having financial difficulties. Lack of space may also have been a reason why fewer kinship children (65%) lived with a pet compared with those in unrelated foster care (71%).

Avoidable placement moves

The government’s recent implementation strategy in response to the care review, Stable Homes, Built on Love, focuses on the need to “prioritise children’s loving and safe relationships” and for them to “live with people who know them well”.

However, we found that only half of the young people aged 11-18 years living in kinship foster care were placed directly with their kinship carer in the first instance. More than a third (35%) had lived in two to four previous placements, and nearly one in ten (9%) had five or more placements before moving in with their kinship carer.

This troubling finding suggests that opportunities to identify potential kinship foster carers are being missed. Children and young people face unnecessary disruption with these avoidable placement moves, not to mention the costs that are incurred by a local authority every time a child moves placement.

There is a common assumption that kinship care is less stigmatising than other forms of substitute care and a lower proportion felt that adults did things that made them feel embarrassed about being in care. Yet there was a higher percentage (over a quarter) of kinship children and young people who felt afraid to go to school because of bullying.

How social workers can help

There are a number of measures social workers can take to address these issues:

  1. Social workers can ensure that every child they work with knows who they are, how to contact them and that they are entitled to see their social worker on their own.
  2. Kinship foster carers need to be supported with income maximisation to ensure they receive all the benefits and allowances they are entitled to.
  3. Social workers can talk to children about how they feel about their homes and bedrooms and explore creative solutions to make things better if they are unhappy, for example, funding space saving furniture.
  4. Social workers can also engage with schools so that children and staff become more aware of the needs of children in different types of care and consider how they can support children in kinship care with bullying.
  5. There needs to be a greater emphasis on social workers searching for and assessing relatives or friends as potential kinship foster carers to ensure that a child’s first placement is their only placement. How many children and young people are living right now in unrelated foster care when they could be living with someone already in their close network?

This analysis underlines the importance of not treating all children in care as if they are the same. Services need to carefully consider the areas of greater difficulty and complexity for children in kinship foster care to further improve wellbeing.

Linda Briheim-Crookall is head of policy and practice development at Coram Voice

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One Response to Key messages for social workers from research into kinship foster care

  1. Frasierfanclub1 March 15, 2023 at 11:14 pm #

    The impact of a disrupted kinship placement is more keenly felt by the young person, especially when the relationship had been really positive. The child risks losing their strongest advocate if the placement fails.