Significant disparities in council support for kinship carers revealed by survey

Availability of support for families differs by area, by kinship arrangement and according to whether child was formerly in care, finds research by Foundations

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Significant disparities in access to support for kinship carers have been laid bare in a survey of councils, whose results were published last week.

The availability of support differed by locality, whether the child had previously been in care or not and by the type of kinship arrangement or legal order they were cared for under, showed the study by evidence body Foundations, released to coincide with Kinship Care Week.

The findings come with a separate survey of almost 1,700 kinship carers, also published last week, having found that one in five never received any local authority support, while 44% of those who did rated it as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

One in eight of those surveyed for charity Kinship’s Breaking Point report said they were concerned they may have to give up caring for their kinship child in the next year if their situation did not improve.

The Foundations study, based on survey responses from 80 councils (52% of the total), interviews with staff from 35 of these and round table discussions with 31 kinship carers, examined how far authorities provided support to the different types of kinship carer.

Hierarchy of support

Overall, it found that authorities were most likely to support to family and friends foster carers, followed by carers with a special guardianship order (SGO) for the child and then those with a child arrangements order or residence order (CAO/RO) giving them parental responsibility.

For those with an SGO or CAO/RO, support was greater when the child had previously been looked after.

Different types of kinship care

  • Family and friends foster care: this is where family members or friends are approved by the local authority to look after a child in care, whether temporarily, in cases of urgency, or through the full process of assessment and approval. Family and friends foster carers are entitled to the national minimum fostering allowance. Under section 22C of the Children Act 1989, councils should prioritise these placements over all others for children in care, where adoption is not being considered.
  • Special guardianship order (SGO) for child previously in care: an SGO gives the carer parental responsibility (PR) for the child, with the right to make nearly all decisions without consulting their parents. Relatives may apply for an SGO if the child has been living with them for a year. Where the child was previously looked after, the relevant local authority must assess the carer’s and child’s support needs. While councils must arrange for the provision of special guardianship support services, including financial support, and may offer special guardians an allowance, there is no entitlement to payments.
  • SGO for child not previously in care: where a child was not previously in care, there is no requirement on the council to carry out a support assessment, though they may do. Government guidance states that these children should not be unfairly disadvantaged as, often, the only reason they did not go into care was because a relative stepped in to care for them. In these cases, the SGO is made through private law proceedings.
  • Child arrangements order/residence order (CAO/RO): a CAO (which replaced ROs in 2014) sets out with whom a child should live and contact arrangements. As with an SGO, a relative may apply for a CAO where the child has been living with them for at least a year. Also, like SGOs, they can be made through care proceedings as a way for children to leave the care system, or through private proceedings for children who have not been looked after. PR is shared with the child’s parents, however, there is no priority in making decisions for the holder of the CAO/RO, unlike for special guardians. There is no requirement for the local authority to carry out a support assessment for the carer and child in these cases.
  • Informal kinship care: in these cases, there is no legal order and the carer does not have parental responsibility for the child. Councils frequently do not know about these arrangements.

Community Care Inform Children users can find out more in our quick guides to special guardianship orders and kinship care.

Family and friends foster carers are entitled to the national minimum fostering allowance.

Differences in financial support and training offer

However, while 89% of councils provided an ongoing financial allowance to special guardians of children previously looked after, 63% did so where the child was not previously looked after. For carers with a CAO/RO, 69% provided ongoing financial support where the child was previously looked after, with 34% of authorities doing so where the child had not been in care.

Councils were also much more likely to offer special guardians of children previously looked after the equivalent of the national minimum foster care allowance than other groups of kinship carer, so long as there were no exceptional circumstances. However, most authorities that did so subtracted child benefit from the allowance.

There was a similar hierarchy in the provision of training to kinship carers. In relation to ongoing training, Foundations found that:

  • 98% of councils provided this to family and friends foster carers.
  • 78% did so for carers with an SGO for a previously looked-after child.
  • 60% did so for special guardians of children not previously looked after.
  • 38% provided it for carers with a CAO/RO for a previously looked-after child.
  • 28% did so for carers with a CAO/RO for children not previously looked after.

And while almost all councils (93%) offered emotional or therapeutic support to family and friends foster carers, this fell to 86% for special guardians of previously looked-after children and 59% for special guardians of children not previously in care. For carers with a CAO/RO, 46% of councils offered this support where the child had previously been looked after and 30% did so when the child was not previously in care.

‘Need to end postcode lottery’

Foundations also asked councils about provision for informal kinship carers, who do not hold parental responsibility and are frequently unknown to councils despite. Half of respondents (51%) said there were no activities to identify these carers, while a further 30% were unsure about whether there were any such activities.

Foundations said that “the level of disparity in support across different kinship care arrangements does not reflect a differing level of responsibility required from carers”, and that there was a need to end the “postcode lottery” in support between areas.

It was not able to identify what types of support for kinship carers were most effective.

In order to do so, the evidence body has commissioned a systematic review of policies, programmes and interventions designed to improve outcomes for kinship carers and children in their care.

This will interrogate what interventions work in improving outcomes such as permanence, child wellbeing and carer-child relationships, common success factors and enablers and barriers to their  implementation.

DfE to produce kinship strategy

Meanwhile, the Department for Education is planning to produce a kinship strategy before the end of the year, which will include an update on its promise to explore the case for introducing a financial allowance for kinship carers with SGOs and CAOs.

As part of its children’s social care reform strategy, Stable Homes, Built on Love, the DfE has also promised to introduce a national kinship training, information and advice service by spring
2024, backed by £9m in funding over the subsequent year.

Kinship, which contributed to the Foundations study, said: “Every day, we hear from kinship carers who are fighting to get help from their local authority and navigating a complex landscape of support based not on their family’s needs but on legal order and where they live. Currently, too many kinship families are being pushed into arrangements which don’t come with a right to the support they and their children need to thrive.”

‘Risk of arrangements breaking down’

The charity warned that its Breaking Point report suggested that 19,000 children were at risk of entering the care system because of a breakdown of kinship care arrangements.

“This isn’t inevitable, but it demands action, leadership and funding from government. The forthcoming kinship care strategy must clarify how kinship care fits into the wider children’s social care system.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said the use of kinship care arrangements was increasing and that variations between councils would be linked to local priorities, resources and need.

“The continuation of existing relationships with extended family members or friends can help children navigate their early childhood experiences, but there is a lack of understanding about the nature and status of kinship carers and some variation in how these arrangements are delivered,” said Nigel Minns, chair of the ADCS’s health, care and additional needs policy committee.

“The government has committed to publish a kinship strategy which, if successful, has the potential to change the way we work with a significant proportion of our children for the better.”

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