‘Plunged into poverty’: are kinship carers getting the support they need?

“I have wondered how this would have ended if I had been a less vocal, expressive or determined person,” a grandmother told a Gloucestershire family court last autumn, after applying to be appointed special guardian to her infant grandchild.

She was successful, but was keen to air her criticisms of the “extraordinary experience”. She alleges there was poor communication from children’s services, she was wrongly told she was ineligible for financial support, and unexplained delays meant her grandchild was in foster care for longer than necessary.

“It has left me feeling shattered by the lack of kindness and understanding I experienced in such a painful context,” she told the judge.

Responding to her statement, Gloucestershire’s interim improvement and operations director, Neelam Bhardwaja, said: “We know that taking responsibility for a young child is a huge decision and can be very stressful. We acted with integrity and kindness towards everyone involved in this case, as well as providing financial support including paying for some independent legal advice.

“We feel confident this child has the loving and committed family they need and we support the special guardianship arrangements.”

The grandmother in this case is not alone in struggling with a local authority’s attitude to kinship care. Around 180,000 children live with relatives or friends, and nine in 10 kinship carers say they do not feel supported in bringing up children who might otherwise be adopted or go into long-term foster care.

Kinship care is more stable than foster care and, by objective measures, has significantly better outcomes for children. So how do local authorities view it, and how much are they willing – or able – to resource this type of placement?

With large numbers in informal arrangements, the root problem for many kinship care families is being invisible to policymakers and local authorities. According to charity Grandparents Plus, support for kinship care is a postcode lottery. Chief executive Lucy Peake says many are “plunged into poverty” after volunteering to care for a child they had never expected to bring up.

The charity wants children in kinship care to be supported according to their needs rather than their legal status. But Charlotte Ramsden, director of children’s services for Salford, says that with budgets slashed and the child population increasing, local authorities’ capacity to respond “is massively less” than it should be.

Failures by councils to identify and properly assess and prepare kinship carers pose a genuine problem for children, says Mike Stein of York University, who researches the corporate parenting of young people.

“It gets my blood boiling. It’s so unjust that your life chances should be affected by inadequacies in this area,” he says.

Ramsden says that kinship carers are valued by local authorities, but paying them the same as foster carers is simply not achievable. “In an ideal world, if resources weren’t an issue, we might be saying something very different,” she says.

Sandra started looking after her nine-month-old grandson seven years ago after social workers took emergency measures to remove him from her son. She was given five minutes to decide whether he would go home with her or into foster care. She received five months of nursery fees from her local authority so she could keep hold of her job. Since then, Sandra has not had any financial support – despite it being the local authority’s decision to take action.

“I feel hard done by by the local authority,” she says. “I think a lot of kinship carers do because the council just thinks: ‘We don’t have to pay for a foster carer.’ Some get £400 a week per child, so we’re saving them that.”

While the lack of money may pull councils in one direction, a trend for children to stay with their birth families pulls in the other.

Special guardianship numbers are soaring and the way relatives and friends are viewed in terms of their capacity to care for a child at risk has changed considerably, says Joan Hunt, an expert in family law.

Ten years ago, a grandparent whose own child was an unsafe parent might have been regarded with suspicion by a local authority. Now, case law firmly encourages the assessment of relatives and means that families are much more likely to be carefully considered. Ramsden says children’s services try to be flexible if a family member offers to look after a child.

What financial, practical and emotional support is available for the increasing number of kinship families?

Statutory guidance from 2011 says children in kinship care and their carers should receive the support they need regardless of their legal status.

“If local authorities implemented that it would make a huge difference, but they are terrified of opening the floodgates, and that if they make services and money available, they will have thousands of carers knocking at their door,” says Hunt.

Given that the guidance on support is often not followed, Hunt believes that only primary legislation is likely to lead to genuine improvements.

But despite budgetary constraints, some new thinking is being introduced. In an initiative pioneered and delivered by Tact, which delivers Peterborough council’s fostering and adoption services, the same practical and emotional support and training will be available to all kinship carers where the council has been involved in creating the child’s placement.

Part of the problem local authorities face in developing sustained support for kinship carers is systemic, says Andy Elvin, chief executive of Tact.

“Because funding is always year-on-year, it’s hard for managers to make decisions on the next 10 years,” he says. “If you could look at a child growing up for the next 12 years and you want a good outcome and value for money over that time, then you might make different decisions than if you’re looking at next March.

Hunt is clear that using kinship carers more and better supporting them would save taxpayers money in the long term – not least because it would lead to improved outcomes for more children.

With the right resourcing from central government to allow councils to offer sustained help over a child’s lifetime, “you’d have more people coming forward as kinship carers, and if they had more support, more would last”, says Elvin.

“Long-term stability is good for children, so you end up with [fewer] children who would go on to need adult services, or intensive support services through adolescence,” he says.