Kinship care is when other family members or friends (but mostly grandparents) take long term or permanent care of children unable to live with their parents. This can be due to mental health, bereavement, drug and alcohol addictions, or neglect.
Family members step in to prevent the children ending up in the care system – in residential homes or foster care. Though these are important services, evidence (and common sense) show that children are much better off living with family they know, where there is stability, unconditional love and familiarity, as well as more contact with their birth parents. Grandparents and relatives often lift children or babies from an unsafe situation, or have the children delivered to them by social work or police with only the clothes they are wearing. Kinship carers quit jobs, sleep on sofas, and go without to care for them. For more background on the life of a kinship carer see Our Stories.
Despite the improved outcomes, kinship care has historically been mostly unrecognised and unsupported by the State. In 2013 foster carers were paid an average of £165/week to support the children in their care, while the average payment to formal kinship carers (those with Looked After Child status) was £70/week. Levels of support vary enormously between Local Authorities, creating a postcode lottery of support for kinship carers. More importantly kinship carers didn’t (and mostly still don’t) have access to the essential child educational and psychological services, or carer respite, which foster carers are entitled to.
In recent years kinship carers’ long fight for recognition and support has begun to pay off, and in 2016 the Kinship Care Assistance (Scotland) Order, alongside the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, finally entitled kinship carers to parity of child support allowances with foster carers, and improved other support available, recognising the children’s comparable needs. However, the legislation continues to discriminate between ‘eligible’ and ineligible children in kinship care, making an arbitrary division based on whether the child was formally placed by social workers or not. This means many kinship carers who took the child from an unsafe situation before contacting social services are not entitled to support.
Due to the informal nature of many placements the exact number of Scottish children in kinship care is not known. In 2014/15 4,158 children in Scotland (a quarter of all Looked After Children – children for whom the State is the corporate parent) were in a formal kinship care placement, but the true figure including informal placements is many times higher. A 2011 a report by Buttle UK and Bristol University used the 2001 census to show that 1 in 77 children in Scotland were in a kinship care arrangement then. Today that could mean 67,500 children are in this situation. The charity CHILDREN 1st estimate that there are 20,000 kinship carers in Scotland.
Kinship carers face many struggles when they take on the heroic task of caring for these children. The main issues they face are:
Poverty – Kinship care is most common in Scotland’s poorest communities. Without financial support and with the blood parents often drawing the child benefit many kinship carers can only just make ends meet and can lack the most basic white goods or a bed for the child they are caring for. Many have given up jobs to give the kids the full time care they require and deserve, leaving them in dire financial straits.
There is extensive data on the levels of poverty, overcrowding, and ill health suffered by kinship carers in Scotland. Recent evidence shows that:
- 1 in 3 kinship carers are not receiving child benefit;
- 3 out of 4 kinship carers experience financial hardship;
- between 35% and 60% reduced their hours at work or took early retirement to raise the children;
- 1 in 3 kinship carers live in overcrowded conditions;
- 3 out of 10 kinship carers have a chronic illness or disability;
Child trauma, disability and behavioural issues – Most children in kinship care in Scotland have had a traumatic start in life. This can include bereavement, neglect, abuse, and alcohol, heroin or methadone damage in the womb. These traumas can cause a range of physical, mental and behavioural issues, most commonly delayed development, ADHD, attachment disorder, sight and hearing problems, difficulty sleeping and other serious traumas. Kinship carers often find themselves dealing with damaged children who destroy things in their homes or get excluded from school.
Keeping the family together – Of course kinship carers still love their children, no matter what mistakes they may have made, and one of the advantages of kinship care is that children retain better relationships with their birth parents. Having an addict or mentally unwell child in your life is not easy as they also need support and add another layer of stress to kinship carer’s lives.
Family breakdown – In many cases one or more of the blood parents are not happy with the arrangement and want the child back even if they are not capable of caring for them. Finding a relationship between the parents and child that works and is not destructive can be very difficult and sometimes impossible.
Exhaustion – Taking on the role of parenting again, plus the stress of the issues mentioned above takes its toll. Many kinship carers feel exhausted and are desperate for some respite. Some have taken on two or three children and never know when another might appear.
Ill health– Kinship carers are usually in their later years and have their own health problems, often accentuated by the stress of their situation. The worst nightmare for most kinship carers is dying and leaving the children in their care without a parent again.