It’s a well-known story that local authorities have been under pressure since austerity began. However, as austerity begins to loosen its grip and money starts to trickle back into the system, it’s worth looking at how pioneering local authorities have been working with us to support kinship carers, and why kinship care needs to be recognised in law.
Forward-looking local authorities
The North London Adoption and Fostering Consortium (NLAFC) is a group of six local authorities – Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey and Islington – who work together to help and support children and families. They have commissioned us to run Kinship Connected across the boroughs, providing intensive one-to-one support, support groups, and coffee mornings for special guardians.
Many kinship carers end up out of step with their peer groups – grandparents taking on babies and younger carers suddenly raising a family – and they report feeling isolated and invisible. Kinship carers say they want to meet others going through the same thing and support groups provide them with this, however in our latest survey, 90% of kinship carers said they weren’t told by their local authority where to access peer support.
“You feel like you’ve landed, you feel like you’re home,” is how one carer explained going to her first support group. These groups are a safe place where kinship carers know they can talk about the problems they face without judgement, and with much-needed support. Our project workers, many of whom are kinship carers themselves, are on hand to offer advice, as well as additional one-to-one support outside the group.
Kinship Connected is making a real difference to the lives of kinship carers, and is commissioned by local authorities across the country. At the moment many local authorities commission it for special guardians and we would like to extend it to all kinship carers.
Moving from North London to West Yorkshire, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield have all also commissioned Kinship Connected, as well as working on a regional approach to supporting special guardians. It’s a piece of work we’re closely involved with strategically, and our project workers contribute their on-the-ground experience of supporting kinship carers. The Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board, which we’re part of, is developing a special guardianship support blueprint for England, and we’re contributing our expertise to that too. We’re contributing to a similar process in Wales.
From West Yorkshire, we return to London, this time to the east where we are working with Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest to run Kinship Ready. Many kinship carers take on children with little to no notice, and through no fault of their own are wholly unprepared for the challenge of bringing up children who have often experienced trauma. 95% said they hadn’t had any form of training to help prepare them for becoming kinship cares. Kinship Ready is a series of workshops to help potential special guardians prepare for the role and meet other carers in a similar situation.
In South London, Bromley and Southwark have been working with our project workers to pioneer new Chill and Chat models of peer-to-peer support groups, empowering kinship carers to run the groups themselves with support from project workers when needed.
One final leap up to the North East, following commissioning of Kinship Connected in Redcar and Cleveland, the local authority has invested in staff to specifically support kinship carers, as has County Durham.
Support is a postcode lottery
While there are pockets of good work being done by local authorities, support for kinship carers is too often still a postcode lottery. Why? Because the Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities on Family and Friends Care is just that – guidance. It sets out what local authorities should do, not what they must do.
It is interpreted differently by local authorities, and this leads to a lottery where support is determined by legal order not the needs of the child. This matters because many kinship carers are making decisions at a time of crisis, without information and advice. They may rush to support a child to prevent them being taken into care, but they don’t know that means they’ll be told the arrangement is ‘private’ and they won’t get support. On top of that, they may be scared to ask for help because they fear the children will be taken away.
The unbalance in the system is clear when you consider children in the same family who come into kinship care through different legal routes. They have had the same experience of trauma and neglect, but one will be entitled to support and one won’t.
With pressure on wider local authority budgets, spend is increasingly focused on things they have to do. They must support foster carers. They don’t have to support kinship carers, with the exception of a minority of carers who are classed as kinship foster carers.
Why a Kinship Care Act
Our campaign for a Kinship Care Act is about recognising kinship care in law. It’s about recognising all children in kinship care regardless of their legal order. It’s about recognising their experiences and giving them a right to be able to access the support they need.
The guidance is not working. Some forward-looking local authorities are investing, but there’s a postcode lottery of support and progress is too slow. We know that kinship carers cannot continue without support. Many are being pushed to breaking point and if they can’t look after these children, then most are likely to enter the care system.
It makes sense to invest in kinship care now. Kinship care has to be part of the solution to the rising number of children in care – recent research found that outcomes for young people in kinship care are generally better than for those in the care system.
The national government needs to take a lead – it needs to set out a national offer of support for kinship families, including financial support and practical support for carers and children. It needs to ensure adequate funding for local authorities and the voluntary sector to deliver that support. And it needs to do this now.