Blood ties – kinship care article from the guardian april 2008 by robert bullard
Many grandparents these days find themselves bringing up grandchildren – but financial help from councils is hard to come by.
For the UK’s estimated 150,000-300,000 kinship carers, it remains a lottery as to what, if any, support they receive.
June Cotier was approaching 65 and looking forward to retirement and doing some travelling. Then she got a phone call: her youngest son had split up with his wife and he and his two children, aged one and two, were coming to stay. Over the following months, her son moved from one girlfriend to the next; the children went with him, but returned to Cotier in between. Then Cotier’s son suddenly disappeared. That was 10 years ago, and the children have been with her ever since.
These days, it is not always parents who do the parenting. The changing nature of today’s society means that many grandparents do it too – permanently, and not always out of choice. Whether because of their child’s death, imprisonment, drug or alcohol abuse, mental health problems or, as in Cotier’s case, simply disappearing, people in their 50s and 60s can end up becoming parents all over again.
As part of a joint commitment between the Scottish government and Scottish local authorities, an estimated 2,100 carers will benefit from the introduction this month of a weekly allowance of £118-£198, depending on the age of the children.
But the allowance is payable only to approved kinship carers looking after children placed with them by a local authority, and only in Scotland. For the estimated 150,000-300,000 kinship carers across the UK who provide full-time care under informal arrangements, it remains a lottery as to what, if any, support they receive.
Many kinship carers don’t know their rights, says Nigel Priestley, head of kinship care at Ridley & Hall solicitors in West Yorkshire, and a trustee of the national Family Rights Group (FRG). Under the pressure of the situation, when kinship carers drop everything and take on children, he explains, they don’t realise that councils have their own agendas to reduce the number of looked-after children. By steering carers towards residence orders, whereby payments are discretionary, the council can wipe its hands of them.
While informal kinship carers often receive no allowance at all, even those caring for looked-after children placed with them by the council are often paid far less than registered fosterparents.
Cathy Ashley is chief executive of FRG, which leads the Kinship Care Alliance that is lobbying the government on the children and young persons bill currently going through parliament. She welcomes the bill’s scope for councils to have increased discretion when deciding how long to support children “in need”, but is lobbying for councils to undertake more assessments of children’s needs, and for them to have a duty to provide financial support to kinship carers.
Peter Harris, chair of the Grandparents’ Association, welcomes what he sees as the recent “cultural change” in Whitehall, with an increased importance being given to children’s matters. As evidence, he cites last year’s creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and proposals for more specialist training of social workers. But, he says, the stumbling block is now local authorities. “Children’s services are not popular among local politicians,” he says.
There are exceptions, however. “Scotland is introducing what we have always done,” says Rosie Smith, commissioning officer at Hampshire county council. It has been supporting kinship carers for over five years, and has been pioneering family group conferences – one proposal in the children and young persons bill – for even longer. And it provides means-tested allowances to close family members – something unheard of in the rest of England and Wales.
Smith points out that children say they prefer to live with family members and, where they do, research shows that they enjoy greater stability, which helps lead to better educational outcomes.
The council also benefits because kinship carers are more willing to take on teenagers, who can be harder to place with foster carers, and are more likely to take on several siblings at once. “It has been a very positive scheme financially, for the children and for the families,” Smith says. But the bottom line, she stresses, is the better outcome enjoyed by the children. “They would otherwise be in the council’s care and cost us more.”
Cotier, who lives in Aberdeen, is one of the unlucky ones who will not qualify for the new allowance – only two grandparents in the support group she helped set up will benefit – and she is dismissive of plans to provide increased training, information and support. “We don’t want advice or lectures on bringing up children – we have brought up a family already,” she says. “What we need is financial assistance.” Although the Child Support Agency helped track down her son, so far he has evaded payments of £3,000.
This month, Cotier will be 75. “I feel less and less able to cope with the physical work involved – the ironing, washing and cleaning – in making family life,” she admits. Her grandchildren are still with her but, as teenagers, they are now less inclined to help around the house. As for her plans for retirement, they have long since been shelved.