Influencing legislation on care of children

More children in the UK are now cared for by relatives or friends (kin) than unrelated foster carers since a ground-breaking study revealed how successful it can be for all concerned.

When a parent is unable to look after their child for whatever reason, most of us would probably say that a relative or family friend would be the best person to bring them up. Before the study, Kinship Care: Fostering Effective Family and Friends Placements (2008), there was little evidence to back up this view, let alone evaluate the safety and success of these arrangements. As the first major study of its kind in England, it has delivered much-needed data for practitioners, policy makers and government, providing the evidence for changes to child care legislation as well as a catalyst for more support services for carers.

"If my grandma hadn't been there, I would have probably been put into care" – a teenager interviewed for the video The Poor Relations? Children and informal kinship carers speak out

Led by Professor Elaine Farmer at the School for Policy Studies, this study compared the characteristics, progress and outcomes of children formally placed with family or friends with those of children placed with stranger foster carers. It showed that children brought up by relatives or friends did just as well as those placed with unrelated carers. But significantly, kinship placements lasted longer because carers were often more highly committed to the relationship.

Caring relatives and friends receive less help and support

The other major finding showed that, although children in the two kinds of placement have similar characteristics and backgrounds, kin carers faced more difficulties in terms of financial hardship and their health, yet received less help from social services than stranger foster carers.

"I've made several referrals [for community mental health support] … for this particular girl placed with her grandparents", said one social worker, "and I think their priority has actually been decreased because she is not in local authority care – caring relatives aren't entitled to what normal foster carers get and this frustrates not only social workers but caring relatives as well. I really don't know [why it is],because [the carer] is probably doing a better job than most foster carers with the way she's turned Dan around.

"The study also showed that many were lone carers, some lived with a disability or illness while a considerable number experienced interfering or threatening behaviour from the parents of the children they were bringing up."

"She put me in hospital once, she hit me so hard I was taken into hospital. I had bruises, the police here and everything" – a grandmother bringing up her 11-year-old grandchild.

Impact on legislation and local authority guidance

The study's influence on legislation emerged with the Children and Young Persons Act 2008.

The act identified kinship care as a priority, citing major findings from the research in its preceding green paper. The Public Law Outline (2008) also adopted conclusions from the research, stating that the potential of care by kin must be considered before care proceedings are brought. And important recommendations from the study fed into the development of the Department for Education's Family and Friends Care: Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities (2010). For the first time, this provided a much-needed framework detailing how local authorities should provide support to kinship carers under the new legislation.

Professor Farmer went on to publish the results in Kinship Care: Fostering Effective Family and Friends Placements' (2008), a book widely used by policy makers, practitioners, social work teachers and voluntary organisations. Farmer has since become a major player on the topic of kinship care, speaking at conferences and consulting with organisations campaigning in this area.

Focus on carers who fall outside the remit of children's services

Farmer's research has continued with The Poor Relations? Children and Informal Kinship Carers Speak Out – a two-part study, funded by the Big Lottery and conducted with Buttle UK and Farmer's colleague Julie Selwyn – which focuses on carers who fall outside the remit of children's services and who are often significantly more disadvantaged than their 'formal' counterparts.

The first phase of the study, Spotlight on Kinship Care re-analysed 2001 census data and found that 95% of kinship care arrangements across the UK were informal agreements between parents and relatives. As such, they were not entitled to financial support from social services.

The second phase involved interviews with 80 informal kin carers and the children they were bringing up aged between eight and 18 years. It revealed that most informal kin carers had a long standing health condition or disability. In addition, two thirds were depressed and many were isolated, living in severe poverty and under strain bringing up the children, a third of whom had serious behavioural and emotional problems. Most were battling on without assistance or support from children's services and some kin carers were also supporting the children's parents,many of whom had drug or alcohol misuse problems. Despite these immense difficulties, the study found that the children were generally doing well and their progress was better than their 'looked after' counterparts, although not as good as for those in the general population.

How these findings play out against a backdrop of financial austerity and the commitment by successive governments to reduce child poverty will no doubt provoke debate and concern for all involved in this area, especially the families affected. As one grandmother bringing up a 14-year-old says, "There must be thousands of people in the same position as me…and I think that is down to finance that successive governments have never ever wanted to acknowledge this underclass of caring that is going on. I can't tell you how hard it's been... and the eternal phrase 'But this is a private arrangement'".

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