Kinship carers left in the dark - without legal advice and representation

Three in four kinship carers say they:

  • Did not have enough information about their legal options when taking on the children to make an informed decision;
  • Are facing financial hardship as a result of doing right by the children

Family Rights Group has carried out an extensive survey of kinship carers - family and friends who take on the care of a child, who cannot remain at home due to tragedy or trauma. 845 kinship carers raising at least 1252 kinship children filled in the survey. The survey report - ‘The highs and lows of kinship care: analysis of a comprehensive survey of kinship carers 2019’ is published today.

The legal status of the kinship child has significant and lasting ramifications as to whether or not the child is entitled to support and the kinship carer to a financial allowance. However, the survey results reveal:

  • Three-quarters of kinship carers who completed the survey said they felt that they did not have enough information about legal options when they took on the care of the kinship child/children to make an informed decision
  • Four in ten kinship carers who have incurred legal costs, for example, to secure a legal order to provide the child with permanence, had to pay the costs entirely themselves. The survey found that kinship carers who paid out their own monies for part or all of the legal costs spent on average £5446.

Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive of Family Rights Group said:

“There are now more children in the care system than at any time since 1985. The system has been described as being in crisis. A Care Crisis Review we facilitated in 2018 found that a culture of blame, shame and fear has permeated the child welfare and family justice system. This inhibits partnership working between the state and families, yet partnership working is in the interests of children. Today’s report illustrates how many kinship carers experience an environment in which they feel done to, cajoled and put upon, despite trying to do their best for the children.

The survey found, for example, that many kinship carers felt pressurised by local authorities into giving up work, even though this pushed them into poverty, or they felt coerced into agreeing to a particular legal order for the child, even though it led to a loss in support.

Whilst the children are often doing well in their care, this can be at the expense of kinship carers’ own finances, relationships and even health. However, kinship carers feel this is too rarely recognised by children’s services, public agencies or government. They love their kinship child or kinship children and they put their needs first, and in doing so they save the state significant amounts of monies, but the public agencies that should be there to help, too often make life more stressful.“

  • 54% of kinship carers, who had been in work, had to give up their job to take on the child, and a further 24% had to reduce their working hours.
  • Three-quarters of kinship carers stated that they were facing financial hardship as a result of taking on the children. A small but notable number had been affected by the bedroom tax (the under-occupation penalty), benefit cap or benefits sanctions, which had a very harsh impact, leading in some cases to debt and even homelessness.
  • Almost two-thirds (64%) of kinship carers rated the help they had received from children’s services as poor or very poor. Only 15% rated it as good or excellent.
  • More than one in three (37%) kinship carers said they had received no help of any kind from children’s services.
  • 93% of kinship carers said additional support would have made/would make a difference, with only 7% stating that no additional support was needed. Examples of support that would make a difference included emotional support for them and the child, counselling or therapeutic support for the child, respite care, life story work for the child, help with managing family contact, and training courses. 

The kinship carers described the love they felt for the children they were raising but also the battles they face to get help and support for the children:

  • Half the kinship carers who completed the survey said that one or more of the kinship children they are raising have special needs or disabilities. Four-fifths of these children are described as having emotional and behaviour problems and four in ten having learning disabilities.
  • 20% of kinship children of school age have been temporarily excluded from school and 5% permanently excluded.
  • 70% of the kinship children have a sibling who is not living with them.

A quarter of the kinship children had been placed with an unrelated foster carer (i.e. a foster carer who is neither their family member nor friend of the family) before going to live with the kinship carer. Some kinship carers commented that the children could have avoided multiple placements, including with strangers, if the local authority had started working with the child’s family earlier to identify and support the kinship placement where the child was now living.

The report sets out a series of recommendations aimed at:

  • Enabling more children, who cannot live safely with their parents, to be raised by loving family and friends rather than be removed from their family network.
  • Ensuring that kinship children and their carers have the support they need for the children to thrive.

The recommendations include a call on the Government to:

  • Introduce a new legal duty on local authorities to ensure that potential placements with kinship carers are always explored and assessed for suitability before a child becomes looked after in the care system, unless there is an emergency.
  • As a matter of urgency, adequately fund Family Rights Group’s specialist legal advice service for kinship carers post-March 2020.
  • Implement the Care Crisis Review’s Options for Change, including a new Government ring-fenced fund for local authorities to help them work with their partner agencies, young people and families to safely avert children having to enter or remain in the care system.
  • Introduce a period of paid employment leave and protection to kinship carers, equivalent to paid adoption leave, to enable the child to settle in with them and help avoid the carer having to give up work.
  • Exempt kinship carer households from the benefit cap and bedroom tax.
  • Introduce a new Kinship Care Bill that includes a duty on local authorities to establish and commission kinship support services (and provide adequate funding to local authorities to deliver this).
  • Provide automatic settled status to children being raised in kinship care under a legal order and those who are in the care system or are care leavers, whose ability to remain in the UK could be at risk following Brexit.