Kinship Care Week (5 - 11 October) is an opportunity to thank and celebrate kinship carers. The Kinship Connected programme is run by Grandparents Plus and is currently being supported through our Connected Communities Innovation Fund with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Here I explain why we are passionate about the work of Grandparents Plus in supporting kinship carers and the children they care for.
Kinship care is when a child lives full-time or most of the time with a relative or friend who isn't their parent, usually because their parents aren't able to care for them. That relative or friend is called a 'kinship carer', and it's estimated that around half of kinship carers are grandparents, but many other relatives including older siblings, aunts, uncles, as well as family friends and neighbours can also be kinship carers. Kinship carers can have a formal legal order, such as a Special Guardianship Order or Child Arrangement Order, or it could just be an informal arrangement.
There are around 200,000 children in kinship care in the UK - around three and a half times as many as foster care. Kinship carers step in to do the right thing, often turning their lives upside down in the process, but only 1 in 10 say they get the support they need. Over half (53%) are given no notice and take on the children in a crisis situation and in 70% of cases, kinship carers understood that the children would be taken into care if they did not step in.
Grandparents Plus is the national kinship care charity - supporting relatives and friends who step in to raise children who aren’t able to live with their parents. Through their advice service and community of over 5,500 members they provide support, independent guidance and connect kinship carers with each other.
Their report of Growing up in Kinship Care highlighted the importance of peer support for kinship carers and also the associated benefits of children in kinship care meeting those in a similar situation. From this learning Grandparents plus have developed ‘Kinship Connected’ - an initiative that brings together carers to help themselves and each other through breaking down social barriers to build strong networks to establish resilient kinship communities.
The peer-to-peer groups offer a safe, non-judgmental space where kinship carers are able to share their experiences in order to support others in similar circumstances as well as being offered emotional support and practical advice. Kinship carers are more likely to trust the group environment and as a result, they can attract carers who may normally be reluctant to ask for help from the local authority for fear that they will be judged unable to care for their children.
The Kinship Connected programme is currently being supported though our Connected Communities Innovation Fund from Nesta and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). I have had the pleasure of working with the team for the past 18 months supporting them to increase their reach and offer of Kinship Connected in the North East and London, and also expand into new areas starting with West Yorkshire and then Milton Keynes.
Earlier this year I was invited to attend one of their kinship care support groups in Wallsend in the North East to hear from the kinship carers directly on why they attend the peer support group.
I was warmly welcomed by Alice, the group’s leader, who seemed so organised, supportive and passionate about her key role. She’s been leading the group for around 5 years now with the support of Grandparents Plus. What is so amazing about her is that she’s also balancing this important role with so many personal and emotional challenges herself. She is not only bringing up her grandson, but is also a carer for her dad and eldest daughter.
In fact, all of the ladies I met all shared their personal story with me of how and why they became a kinship carer. Adapting to be a ‘mother’ figure at an older age comes with huge challenges, many juggle caring for their elderly relatives, dealing with family breakdowns or bereavements, supporting trauma-affected children whilst trying to find the financial means to get by.
It highlighted to me how complex the kinship carers lives were. Their struggles are not in the past, they are still raw and ongoing and having someone there in the group, or the end of the phone is so crucial at the time of crisis. They had all been there for each other at different times, and the consensus from the kinship carers was it was somewhere they could go to be ‘listened to’ and for a ‘break from their own lives’. As part of the peer support groups they are all giving their time to share their common experiences or similar challenges and by coming together as equals they are able to receive help based on the knowledge that comes through their shared experience.
I left feeling emotional, but energised to know that there are people out there no matter what their background and past history who are still willing to come together to support one another. And that by supporting Grandparents Plus in growing their work supporting kinship carers we will be able to support more people in this challenging situation.
The challenge for scale is to further engage and work collaboratively with the local authorities to recognise and support the Kinship Connected model. For them to recognise the benefits of supporting children in kinship care and that staying and living with a family member is likely to far outway the wider challenges and outcomes for the child if they enter the social care system where fostering or adoption may be the only other option.
The programme is raising awareness of kinship care as a societal challenge that needs to be addressed. Insights from the work to date are already proving to be a valuable source of insight for policy makers and the care community in boosting greater understanding of kinship care and their support needs.
We are supporting them with reflecting on their peer support model, developing their data capture tools to ensure they know who they are reaching and deepening their evaluation evidence to help with future commissioning of services. The ongoing challenge is to continue to reach out and find kinship carers to let them know there is support. Many people don’t associate themselves as a kinship carer or know that support is out there so the more we can talk about this issue the more we can help those hidden heros.
Kinship Care Week 2019 is a national week to raise awareness, understanding and recognition of the role of kinship carers. There will be events happening for all kinship carers, including celebration days, afternoon teas, solicitors offering free legal advice, MPs visiting kinship care support groups and much more!
To find out more about the work of Grandparents Plus check out the resources on their website