"Invisible families": The difficult realities of kinship care in the UK

A Greater Manchester grandmother bringing up her grandchildren has highlighted concerns over what she believes is a lack of substantial state support for kinship carers.
Linzi, who cares for a relative’s two 10 year olds and is one of 200,000 kinship carers in the UK, claims that local authority support available for them is often confusing and not always easy to find.
Kinship carers, also known as family and friends carers, are the grandparents, other relatives and close contacts of children at risk of being taken into care who agree to look after them for a substantial amount of time.
Some, including Linzi, whose grandchildren are within the remit of Stockport Council, are now voicing their concerns that the amount of financial and other support they are entitled to is not always as substantial and as clear cut as what foster carers receive.
Foster carers are paid an effective wage paid by councils who consider foster care a self-employed, working role.  In Stockport, for example, they can receive up to £345 per week plus additional allowances for birthdays, Christmas and holidays per child. However, no standardised, equivalent payment system exists for kinship guardians.
Whilst foster carers are not eligible for child tax credits, which other guardians including kinship carers can receive, they are eligible for other payments such as working tax credits due to being recognised as self-employed by local authorities. They are also entitled to respite, carer and child trips and training courses.
The lack of a substantial, easy to understand nationwide policy for kinship carers has resulted in a situation of payments and services available at the discretion of individual local authorities. Most kinship carers get no help at all from their local authority. This has also led kinship carers to be informally referred to in the UK as “hidden” or “invisible” families.
This situation persists despite the fact that, according to the Grandparents Plus charity, these families are often in great need of state help.
The charity has published numerous reports to back up its campaign to ensure better and more standardised support systems be put in place for kinship carers. The reports have revealed that most kinship care families say they have experienced financial hardship due to bringing up relatives’ children, with two thirds reporting low household incomes. A large proportion has had to cut their working hours or give up their jobs entirely due to child care responsibilities. 85% of children in kinship care are also reported to have emotional difficulties when they move in with their carers.
Linzi, 50, who has cared for three of her grandchildren along with her husband, is amongst those attempting to raise awareness of kinship carers’ struggles in the UK to ensure that they all have access to substantial and easy-to-navigate support services within local authorities.
She said: “We do the same job as foster carers but we don’t always get the same support and what help we do get is generally means tested. We are also not entitled to parental leave despite having the same role in our children’s lives.
“I’ve had to give up my job to look after the children so I’m not entitled to JSA, income support and my partner and I don’t qualify for working tax credits because neither of us works the minimum 24 hours per week and as kinship carers we are not recognised by the government as self-employed carers like foster parents.
 “I get £129.15 a week kinship allowance which is the maximum that they will pay for my two children and £33.70 in child benefits. I also get annual child tax credits but that is all the income support our family gets. It’s just not enough to compensate for the changes that we’ve had to make such as buying a bigger house and taking out another mortgage to have room for us all. It costs a lot to raise a child, especially when it’s the second time around. I think there are many kinship carers out there who feel like they’ve been left in limbo when it comes to getting support from local authorities.
“I don’t think many kinship carers would say they would prefer their grandchildren to be placed in care but at the same time it is a very demanding task. I’ve already had my own children but now I’m in a situation where I’ll be 60 and my partner almost 70 when my grandchildren will probably be still living at home. It’s a lot of commitment at that age but being a kinship carer is something that is hardly talked about in public.
“Just because we are all family that should not imply that we can easily afford to look after them; that a link has been made between the two is ridiculous. The government has not taken into consideration that most kinship guardians don’t expect to find themselves looking after their grandchildren so haven’t put any money aside. It seems like emotional blackmail to me.”
Only 36% of carers are currently working despite almost 3 quarters being in employment before taking on the children.  Over 65% have been described as living in poverty, with around 41% of kinship carers predominantly dependent on welfare benefits.
Linzi said: “The amount of time it takes to look after the children means I’m unable to get regular employment yet I’m not treated as working by caring for them fulltime like foster carers can be. A lot of kinship carers really struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes you just feel like you’re really on your own.”
Sarah Wellard, policy and research manager for Grandparents Plus, said: “The whole entitlement system for kinship carers is a complete nightmare and varies widely from council to council.  Most kinship carers get no help at all, either practical or financial, from their local authority. Often they are given poor information and are sometimes misled.
“The whole system of support from local authorities is incredibly complicated, and where kinship carers do get support, this is usually discretionary  and means tested.
“We need whole system reform to ensure fairness in access to financial and practical support based on children’s needs. We also want to see carers able to get proper advice and information so that they are fully aware of what they are entitled to. Many are left in the dark about services, benefits and support that does exist out there for them.
“Some kinship carers are even hesitant to contact social services to ask for help out of fear their child will be taken away from them. The government must do more to reassure families around this issue.”

Grandparents Plus offers advice and information to kinship carers to help them access welfare benefits and support from their local authority. They also run a peer support network and provide details of local support groups and other relevant charities on their website http://www.grandparentsplus.org.uk/advice. To contact the charity call the confidential advice line on: 0300 123 7015 or email: advice@grandparentsplus.org.uk

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