“I am seven and I live with my gran. My mum is sick. She takes things that make her sick [so] she’s gone away to get better. I don’t see mum. My house is different now – I have a bed and a warm floor but I have to wash. I never had to do that before. I also get nice food to eat but sometimes it’s icky like broccoli. I love my gran. She makes me happy and she doesn’t shout at me.”
Kinship care is not a new phenomenon. It is something that has been around for centuries and yet even today it can go unrecognized and remain invisible as a form of care. Kinship care is where grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings or close family friends take on the full-time care of a child or children because their parents are unable to do so.
Progress is slowly being made to raise awareness of kinship care in Scotland. However, many families continue to face financial constraints, housing concerns, stigma, guilt and social isolation. Children living in kinship care can also have complex emotional and physical needs, especially if they have experienced trauma, stress, neglect or abuse.
Support, information and advice can be very hard for kinship carers to find and access when they first take on the care of a child. They also often need to locate new bedroom furniture and stock up on clothing and other items for a child’s daily needs that they may not have previously anticipated. Local authorities across Scotland provide varied support to carers and sometimes this support is minimal. Most commonly this is done in the form of a postcode lottery. Yet, providing children with the right kind of early experience is the single most important factor influencing healthy emotional, intellectual and social development. We must ask ourselves then, why kinship care families are not receiving the support they and the children in their care need?
Working in kinship care for over 10 years I have witnessed first-hand the many challenges kinship families face. Carers wish to give the best to the children they take into their homes and their hearts. Yet, because of a lack of understanding and appropriate support, guidance and advice, kinship carer and child relationships can falter and breakdown.
Mentor recognises the value of promoting the role of kinship care in Scotland. Through our research and involvement with kinship carers over the years we have come to understand that highlighting the unknown processes that people in this situation go through can be powerful. We must speak openly about the difference that local and national government, the local community and the education, health and third sectors can make to these families.
Our National Kinship Care Resource Guides and National Kinship Website kinship.scot go some way towards de-mystifying the very confusing journey kinship families can be faced with when they first come together. Mentor will continue to provide access to these resources and support. It is, however, our ongoing partnership work with Big Hearts Community Trust, building on our Families Together programme and delivering dedicated kinship care support groups, that really makes the difference: http://www.bighearts.org.uk/programmes/kinship-care-programme/
Family Support is not rocket science. It should be a wraparound package that works with the whole family, helping them to address the many areas of concern that exist for carers, children and external family members. Mentor UK provides advocacy, training, financial reviews and, along with our partners Big Hearts, access to one to one and group support as well as advice on accessing the appropriate community support services. For children, the Big Hearts Kinship Care programme provides weekly activities that build confidence and self-esteem as well as friendships. We then undertake family outings, bringing the family together to communicate and have fun.
Working alongside local authorities has been a vital component of how we have helped shape best practice around kinship care in Scotland and built better links for carers. This work has involved regional forums and conferences, bringing local authorities together to share practice and review procedures and protocols. We have encouraged local authorities to think outside the box when it comes to kinship care, resulting in a training programme for new social workers and youth workers, upskilling them in how specifically to work with children in kinship care arrangements.
Local communities and services must, however, continue to play a role in supporting kinship families. Local services should be aware that simply changing the title of a project to include the term ‘parent and carer support’ rather than just ‘parent support’ can make a huge difference to kinship families that are often made to feel invisible. Local sports clubs such as football clubs can also play their part. Our experience with Big Hearts Community Trust has been one of true positivity, where the power of football has been harnessed to bring together a community of all ages, genders and beliefs. We also currently train kinship carers to be peer mentors to help other kinship families in their area. But, there is always more work to do and the public can and should get involved!
There is still a long road ahead to fully raise awareness of kinship care, but I am excited about it. Scotland has come such a long way in the last few years, both in terms of legislative developments and local authorities trying to enhance their provisions. Mentor UK is a small cog in a very big wheel and we look forward to working with as many people and services across Scotland to make a difference to the lives of these wonderful families.
(An older version of this article was published on www.home-start.org.uk ahead of Carer’s Rights Day 2017)