As part of Kinship Care Week 2022 Lorna Stabler, a Researcher and PhD student at Cardiff University, writes about being a sibling carer and the research she is undertaking into kinship carers who care for their brothers and sisters.
Most people know that families are not always two parents bringing up their children, and that, for lots of reasons, sometimes children are brought up by someone who isn’t their mother or father. What is less commonly known is in some families, it is an older sister or brother who is the main carer for their younger brothers or sisters. One study in 2011 found that in Scotland 8% of children living in kinship care were growing up in a household headed by their sister or brother. That this is the most recent data shows how little is known! Even less reported is what it is actually like to be a carer for your sister/s and/or brother/s or being brought up by your older sister or brother.
Before becoming a researcher, I was a kinship carer for my younger brother. When I started working in research, I realised there wasn’t really much out there about families like mine. Most of the research about ‘kinship’ families focused on the experiences of grandparents. While that is very important, I felt like the stories of siblings would be different to those of grandparents and their grandchildren. I knew from my own experience that my shared background and childhood, closeness in age, and my life stage were all challenges when caring for my brother, but they were strengths too that gave me a unique insight and abilities. I also knew that I often needed help, and it was not always available. That is why my PhD research – “What are siblings’ lived experiences of providing kinship care? Identifying pathways to improving support for sibling-headed families” – is focused on the experiences of sibling carers.
As part of my research, I am interviewing people over 18 who live in the UK and have experience of being the main carer for their brother or sister. I am also interviewing young people who are being cared for by an older sister or brother, and care experienced people of any age who spent time being cared for by their sibling. Carers interested in being interviewed can find out more here.
I am including practitioners of all types in my PhD research through a survey, interviews and focus groups. The survey asks for examples of practice with sibling-headed kinship families, and ideas around what is needed to help these families to thrive. Practitioners don’t need to have explicitly worked with siblings who are kinship carers – experience of working with any kinship carers will be very relevant. The survey can be accessed here.
The story so far
Many of the conversations so far have raised important issues and considerations. Sibling carers and young people raised by their older brother or sister have rarely, if ever, met another person who had a similar experience, or had the chance to tell their story. When I’ve talked to carers, throughout their stories I get sparks of recognition from my own experience.
Sibling carers have come to kinship care through many different routes, but often have faced similar hurdles when looking for help and recognition. Many of the carers talked about not fitting into the right categories for support and being turned away when in need. Often a social worker had been involved at some point in their lives, but this hadn’t always led to them getting support when they needed it. Areas of need have included – financial help, support for getting back into education, bereavement counselling and trauma-informed services that work with carers and younger siblings, appropriate advice and legal services – and universally, more recognition by social services, schools, medical services, peers and society more broadly of the roles that they are performing.
Practitioners I have spoken to have highlighted the need to advocate for siblings as potential carers because they are often not considered. Some of the reasons given included concerns that siblings may not be able to separate their own experiences from those of their younger brother or sister, that they may not have had the experience of being a parent or of parenting sufficiently, or that they would struggle to manage boundaries and to spend appropriate time with their parents and family. This was echoed by some carers who highlighted the importance of having a practitioner who believed in them and supported them to become a kinship carer.
Despite some of the challenges faced by sibling kinship carers, all the carers interviewed so far did not regret the role they had taken on. While the need for more appropriate support and recognition was raised consistently, so was the love and care they felt for their siblings.
So far, Scotland is the only part of the UK where there is an organisation such as Stand up for Siblings that has dedicated information specifically for siblings, something carers and young people are asking for.
The stories and practice examples generated in this research will hopefully help to increase recognition, and influence the way that services are designed to be suitable for families headed by carers caring for their sisters and brothers.