After attending an ARK workshop held in Queen’s University Belfast on the 7th June entitled ‘Exploring inequalities in caring: grandparents’ experiences of kinship care from multiple perspectives’, I would like to reflect on the main messages I believe came out from the different presentations, and link them to our research.
There has been considerable changes in the type of care placements that children and young people enter when they become looked after in the last 20 years. Speakers in the event highlighted the increase of kinship care (i.e. care placements with family members or a family friend) in Northern Ireland, with 42% of all fostered children being looked after by kin in 2016, and the Western HSC Trust having the highest proportion (50%). Many of these carers are grandparents, which was the focus of the workshop. This increase in kinship care was attributed to the legislative framework set in the Children (NI) Order 1995, which states that children should be first placed with family, but was also suggested that a lack of foster placements could have had an influence.
Some of the other main messages that were repeated throughout the presentations were:
- The suddenness and lack of preparation for the placement, combined with the kinship carers’ sense of obligation to care for their relatives’ children;
- The lack of information and advice received, in terms of the decisions made affecting their families (including legal status, etc.), and the supports and resources they are entitled to;
- The links between poverty and kinship care – thus, kinship carers’ difficulties in managing finances, given the fact that the majority are in low-income families;
- The different experiences in forming relationships with social services;
- The complex nature of contact, and how the placement might disrupt previous relationships with family members;
- The education of the children as being one of the biggest concerns for kinship carers; and
- High levels of stress and health-related concerns.
These messages came through also in some of our past research, but I’m going to focus on just four of them in this post.
Not a choice
Reporting on a study on kinship carers in Northern Ireland, Mandi MacDonald explained how kinship carers stated that they had to make a quick decision at the start of the placement, which was based on a sense of obligation to care for their extended families. They highlighted the lack of preparation for the placement.
This type of statements are reflected in our previous findings from the Care Pathways and Outcomes Study. For instance, Nathan’s grandmother (not real name) described the way in which her grandson and his sister were initially placed with her, and how she was told there was no other option:
“The children were dumped on us … That’s honestly, I’m telling you nothing but the truth… and the social worker says you have to take them, didn’t ask will you take them… just take them.”
Lack of information and advice
This message came through very clearly from the research reported in the workshop, as well as from those in practice and from a kinship carer herself who presented at the event. For instance, Anna Tarrant, talking about her research with grandparents who were kinship carers in a city in England, highlighted a lack of transparency on the decisions that social services made in relation to these families, and about their legal rights, etc. Similarly, Mandi Macdonald stressed a clear need for information, advice and support. Michelle O’Neill, from Kinship Care NI, did also encounter in her practice that older kinship carers were often unaware of what they were entitled to, and about the legal situations, etc, as they had never dealt with social services before, and it was all new to them.
This type of messages were also apparent in the previous phase of this study and particularly in the Mind Your Health study (on the physical and mental health of LAC in NI). In this study, kinship carers explained how they received no medical information on the children at the start of the placement. Although some claimed that they already knew most medical information about the child, others believed that more information at the beginning of the placement would have been useful to them, especially regarding their past background, and others had to request information, such as the name of the child’s GP or whether immunisations were up to date or not:
“One day we got a phone call and two hours later, Matthew (not real name) arrived… I would like to have known a bit more about the past … obviously, the social workers have been on mum’s case for years. Obviously Matthew has been under the spotlight – they know a certain amount of what has been going on. But my husband and I have never been told – has Matthew been mentally or physically abused? It’s a bit tricky for us to understand all this but obviously when Matthew was placed with us, they never said about medical conditions, or that the home life was pretty bad, or Matthew’s needs or this or that. There was nothing.”
“Shortly after Sarah (not real name) had come to me, that’s when she took that sore throat and chest infection, within a week or two, I just more or less had to find out who Sarah’s GP was to make the appointment to take her to it.”
In terms of services, we found that kinship carers were often unaware of the types of supports they could avail of, especially those who were new to fostering. They also often felt that there were not enough supports for them.
“I don’t think there is enough support for kinship carers. I don’t think they should have to take the rubbish from parents or grandparents or their solicitors or anything else, because at the end of the day, we didn’t ask to be put in this place, social services came to me asking me ‘Would I take the kids on?’”
As Anna Tarrant explained, the links between poverty and kinship care have been clearly exposed. Kinship carers are more likely than other foster carers to experience financial hardship, live in overcrowded conditions, as well as experience ill health and depression. Her research and that of Mandi MacDonald and others found that many were having to leave work to care for these children, which deepened their financial hardship. Even, in Northern Ireland at present, where kinship carers receive the same allowances as foster carers, it appears that over a third find their financial situation a struggle at times, and many were concerned about the future in terms of their finances. Mandi and colleagues also found that only 25% were in employment, and only 15% were working full-time. Michelle O’Neill identified poverty and unemployment, and inadequate housing as two of the issues facing kinship carers.
In the previous phase of the study, kinship carers referred to inadequate financial support they were receiving. For instance, Eoghan’s (not real name) grandmother explained how she had stopped asking Social Services for help because of being repeatedly denied of adequate financial support to care for her grandson, while caring for her other (at the time, young) children. She described Social Services as “using” her, and contrasted the lack of support received to that given to the foster carer who had briefly looked after her grandson.
We also found that kinship carers who took on a residence order found themselves in an even worse financial situation, and some complained about being denied funding and other resources from core Social Services budgets, which were routinely provided to fostered children. For instance, Luke’s (not real name) grandmother had had to ask for extra help that year for the first time since assuming care of her four grandchildren, including money for school uniforms as well as school trips. Roisin, Caoimghin and Greg’s (not real names) grandfather was receiving no financial allowances. He contrasted the lack of support from Social Services he was receiving at the time to the much welcomed support he had received before the granting of the residence order (e.g. respite care, equipment, household appliances) to help with his three grandchildren’s care. He explained he had not fully appreciated that all the support would come to an end with the granting of the residence order, but believed he had had little choice but to seek this. The lack of financial support was preventing him from being able to provide for his grandchildren optimally.
Complex nature of contact
Kathleen Toner, the Director of the Fostering Network in Northern Ireland, highlighted the complex nature of contact within kinship placements, as carers have to deal with challenging relationships with family members. Similarly, Michelle O’Neill identified changes in relationships with family members as one of the issues facing older kinship carers.
In the previous phase of the Care Pathways study, some kinship carers reported tensions in the relationship with the birth parents. Contact tended to be more frequent in kinship placements, and also more informal, which could sometimes be problematic. In the Mind Your Health study, there was also an older sibling who was a kinship carer of an eleven year old, who found it difficult to get the birth mother to listen to him, in particular in relation to healthy eating for the child:
“Sometimes, if Mary (not real name) is spending time with my mum, she would maybe take her to the shop and offer to buy like a chippie or make something that’s really not what Mary’s meant to be eating. I have had to have discussions with social services and I’ve spoken about it in the last meeting and I’ve spoke to her about it and sometimes she doesn’t want to listen to me so social services will tell her.”
To finish off this summary of messages, it is important to recognise (as it was done in the workshop in the 7th June) the marvelous important work that these carers do, and of their tenacity to do it. As despite the many difficulties, they do not appear to ever give up on the children. However, there is a clear need for a higher level of support to be provided to these families.