Informal kinship carers have to date been a largely 'hidden population' who take on a huge burden from the state in providing care, often at very little notice, for children who would otherwise end up in the care system. I know, after a career spent in delivering services to children and their carers, that the care provided by these relatives - including grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters - and friends can be a very positive solution in which children feel cared for and secure. Nevertheless, these informal kinship carers and the children they look after, remain an overlooked group who experience high levels of poverty and disadvantage with little or no statutory support.
On Monday, Buttle UK and the University of Bristol are launching the second report of a two-part research study, which provides the most comprehensive picture to date of the children's perspective of living in informal kinship care and the views of their carers. The findings are illuminating and demonstrate clearly the true cost of informal kinship care and the unacceptably huge challenges that this group face, despite stepping in to provide a loving and secure home for these children.
The majority of the placements in our study arose out of parental drug and alcohol misuse, and most children had suffered neglect and maltreatment. Remarkably however, our research shows these children are now doing well, with a strong attachment to their carers and good levels of academic attainment. It is particularly striking that in the main these children are faring significantly than those placed within the formal care system, which costs the state between £23,500 and £56,000 for each child per year.
However, this comes at a cost. Our research shows that it is often as a consequence of taking on the children that kinship carers are plunged into poverty. These carers have to change their life plans, lose their freedom, and if they're young, the chance to train for a job. Moreover, they lose friends, marriages, and can become socially isolated. Nearly three-quarters have high rates of long-term health problems and as many as two-thirds are clinically depressed.
I feel the carers own sense of injustice, that they are saving the state money in preventing children from going into care but taking all the burden, financially and emotionally, themselves.Not only that, but as our research shows, they are actually being turned away from Children's Services, who refuse to support them or the child. Instead, they are left to struggle on their own, living on very low incomes with little or no support from other family members or friends. As one carer in our study said:
"Successive governments have never ever wanted to acknowledge this underclass of caring that is going on. I can't tell you how hard it's been...and the eternal phrase 'But this is a private arrangement.'"
This is a group who our report found took pride in managing their finances well and making a little go a long way. Many had to give up good jobs to look after grandchildren or siblings, and those that were retired were living on their pensions alone. Well over half (68%) had used savings, taken out loans or borrowed money from friends to buy essential items like clothes, bedding and beds. So rather than take advantage of their strong sense of family values, I would rather see us help them with the huge responsibility they have taken on, and prevent them having to live with extra debt and financial hardship.
So - what can we do to help these 'hidden' kinship carers? There is no doubt that urgent action is needed. For this reason, Buttle UK is calling for a national allowance for kinship carers. We believe that giving informal kinship carers adequate financial provision to bring up the children they care for would be an equitable solution - and would probably enable more relatives to take on this role. Some may say that this is wildly unrealistic in the current climate. To them I say that if the welfare state is there for anyone, surely it is for people like these?