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Kinship care needs greater recognition, says former health secretary

The care system neither encourages nor sufficiently supports kinship care as an alternative to care arrangements, a former health secretary has said.

At a Commons backbench debate on children in care, Alan Johnson said while there is helpful guidance on kinship care, but there is no statutory duty that requires local authorities to explore the kinship care option.

In addition, there is no statutory duty for authorities to have the “all-important” family group conference, a process which involved the wider family from an early stage.

“In the vast majority of cases, that does not take place until after the child goes into care. It should be held before that decision is made,” Mr Johnson told the debate. “One of the important aspects of the family group conference is the voice of the young person, which is crucial. It is vital to the process and central to the success of family group conferences. However, not only are they almost always held after a child has been designated as “looked after”, but their number is diminishing as budget cuts force local authorities to retrench.”

Kinship care – where grandparents, other relatives or friends step in to take care of a child who cannot live with his or her parents – has “real and substantial” benefits for children, Mr Johnson added. Ninety-five per cent of the children in kinship care are not declared “looked-after” children by the local authority and so by keeping children out of the care system, those carers save the taxpayer billions of pounds each year in care costs alone.

In addition, the benefits for the children include them feeling more secure, and experiencing fewer emotional problems and behavioural difficulties, said Johnson adding that recent research published in November also suggests that children in kinship care also do better educationally than those in residential care.

Mr Johnson urged the government to place a new statutory duty on local authorities so that when it is decided that a child may need to be placed in care, other than in emergencies, they must first identify and consider the willingness and suitability of any relative or other person connected to the child to care for them.

In addition, they should arrange a family group conference run by an accredited FGC service to develop a plan to safeguard and promote a child’s welfare.

Mr Johnson, however, warned that the largest survey of kinship carers in the UK found that 49% of respondents had to give up work permanently, which is often a requirement for taking a child into their care—the authorities insist that they give up work. Some 18% had to give up work temporarily and 23% had to reduce their hours which affects the family’s income.

Sir Martin Narey’s imminent review of residential care provides a perfect opportunity for the government to introduce measures for kinship carers that are available to adopters such as paid leave and priority school admissions and a support framework should be introduced for kinship care that includes a designated council official to contact when necessary, said Mr Johnson.

“Despite the benefits, kinship care is largely overlooked by the media, Governments of various persuasions, and the Prime Minister and his predecessor,” Mr Johnson told the debate. “In the past two years, there has been much attention paid to adoption. Rightly, it has been the subject of Prime Ministerial speeches, Government initiatives and newly announced funding streams. On kinship care, there has been radio silence. It is time we gave kinship care the recognition and support it deserves, and which children so badly need,” he concluded.

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