As former health secretary Alan Johnson stated that the care system neither encourages nor sufficiently supports kinship care as an alternative to care arrangements, Mark Willis, Managing Director of WillisPalmer, discusses some of the key issues raised at the organisation’s recent conference on the issue of Kinship Care.
The care system neither encourages nor sufficiently supports kinship care as an alternative to care arrangements, former health secretary Alan Johnson said at a Commons debate on children in care this month.
Alan Johnson said while there is helpful guidance on kinship care, there is no statutory duty that requires local authorities to explore the kinship care option. There is no statutory duty for authorities to have a family group conference, a process which involves the wider family from an early stage and frequently, FGC’s do not take place until after the child goes into care.
This was an issue raised at our joint conference “Kinship Care: increasing the options for children” that we organised with the Association of Lawyers for Children last October.
At the conference we heard from an array of highly respected speakers including Martha Cover from Coram Chambers, Professor Joan Hunt (University of Cardiff), Dr Mike Shaw (Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation), Rory Patterson (Children’s Services Director at London Borough of Southwark) and Cathy Ashley (Chief Executive, Family Rights Group) who brought with her a kinship carer, Enza Smith, who spoke eloquently about the struggles faced daily by those caring for their grandchildren.
However, perhaps the most important message came from across the Atlantic. Dr David O’Hara, Chief Operating Officer at the Westchester Institute of Human Development in New York, spoke about kinship care in the United States and the nature of support offered to children and relative foster carers.
Dr O’Hara described a rather different picture to that which most would recognise in the UK. His own organisation provides a comprehensive support programme for kinship carers including case management, respite, assistance in accessing public benefits, legal information, advocacy and other supports such as therapy and counseling services which enable children to remain out of state foster care.
Conference attendees were shown a video of a support programme in action whereby the family would receive regular visits from a specialist who worked with the carers to help manage their seven year old’s challenging behaviour. The carers also received help with life story issues and access to psychologists. The outcome was a robust and secure placement meaning the boy, Ayden, remained out of state care. The benefits to both Ayden and his carers, as well as the cost savings to the local authority who might otherwise have needed to fund long term foster care, were obvious.
Identifying kinship carers early
The Annie E. Casey Foundation is one of the prime movers in child welfare throughout the United States. This private philanthropy based in Baltimore provides grants that help communities create cost effective, innovative programmes to avoid what they call “un-necessary disconnection from family”.
One such programme based in Washington has made finding kin a top priority to make it as easy as possible for relatives to take on the responsibility of caring for a young person. The programme called KinFirst, created an approach for frontline workers to follow when working with parents.
The process begins when child protection workers first encounter parents in need of help so that family members are actively engaged in identifying other family members from the very beginning. A Diligent Search Unit scours a series of databases to find other relatives who may be able to take in the child. An expedited kin licensing process takes as little as four hours. Collaboration with caseworker unions, agreements that cross local jurisdictions and emergency funds to help families in crisis contribute to a comprehensive approach to the agency’s goal of helping children grow up in families, not in state care.
And when children are formally removed from home, notices of those removals must include the list of identified relatives, with comments explaining why relatives could not be immediate placement resources.
Better assessment and support needed
Comparisons to UK practices are revealing. Whilst the current government pushes its agenda of adoption being the best solution for children who can’t live with their parents, kinship care is in danger of being overlooked as a viable resource for such children.
Research shows that children in kinship care placements do as well or better than children in non-relative foster care (Hunt et al 2008) despite the fact that children often display signs of trauma and distress as a result of previous neglect or abuse.
Although kinship foster care placements are likely to receive some support from local authorities, carers with Special Guardianship Orders in place are seen as a cheap option and post-placement support is often absent.
In a challenging economic climate it must be right to take kinship care options for children more seriously. The benefits for children are well known in terms of their sense of identity and the feelings of security through being placed with family. In addition, the potential cost savings for local authorities are self-evident.
Improved identification of kinship carers at a much earlier stage, better assessment, which focuses upon parenting capacity above all else, and comprehensive support of carers, especially at the start of a placement, are the key ingredients to better long term outcomes for children in kinship care. If we are able to get these three things right the UK might be able to replicate the successes going on in the United States.