Changing policy and practice in kinship care
I’m writing this blog fresh from the launch of the new Churchill Fellowship theme of Children in Care. Helping to launch this new theme, for which I have been part of the working group, has given me time to reflect on my own Fellowship journey. When I originally applied for a Fellowship in 2018, there was no specific theme for the area I wanted to focus on. Since then, the world - and the context in the UK and around the world - has changed significantly.
"Since I began my Fellowship, there has been increasing recognition of the importance of keeping children within their family network." - Lorna Stabler, Fellow
Kinship care has been the focus of a number of Churchill Fellowships over the years. This often invisible family type – where a child is raised by a family member or friend who is not their parent - has historically received less recognition in policy and practice than foster care with non-related carers. However, changes are afoot.
From the perspective of policy and social care, kinship care in the UK has been an afterthought, often retro-fitted into a fostering system that has developed without kinship carers in mind. More broadly, the social security systems have not accounted for kinship - with consequences such as the ‘two child policy’ for child benefits not taking into account kinship carers, which required a campaign and change of policy.
My fellowship focused on countries in Asia (India, Japan and Cambodia) without a history of family-based foster care, for two main reasons. Firstly, there is an implicit assumption that families from some areas of the world are naturally more likely to have family set-ups where children are cared for by their wider family. Secondly, desk-based research before my Fellowship had identified these countries as attempting to implement a fostering system, with kinship care conceived from the outset as a form of foster care. I was interested to understand how these two factors could impact on creating a system for integrating and supporting kinship care.
Although I have not finished my Fellowship research, three clear ideas have come out so far. The first is a need for policy around kinship care to fit into cultural norms about family make-up and responsibility. The second is a need for universal financial support for kinship families, automatically given, with outreach to ensure that families are identified. The third, which is related to the other two points, is a need for recognition of kinship care.
Since I began my Fellowship, there has been increasing recognition of the importance of keeping children within their family network. I have been working with local authorities and parent groups to think about how social workers can work collaboratively with children and families to identify strengths, cultural norms and preferences to enable children to remain safely within their families.
There has also been a widespread campaign by charities such as Kinship (set up by Churchill Fellow Jean Stogdon) to highlight the financial need of kinship families, with a push back against the eligibility criteria that exclude most kinship families. These efforts have been recognised and have been influencing policy. Most notably, the recent review of children’s social care in England recommended sweeping reforms to support kinship carers and recognise more of them. The charity Kinship is calling for family members who care for relatives' children to receive a universal, standard, non-means-tested allowance in line with the minimum amounts paid to foster carers in England and Wales.
Concerted efforts have also been made across the media, lobbying and dialogue to amplify the huge contribution that kinship carers make to raising children across the UK. This recognition is hugely important. However, while the role that grandparents have been making as kinship carers is increasingly noted, there are other groups of carers that have not had the same recognition. To address this, I am also carrying out a PhD focusing on one group of kinship families – brothers and sisters raising their younger siblings – and what is needed to support them. I have been working with siblings and practitioners across the UK to champion the role of sibling kinship carers and to tell their stories.
Policy is evolving. I have met regularly with policy makers and engaged in campaigning efforts to highlight kinship care. I hope that the findings of the review of children’s social care in England will create the changes that are sought. But practice is different across the UK. However, there are still gaps. Kinship care needs to be recognised as diverse and fluid family arrangements – not as an alternative to foster care. Gendered expectations on who carries out the caring role still need to be challenged. And the outreach that felt so important in the communities that I visited in India is not yet practiced here.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.