Looking after the family: a study of children looked after in kinship care in Scotland

Study commissioned by the Social Work Services Inspectorate, now the Social Work Inspection Agency.

10 Implications for policy and practice

The accumulated wisdom of centuries of social history tells us that children and young people are most likely to be well cared for in the kinship groups to which they were born…. It is the family networks we were born to that are most likely to offer us committed life-long relationships, a sense of belonging and identity, help and assistance in the face of adversity and the love and nurture that we need (Ryburn 1998).

This study has provided a fascinating snapshot of kinship care from the perspectives of 30 kinship children and their carers in five local authorities. It has also given an account of policies, provision and delivery of social work services for looked after kinship care children across the 32 local authorities. This chapter explores the implications for policy and practice.

Looking after children in kinship care

The issues surrounding the development of a model for supporting kinship care are challenging and complex but, given the steady increase in numbers of children who are growing up for short or longer periods in kinship care, they are issues that will not go away. The complexity comes from the fact that kinship placements are, in themselves, diverse, ranging from respite care to permanent placements. They can be supported within a range of equally diverse legal options, all of which are influential in determining how kinship carers are financially supported.

It is beyond the scope of this study to examine in detail the arrangements for the large numbers of children who live in informal arrangements with their kin and have no contact with social work services. This study has explored the issues confronting children, their carers and social work services where the state has intervened because of its concerns about the children. These concerns have led to the children becoming formally looked after by the local authority, which has taken responsibility for ensuring children are protected and attention is paid to their welfare. Giving a child a 'looked after' status is a serious step to take in relation to any child and family because it questions the capacity of the child's parents to look after the child to a standard which is acceptable to the state. Equally, if the state intervenes in this way, it too has a responsibility to ensure that the child is safeguarded and placed in an environment which it considers acceptable. It also has a responsibility to address any problems which led to the child being looked after in the first place.

The findings from this study suggest that kinship care has an important role to play in the range of services for looked after children. It is unique in allowing children to be safeguarded away from their parents but still remain within their own families, thus ensuring continuity with the past and, in most cases, retaining connections with parents, siblings and other members of the family. It is precisely because kinship is unique in keeping children within their families but under the watchful eye of social work services, that the service needs a distinctive model of organisation and delivery.

The need for a new category of 'looked after in kinship care'

Kinship care is unique. It is not foster care. At the same time it is more than family support. Children looked after by local authorities in kinship care need the same safeguards as any other looked after child but their carers will need a model of support which recognises the child, parents and kinship carers as part of a family system with its own strengths, networks and needs.

Given the muddle the study uncovered about where to locate kinship care in the continuum of social work services for children and families, there is a strong case for redefining kinship care as a separate category of looked after children. This would not preclude children entering kinship care through different legal routes but it would ensure that recognition is given to the fact that the state is delegating the care of a kinship child back to its family because it has sufficient confidence in that family's ability to safeguard and promote the development and welfare of the child. This would be a major step forward in recognising the commitment of kinship carers to the child they have taken into their care.

Creating a new category of looked after in kinship care would lead to a common definition which could be used consistently across Scotland. A definition could be as follows:

A child being looked after in kinship care is defined as a child being cared for by a close friend or relative where a legal order has been made, including a residence order, or where the child has been accommodated.

This definition recognises that responsibility for the parenting of a child is shared between the state and the child's kin (defined broadly to include friends of the family in some cases).

With the establishment of a new category, it would be possible to offer regulations and guidance for the assessment and support of all children who come under the definition, irrespective of the route by which they have become kinship children. This would not preclude a child being placed with friends or extended family through other legal routes where this is deemed to be necessary and in the child's best interests.

A new category would recognise that there are differences between kinship carers and stranger foster carers. Kinship care is a unique form of care where private and public domains meet. For this reason, kinship care needs to be seen as similar but different from both family support and foster care, with its own set of regulations and guidance. Children in kinship care will need the same safeguards as foster children but their carers will need a model of support that acknowledges children, parents and kinship carers as part of a family system with its own strengths, networks and needs.

Unlike most foster carers, kinship carers have not been assessed and trained to take up a quasi-professional role as agent of the social work department. Kinship carers take on the role of parenting in relation to specific children to help out their kin. They are strongly motivated to keep children out of stranger care and, in many cases, equally motivated by moral obligation and filial ties to support the parents of the child by the tangible act of caring for their children. In both types of care, the child is the centre of concern but in kinship care, parents will also be a source of concern for the family.

A new category of looked after in kinship care would recognise that the main motivation of kinship carers is a commitment to the individual child, based on a large degree of familial obligation to that child, even if they do not have parental responsibilities. As McRae (2006) suggests, providing formal recognition would be in line with other aspects of Scottish family and child welfare law. Under the Family Law (Scotland) Act 1985, section 1 (1) (d) a person, other than a foster carer, may acquire an obligation to financially maintain a child if they accept the child into their family. Such relatives come into the category of ' any person over 16 who has charge or control over a child under 16 years of age is required to do what is reasonable in the circumstances to safeguard and promote a child's health, development and welfare'. This duty implies that a person with charge and control but without parental responsibilities has a right to act in such a way as to fulfil that responsibility. Such a person, for example a grandparent, may be a 'relevant person' for the purposes of children's hearings and other legal proceedings. What this means in practice is that, where a relative or any other person is providing substantial care and support to the child, he or she is both required and entitled to be fully informed and participate in legal decision-making processes about the need for compulsory measures of supervision and what form these might take (see McRae 2006).

There would seem to be scope to build on existing family law and give kinship carers the status and recognition that their familial obligation deserves, at the same time recognising the contribution they are making to keeping the children from more intrusive interventions within the context of child welfare law. It would also give a mandate for social work services, specifically, to help kinship carers carry out their familial obligations to the best of their ability.

Improving social work support for kinship care

The findings of the study suggest that there are two areas where improvements could be made for children looked after by the local authority in kinship care and their families. These are:

  • looking at a more consistent way of financially supporting kinship families
  • developing a model of social work support appropriate for kinship care

Improving the financial support has two strands. The first is taking steps to improve the UK benefits system. The second and most immediate step that can be taken is to ensure there is a fair and equitable financial support for all children looked after in kinship care in Scotland, using the current powers available to local authorities.

Improving the UK benefits system

Many commentators have suggested that there is a case for improving the UK benefits system for kinship carers. In the study, carers reported considerable difficulties and delays in transfers of child benefit books. Social work departments in the survey also drew attention to this issue and resented having to adopt a role, however briefly, of becoming a benefits agency.

Some research commentators go further and recommend a separation of the links between financial support and social supervision and support of families. This would create a new system whereby kinship carers would be supported through a carer's allowance or credit, payable through the tax or benefit system. Such a system has been advocated by UK researchers such as Broad (2001) and Richards (2001) on the grounds that it would give recognition to carers. We suggest that the merits of paying kinship carers of looked after children in Scotland an allowance through the tax and benefits system should be explored.

A basic fostering allowance for kinship children

As Chapter 9 showed, local authorities across Scotland support kinship care placements in different ways. The findings of the study suggest that local authorities should adopt a common system of paying an allowance to carers on behalf of the child. In our view this should be at the same level as the fostering allowance for children accommodated in foster care.

The basic fostering allowance paid to foster carers is given to cover the cost of bringing up a child. It is not a payment to foster carers for their expertise and services. It seems iniquitous that one group of looked after children (where being looked after away from home is the only alternative) may be given financial support at a level deemed to be just enough to cover basic expenses of clothing, food and other material outlays required to promote the welfare of the child. By contrast, another group of looked after children away from home, who have the same basic day-to-day needs, are given less. However, the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare applies to both these groups of looked after children (section 17 Children (Scotland) Act 1995).

Such an allowance would not preclude local authorities from accommodating children in kinship care, and assessing and approving their carers as foster carers, if they felt this was the best way to safeguard and promote the welfare of an individual child.

The arguments for paying a standardised basic fostering allowance to kinship carers on behalf of the kinship child derive from two perspectives:

  • the status of the child
  • the status of the carer

Both perspectives are relevant to the development of any model for financially supporting kinship care.

Some local authorities in the study had reached the position we now propose by focusing firmly on arguments related to the status of the child. It was argued that there should be equity of basic allowances between children looked after in kinship care and foster children because both have the status of looked after children.

In seeking to bring the child in kinship care under the supervisory and protective eye of the local authority, a clear statement has been made about the child's welfare. The decision has been made that this child requires more than family support services as a child in need under section 22 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. In most cases, children have been made the subject of a supervision requirement with residence with their kin. To take the step whereby children have to live away from home is a serious step. It recognises the need to safeguard the welfare of the child.

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments for a standardised fostering allowance rests on the relationship between the duty of a local authority to promote children's welfare and the research on factors influencing outcomes for children. Fein and Maluccio, for example, who tracked outcomes for a range of children in foster and kinship placements found that 'higher carer incomes were associated with better child outcomes across the placement groups' (see Hunt 2001, p. 33). Scottish studies on children growing up in poverty have also stressed the impact this can have on health and educational attainment (see, for example, Hill and Iwaniec 2001). An Australian study which looked at the impact of increasing financial support on kinship care children found that the children were more contented knowing they were less of a financial burden to their carers (Freedman and Stark 1996, quoted in Hunt 2001, p.50).

Looking at the outcome of kinship care also provides part of the rationale for including the status of the carers in any debate about financially supporting looked after kinship children. As suggested in Chapter 5, the main motivation for kinship carers in the study was commitment to the individual child, a strong desire to keep children out of stranger care and an obligation to the parents of the child. In the case where the carers were relatives, there was a large degree of familial obligation. In the case of friends care, the driver was personal obligation out of respect for the wishes of the parent.

Unlike foster carers, who have chosen the role of looking after other people's children, kinship carers generally find themselves unexpectedly in their role through a humane response to a crisis. Often 'it is not a role they have chosen but is one they have accepted' (Hunt 2001, p. 72). On the other hand, in taking on the care of children, kinship carers have made a moral choice when faced with the alternative of children being accommodated by the state.

The logic of this argument is that 'familial obligation' is different from parental responsibility. Relatives who do not have parental responsibility but who take on the care of children out of familial obligation should be entitled to 'special recognition' (Hunt 2001, p. 46). As shown earlier, this was a view strongly articulated by kinship carers in the study. Kinship carers are taking on care which would otherwise have to be provided by the state. They therefore deserve symbolic recognition for the moral choice they have made.

An argument against recognising this moral choice in relation to supporting the child financially is the one cited earlier in USA literature that, if an allowance is paid to the carers on behalf of the child in kinship care, this will be a perverse incentive for the child not to return home. Certainly, there was no evidence of this in the study. Hunt (2001) asks us to reflect upon the question of how many foster carers would take a child if they were not paid at least enough to cover their expenses.

There is a deeper moral issue about paying kinship carers, which has its roots in Scottish social history. The children in kinship care are often the children of families living in poverty sometimes, it could be argued, of parents' own making caused by their substance misuse. Parents are not behaving as responsible citizens towards their children, which is why the state has to intervene. In the days of the Poor Laws prior to 1948, such families would have been seen as less eligible for help because of their behaviour and to be people who deserved to be socially excluded from any parish support.

The shift after 1948 to a child-centred approach to supporting children in voluntary or compulsory care dismantled this system but the legacy of the 'undeserving poor' sometimes lingers on. Certainly, one or two of the grandparent kinship carers in the study felt they were being penalised for the sins of their offspring. Such an attitude denies giving symbolic recognition to the sacrifice and dedication of kinship carers of looked after children and subjecting them to 'a policy of penalty' (Hunt 2001 p. 54). As Hunt points out, surely it is morally wrong to justify a policy of paying lower rates to kinship carers which keep the children in poverty, on the grounds that 'if they were living with their parents, they would be living in poverty anyway' (Hunt 2001, p. 53).

Such an attitude also permeated the debate among the 32 local authorities in relation to the level of payment which kinship carers should receive. The evidence from some authorities that they paid kinship carers less than other carers on the grounds they were 'family' is evidence of this confused view and smacks of the legacy of 'less eligibility' described above. It was an attitude that led children and carers to feel different and socially excluded. Some children in the study were bullied because, as kinship children, they were 'different'.

Difference can be defined in many ways. In contemporary society, conformity in fashion is often an issue for young people. Gill (2001) found in his research that children were deeply affected by not looking the same as their peers. In the kinship care study, some of the children and their carers saw themselves as different because their carers could not afford to dress the children in similar clothes to their peers. The kinship carers in the study also struggled hard to ensure children were not deprived of school trips or proper school uniform. Some carers in this study felt they were constantly fighting to minimise that visible signs of difference.

Their struggle resonates with the attitude of poor law inspectors in Scotland in the 19th century, who fought and won the battle to ensure boarded out children did not wear poorhouse clothes so that they could become indistinguishable from children in the communities in which they lived (Aldgate 1977). That one group of looked after children in 21st-century Scotland might be exposed again to discrimination because of the status of their clothing is not justifiable. As McRae (2006) points out, the principle of 'minimum intervention' does not mean the principle of 'minimal' support.

Improving arrangements for children looked after in kinship care

The evidence from this study leads to the recommendation that a national framework for organising and supporting kinship care should be created. This includes the following:

1. A national definition of kinship care, as outlined on p. 146:

A child being looked after in kinship care is defined as a child being cared for by a close friend or relative where a legal order has been made, including a residence order, or where the child has been accommodated.

2. There should be a separate category of children looked after in kinship care that recognises the unique characteristics of kinship care.

3. We believe that there is a need for an urgent review of the benefits system across the UK, which will include kinship carers as a category of carers.

4. Summing up the case for a basic fostering allowance: we argue that children looked after in kinship care have the same status as other children looked after away from home. In these circumstances, kinship carers should be paid a basic allowance equal to the basic fostering allowance, in recognition of the child's status. This payment also symbolically acknowledges the positive choice kinship carers have made to keep children within the family.

Implications of the study's findings for an appropriate social work service for kinship children and families

The second way in which kinship care for looked after children can be improved is through providing appropriate social work services for both children and their families. Much can be learnt about appropriate services for kinship care from the views of children and families in the study. In particular, there are implications for:

  • assessment
  • care planning
  • direct social work services

A consistent, family-owned approach to assessment of kinship care

The findings from the survey, along with the comments made by individual social workers, suggest that there is a need for a radical rethink of the assessment and decision-making process in kinship care. Current practice tends to equate assessment (for all except kinship children who are also foster children) with a risk assessment approach linked to child protection concerns at the expense of any collaborative information gathering and decision-making between children, families and social workers. There are however, signs of change. Some local authorities said they had begun to experiment with family-owned approaches and were working with some enthusiasm, sometimes in partnership with voluntary agencies, to develop these further.

Kinship care, therefore, needs a model of assessment and support which builds on the strength of the kinship system and empowers individual family members to share the responsibility for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children. This does not mean that families can sidestep important issues such as safety and basic care of children. Nor does it mean that social workers have to make judgements about these matters alone. It not only entails social workers putting the issues about which the state needs to be reassured to each family member but also asking them to find the solutions and identify the help they need. In other words, the role of the social worker becomes that of ally with families, accountable for children's safety but not having to be responsible for this alone. The carers share that responsibility because they are kin. The social worker's role is still concerned with how and when the best occurs for children. The means by which the best is brought about is owned and delivered by the family with appropriate support and services from the state.

Fundamental to such a system is that children are given every opportunity to express their feelings and wishes about the decisions being made about where they are to live, contact with their parents and any issues that will affect their day-to-day lives. There was mixed evidence from the study about consulting children. Where children were consulted by professionals, this was valued by children, families and professionals.

There is a strong case for adopting an approach to consultation and decision-making that shifts from an individual, investigative model which focuses on identifying problems to one in which children, families and social workers jointly identify issues to be resolved. Such a model:

  • identifies the kinship child as part of the system. The strengths of the whole family system can be harnessed to support the child
  • gives children the opportunity to share their wishes with the family, as well as to social workers, as part of the assessment
  • allows the views of the children's parents to be taken into account by the family as to how relationships can be maintained and managed by the family
  • helps children, parents and carers to set their own goals and identify the help they need to reach those goals. Care plans will therefore be more likely to be jointly owned by families, child and social worker

Taking forward a network approach to assessment

Excellent examples of how to develop a model of assessment in kinship care, which is inclusive of families, can be found in Greef (1999), especially reference to the work by Portengen and van der Neut in the Netherlands, as well as the creative application of the unique, fifth province model of assessing networks developed by O'Brien in the Republic of Ireland (O'Brien 2000). Additionally, the work of Crumbley and Lake (1997) is useful in its inclusion of therapeutic factors which need to be taken into account. Within the Scottish context, the Association of Directors of Social Work and The Fostering Network have indicated the elements they see as important in assessment of kinship carers (Association of Directors of Social Work and The Fostering Network 2003).

As Chapter 3 showed, there was evidence from the study that kinship carers are often capable of organising themselves and their families. The family allocate roles to each other in order to provide safe and positive care for children. Children's positive relationships with their cousins, aunts and uncles in the household and other key adults in their lives point to the value of an approach which draws on the family network.

Given that it is often difficult to avoid an emergency placement, it may be helpful to build on the current requirements by seeing the information gathering in two stages:

  • Stage 1 Carrying out assessment in partnership with the child, parents and family to address immediate issues concerned with safeguarding and well-being such as those in Schedule 1 (see Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997)
  • Stage 2 Undertaking further assessment with the child, parents and family to address issues which emerge as central to the kinship care placement

The issues to be addressed by the family and social worker in kinship care assessment can be identified from the law, theory, research and practice. The contribution of this study is to highlight some of the most important. These are:

  • the issue of loss for both adult and child family members
  • contact with parents, an issue dear to the hearts of children in the study
  • assessing how long children are likely to stay, and to acknowledge this may change over time
  • discussing strategies to ensure children are aware of plans and identifying who will take responsibility for communicating these to children
  • discussing contingency plans with the rest of the family to support the main carer, in case alternative arrangements need to be made at any point

Satterfield (2000) argues that workers need to become culturally competent, respecting and working with the family in that context. Taking trouble to understand and accept the family's perspective is a necessary investment by the worker to secure a successful outcome. The worker needs to win the trust of the family. As Satterfield suggests, 'When the family is part of the decision-making process, they tend to buy into the plan because they have been part of the process' (Satterfield 2000, p. 4).

It would be helpful if family-led decision-making methods such as family group conferencing became a standard part of decision-making for kinship placements. Research within Scotland on the use of family group conferencing in other settings indicates that it can be a powerful tool in empowering child and family-led decision-making (Hamilton 2004).

Developing effective care planning in partnership with children and families

Although social work departments reported that children in kinship care all had care plans, there was little evidence that these plans were used effectively. A major finding from the study was that a third of the children were uncertain about what the plan was for their future while two thirds had not been consulted about plans for them or about any decisions that had been made. Where children had the opportunity to air their views - for example, to a children's hearing - this was valued greatly. These findings raise questions about the support given to children to manage the experience of kinship care. They suggest the need for a sensitive, professional response to help children understand their situation and manage the present and future complexities of being in kinship care.

A major recommendation for practice from the study is that both children and carers should be involved in discussions which lead to transparent, clear plans for children. These will need to be reviewed from time to time, and in line with any legal requirements, but children in kinship care should know why they have come to the placement and what is going to happen to them. Given the significance of contact with parents for children in the study, plans should include arrangements for contact and the management of any problems in relation to contact.

Overwhelmingly, in the study, children wanted to see more of their parents. Whether this was appropriate was difficult to judge. What does emerge from the findings is the need for discussion and clarification with children of arrangements for contact with parents, taking into account children's views.

Conversely, care plans are just as relevant for carers. One of the major issues for carers was their fear that a social worker or children's hearing would demand that children left their care, or that children's parents would wish them to return at very short notice. There was a lack of clarity about what carers might expect from parents, which sometimes left them anxious. Carers were generally left to manage contact arrangements without the support of social workers. Though they did this well for the most part, it could have been potentially difficult for grandparents to manage the behaviour of their own adult children without support. The study, therefore, supports the use of clear planning for contact, agreed through family group conferencing, which involves all family members, including children's parents, and which is implemented with the support of social workers.

Planning for long-term stability and permanence

The majority of children in the study had been in their placements for several years. While the children in this study do not represent all children looked after in kinship care, those who remain with their carers long-term are a group who need stability. The findings from the study point strongly to the need for local authorities to address the issue of how children may acquire a feeling of permanency in long-term kinship care placements. While any planning for permanency has to be on a case by case basis, the study suggests that it may be inappropriate for many long-term kinship care children to be adopted by their carers because of the continuing strong links with their parents.

The Scottish Executive's review of adoption policy grappled with issues on how to create permanency when full adoption is not possible or desirable (Adoption policy review group 2005). The proposed introduction of permanency orders for some children (Adoption and Children (Scotland) Bill) could be very appropriate for those in kinship care.

Relevant to this issue is the fact that, generally, it would seem inappropriate for children to be looked after for a long period of time simply on the grounds that this is the only way to continue to support them financially.

The situation in the study was that a minority of local authorities had grasped the issue of trying to move children out of the looked after system whilst retaining a stable placement for them. This was achieved by supporting carers financially and practically to acquire a section 11 parental responsibility order. Some local authorities used budgets from section 50 of the 1975 Children Act to continue to support families.

In other cases, the section 70 supervision requirement was retained, inappropriately, because it was the only way an authority thought they could maintain the placement. Increasingly, in these circumstances, children and carers found the annual visit to the children's hearing a source of anxiety.

The findings suggest that local authorities need to address permanence within kinship care in four main areas:

1. We urge local authorities to be more robust in their long-term planning for looked after kinship care children. Plans for children's return to their parents were vague. It was difficult to tell whether these were realistic. There needs to be more systematic long-term planning. This planning will include contingency plans if carers are unable to continue to care for children. This was a huge burden for carers which, generally, they carried alone, although some had engaged in informal discussions with their families.

2. The second issue is the need to address how appropriate it is for children to retain their looked after status for many years. The retention, over several years, of supervision orders for children who cannot return to their parents but who are doing well in their kinship care placements, simply on the grounds of financial support, needs to be urgently reviewed.

3. Thirdly, there is an issue of how best to support families to make the transition to permanence without penalising them financially. This will apply to circumstances where it is agreed by all that it is in the child's best interests to remain with kinship carers. The findings strongly point towards local authorities addressing this issue within the flexibility of the law by supporting families to gain a section 11 parental responsibility order.

4. Where it is agreed by all that such an order is the action of first choice, and it is in the interests of the child to continue financial support, local authorities should use section 50 orders to provide continuing support in order to create a permanent placement within the family.

The provision of effective social work support

Apart from the absence of long-term planning, children's experiences of social work in the study suggest that many children are being helped appropriately by social workers to manage living in kinship care. Children value this help, especially when it is child-centred and gives them the opportunity to express their views and concerns. The study reveals social workers have several key roles to play in relation to children:

  • Children in the study saw social workers as people who helped them sort out any problems in relation to their parents, their carers and, where appropriate, school. The role of the social worker is pivotal in acting as a professional who can assess and understand the whole child and who organises and facilitates support and services from others to promote children's welfare, as well as providing direct social work support.
  • There is a place for working directly with children in a more specialist way and offering them a social work service that helps them come to terms with the legacies of the past. Social workers are trained to see direct work as an appropriate part of their work with children but many feel they do not have sufficient time to put these skills into practice, a view endorsed by the Scottish Executive's social work review team (Social work review team 2005).
  • In addition, children valued the use of specialist groups for children who had experienced loss and changes in their lives. These groups, run by voluntary agencies provided a valuable service, not only to the kinship care children who attended them but also to other children whose parents had died or separated.

The need for other services from health and education which address different aspects of children's lives

A minority of children were carrying serious emotional legacies which continued to affect their lives. Although some were receiving intensive mental health services, there was a noticeable shortage of such services in different parts of the country. There is an urgent need to address the issue of expanding provision of mental health services for seriously troubled children and young people.

The majority of children in the study were attending school and the majority were doing well, given the legacies of their earlier experiences. Some of the kinship care children were experiencing problems at school. These were related to children's ability to concentrate, their behaviour and the behaviour of others towards them. The study shows the significance of the part guidance teachers play within schools, the need for interdisciplinary services between education and social work, and the importance of good liaison between carers and schools. Where children were having problems at school, the study shows the importance of attending to children's lives at school and putting in appropriate interdisciplinary help.

Social workers supporting kinship carers and parents

Carers value social work support that is not intrusive but which can be responsive to their needs. There is a diversity of need for social work support among kinship carers and the findings suggest that a one-size-fits-all approach to social work support is inappropriate. Some families did not need help. Others needed an intensive casework service from time to time. The best examples in this study indicate there is a place for social workers who can use their knowledge and skills to work directly and effectively with children and families at any point when they are in need. Social workers can also facilitate respite care, and access to other services, such as support groups.

A major issue for some families was that they had little information from social work departments about services that might be on offer. There needs to be a kinship care support framework in each local authority, which allows social workers to offer a transparent, coherent and consistent model of support in partnership with families, and which is responsive to their needs at any one time. A post dedicated to the organisation and provision of kinship care for looked after children could be helpful.

Carers greatly valued the support of informal groups of others in similar situations. This is a cost effective way of supporting and empowering kinship carers. There is a strong case for developing a national support network for kinship carers. Support groups for kinship carers need to be developed across the country, wherever possible, as a way of supporting kinship placements.

Although detailed examination of the services to children's parents was outwith the scope of the study, it was clear that parents were receiving ongoing help from social work, from specialist services - such as addiction services - and from the health services. The management of relationships with children's parents was an important issue for children and families. The study showed there is a need for social workers and other professionals to work in parallel with children's parents in recognition of the important place parents hold in children's lives.

The need for a framework to support the kinship carers' understanding of, and transition to, their role

Part of the support framework needs to address the issue of preparing carers for their role. The findings show that kinship carers and social workers do not generally feel that training on a par with that offered to foster carers is appropriate. At least one local authority had invited kinship carers to join foster care training but this, generally, had not been successful. Nevertheless, the issues which children bring to their placements are similar to those which face children accommodated in foster care. They call for understanding and skills. The findings suggest there is a need to develop a framework in which kinship carers can be better prepared for their role. Any support needs to be offered in partnership with families, allowing them to take a major role in defining their needs.

Strengthening knowledge about kinship care in social work training

If services to children in kinship care, and their families, are to improve and be effective, it is important that kinship care is seen as an area of social work practice in its own right. The study points to the need to place kinship care on the agenda of social work training at the qualifying and post qualifying levels. There is an urgent need to revisit the development of skills in direct work with children. Social workers also need to develop skills in networking, mediation and groupwork and a model of practice that plays to families' strengths and works in partnership with them. There should also be teaching about methods which recognise and promote families' strengths.


This study has shown that kinship care has an important part to play in social work services for looked after children in Scotland. It can be a placement of choice for many children, ensuing they are safe, nurtured and retain strong connections with their roots. The carers in the study showed how children can blossom with positive care and adults who will champion their cause. The findings challenge social work services to support children in kinship care, along with their carers, so that being looked after by the extended family provides the opportunities and experiences which will help children have a fulfilled childhood to equip them for a positive and successful life in adulthood.

Back to top