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.

1 The context of the study

I want to go to Grandma's house
Cause my mom will know where I am.
She'll say "sorry baby" and kiss my hand.
Grandma will tell her "enough is enough"
She'll know she can't smoke here
She'll get straight and do what's right.
I'm scared … and I want to go to Grandma's house.

(Extract from poem by Chemi T. Davis quoted in Pecora et al. (2000), reprinted by kind permission of the authors)

Kinship care in context

Kinship care in Scotland is not new but has been used for different purposes over time. In the 17th and 18th centuries, clans engaged in the practice of 'fostering', which was designed to reinforce ties of kinship and loyalty. By this practice, sons of chiefs or other leading clan gentry would bring up each other's children for a formative period of at least seven years, being responsible for their education. The fostered child would be entitled to similar financial support, both in childhood and adulthood, to that given to the birth children of the foster father. As Macinnes suggests, 'fostering was an economic as well as a social transaction that required a lifetime's commitment' and 'its formative influence on clan relationships cannot be underestimated' (Macinnes 1996, pp. 13-14). In the 19th century, informal arrangements for fostering children were also known among families who came on hard times but, as the system of boarding out children with strangers within the Poor Laws became more organised, there was 'a distinct fall in the number of children boarded out with relatives in favour of a corresponding increase of foster parents who were strangers' (Aldgate 1977, p. 6). Relatives fell out of favour because of a developing philosophy of giving children 'a fresh start' away from the negative influence of their 'profligate' and unsuitable families (Aldgate 1977).

It is difficult to know just how many children today are living in informal arrangements with their kin but in 2004, there were around 1400 children in Scotland living with kin or close friends in formal placements where care is supervised by the state (Scottish Executive 2004). Certainly, the 21st century philosophy for children who cannot be with their parents, set out in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, stresses the value of maintaining rather than severing connections between children and their families. Consequently, there has been a growing interest in the use of kinship care as a first placement option for children and young people who are formally 'looked after' by the state. However, at present, little is known about the issues arising from these formal placements for the children, their carers and social work services. Few recent research studies have been undertaken in Scotland into kinship care or 'family and friends' care, as it is sometimes known, and only a handful of studies have been undertaken in the rest of the UK. Most of the evidence which exists comes from studies which have been carried out in the USA.

A major issue in discussing kinship care is that there is no agreed definition of the term. The Child Welfare League of America includes both formal and informal arrangements in defining kinship care as:

the full-time nurturing and protection of children by relatives, members of their tribes or clans, godparents, stepparents, or any adult who has a kinship bond with a child (Child Welfare League of America 1998).

Meanwhile, In the UK, The Family Rights Group has defined kinship care equally broadly as:

Children who cannot live with or be cared for by a parent and who are living with a relative or family friend who is responsible for their upbringing (Tapsfield 2003).

Within the formal child welfare system, the status of kinship carers may vary, since the relatives or friends may or may not be approved foster carers (Broad 2001).

The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 is supportive of kinship care but the legal framework within which it is situated is complex. A report from the Association of Directors of Social Work and The Fostering Network outlined that there was considerable confusion regarding family and friends as carers in Scotland. This was understandable given the complex legal provision, the range of care provisions, and the legal requirements from the children's hearing system. The report recommended that family and friends care be properly researched (Association of Directors of Social Work and The Fostering Network 2003).

Evidence from research studies indicates that related kinship carers are often older and poorer than traditional foster carers (Broad et al. 2001; Everett 1995) and that young people may be living in kinship placements because of child protection issues, the inability of the previous carer to cope, for example, due to ill health or drug or alcohol dependency, or because of the young person's problems or difficult behaviour (Broad et al. 2001; Tapsfield 2003). USA studies found that African American children were significantly more likely to be living in kinship care placements than white children (McFadden 1998; Dubowitz et al. 1994; Harden 1997) while, in the UK, the study by Broad and colleagues found that there was an over representation of black children in kinship placements in Wandsworth (Broad et al. 2001; Broad 2001).

An increase in formal kinship care in the USA and, to a lesser degree, in the UK in recent years, has been attributed to family preservation policies; a decline in the availability of traditional foster carers; the policy directive to place children with family or friends where possible; increased reporting of abuse and neglect; and an increase in parental drug misuse (Everett 1995; the Hadley Centre for adoption and foster care studies; Dubowitz et al. 1994; Child Welfare League of America 1998).

The UK has a lower percentage of looked after children living in kinship care than many other countries: 75% of looked after children in New Zealand are in kinship placements, 90% in Poland, 33% in the US and Belgium, and 25% in Sweden (Greef 1999). It has, therefore, been suggested that there may be potential for increasing the number of kinship placements, particularly as many local authorities are facing a reduction in foster care resources, and practices such as family group conferencing are becoming more common. To date, however, there has been little evidence of the effectiveness of such placements.

The benefits of kinship care have been identified in research studies as:

  • children feeling loved, valued and cared for
  • children being able to maintain a sense of identity, having a sense of belonging and feeling settled because they are placed with people they know
  • children having more stable placements than children placed with non relative carers and being less likely to be subject to placement moves
  • children being able to maintain contact with their family and friends

    (Broad et al. 2001; Everett 1995; Dubowitz et al. 1994; US Department of Health and Human Services 2000; Satterfield 2000).

A number of disadvantages have also been identified, including:

  • limitations to freedom for children and carers
  • financial hardship
  • problems for carers in having to cope with the behaviour difficulties of young people
  • lack of support from child welfare agencies
  • overcrowding
  • ill health of carers
  • less thorough assessments for kinship carers than non relative foster carers and less stringent monitoring of placements
  • lower reunification rates for children and children being less likely to be adopted

    (Broad et al. 2001; the Hadley Centre for adoption and foster care studies; Everett 1995; Dubowitz et al. 1994; US Department of Health and Human Services 2000).

Few studies have focused on the outcomes for children and young people who have been looked after in kinship placements. Rowe et al. (1984), however, found that children fostered by relatives seemed to be doing better in virtually all respects than those fostered by strangers, while Jackson and Thomas (1999) noted that placement with relatives was among several factors which strongly supported placement stability. Research from the USA (McFadden 1998; Everett 1995) indicates that outcomes for children in kinship care placements are, at the very least, comparable with outcomes for children in non relative placements and, at best, provide better and more stable placements. It was in this context that the current study was developed.

The differences between kinship care and foster care

Kinship care has been described as 'a square peg in a round hole' in relation to other child welfare services for looked after children (Mandelbaum 1995) and commentators, in the last five or six years, have suggested that there are fundamental differences between kinship care and foster care (Greef 1999; Broad 2000; Hunt 2001; O'Brien 1999 and 2000). The differences have been summarised by O'Brien 1999, who suggests that kinship care 'operates simultaneously in both the public domain of the state and the private domain of the family' (O'Brien 1999, p. 26). Writing in 2000, O'Brien elaborates her thesis, asserting this dual operation distinguishes kinship care from stranger foster care in four important respects:

  • Connection to the agency Traditional foster parents approach the agency as prospective carers; they are assessed and receive training before the child is placed. Relatives usually respond to pressing circumstances and placements will often be made without prior preparation. Many children may have been living with relatives for a considerable length of time before the agency is even approached
  • The assessment process In stranger care a full assessment is carried out before the decision to place. In kinship foster care there will usually only be a preliminary assessment, the full assessment being completed while the child is in placement
  • Demographic profile Relative carers tend to be older, poorer and more frequently single parents than traditional foster carers
  • The position of the agency in a network of relationships In traditional foster care the social worker is positioned centrally in all the relationships and is engaged in exchanging information between the participants. The foster carer is separate from the birth parents. In relative care the social worker occupies a more peripheral position in a family system which shares a mutual history. The carer is aligned with both the agency and the rest of the family

    (O'Brien 2000, quoted in Hunt 2001 p. 46).

The need for a different social work approach

The differences outlined by O'Brien (2000) have led to a commonly held view in the literature that kinship care needs a social work approach appropriate to its unique and complex features (McFadden 1999; Greef 1999; Hunt 2001).

Greef (1999) has usefully described the roles and skills social workers will need to support children in kinship care. He believes social work in kinship care should include the following elements:

  • assessment
  • family support
  • negotiation and mediation
  • managing contact
  • care planning
  • direct work with children

    (Greef 1999 p. 43).

Although most of the tasks suggested are core activities in relation to any child looked after by the local authority, Greef (1999) suggests that the processes by which these roles and skills are offered is rather different from a traditional approach to looked after children. The key differences here are the introduction of negotiation and mediation skills. In Greef's model, the child and family, not the social worker, are at the centre of any arrangements.

Putting the child and family at the centre leads to assessments based on a family-led partnership model, such as that employed in family group conferencing, involving the child, the parents and the wider family (Hamilton 2004). Services need to offer a model of family support based on reinforcing and developing family strengths. There is value in employing networking and mediation skills here, to engage the whole family network, especially in issues such as managing contact with parents. Finally, there is a need for care planning and supporting children through sensitive, direct work, in recognition of the emotional legacies of neglect, trauma or maltreatment they have brought to the placement.

Commentators are at pains to point out that placing families at the centre does not abrogate social workers from their responsibility of safeguarding children. The literature draws attention to the importance of recognising the dangers of children being exposed to negative legacies from other family members. Some writers have cautioned against a cosy view of kinship care which may assume families are 'risk free zones' (Greef 1999; Ainsworth and Maluccio 1998). Others question the ability of kinship carers to protect children from further harm (Crumbley and Little 1997). Conversely, there is a view that kinship carers have acted responsibly to rescue children from harm, which proves their ability to protect children further (Satterfield 2000).

Overall, therefore, kinship care is seen as a complex solution to serious family problems. It demands an equally sophisticated and varied response from professionals if the welfare of children in the care of relatives and friends is to be safeguarded and promoted.

Aims of the study

This study is in two parts:

  • a national survey of policies and practices for children looked after in kinship care across the 32 local authorities in Scotland
  • an intensive study, carried out in five local authorities, of 30 looked after children, who were living in 24 kinship care families. This sample was characterised by the fact that the majority of children were in stable long-term placements

The survey

The objectives of the survey were to explore the policies, procedures and practices of the 32 local authorities in Scotland, in relation to the provision of kinship care, where children had the status of looked after children within the legislation.

The survey explored the following areas:

  • policies and procedures relating to kinship care, including written policies and publicity leaflets
  • numbers of children looked after within the different legal categories of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995
  • rates, rationale and arrangements for financially supporting carers
  • the nature of social work and other professional support for kinship placements
  • the skills and training of the workforce in this area of practice

The intensive study

The objectives of the intensive study were to interview 30 children in long-term placements, and their carers, in order to explore several key issues. These included:

  • information about the characteristics of children and their families
  • information about the arrangements for children's placements, including the length of the placement, future plans and social work support
  • children's experiences of kinship care
  • issues that affect kinship carers

Information was also gathered from children's social workers or their managers to confirm factual details, such as the length and legal status of children's placements. The opportunity was also taken to explore social work views on the pros and cons of kinship care, to supplement the material in the survey.

The methods by which the study was carried out are explained in detail in the Appendix 1. It is worth noting here that throughout this report, the names of children and their carers have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

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