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.

2 Contemporary policies, numbers and trends in kinship care in Scotland

Before this study was commissioned, little was known about the provision of kinship care for looked after children in Scotland. This chapter provides a context for the main findings of the intensive study by describing the policy and legal context of kinship care in Scotland. It also draws on information from the survey of the 32 local authorities and covers the following areas:

  • policy and legal context of kinship care in Scotland
  • how local authorities defined kinship care
  • the policies adopted by local authorities in relation to kinship care
  • numbers of kinship placements
  • local trends

The policy and legal context of kinship care in Scotland

The context for the study is the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. As Skinner and McCoy have pointed out, some of the key themes in the Children (Scotland) Act are as follows:

  • making explicit parents' and public agencies responsibilities towards children
  • improving families' access to supportive and responsive welfare services
  • making public agencies more accountable in their work with families
  • listening to the concerns of children and their families
    (Skinner & McCoy 2000 p. 24)

The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 imposes a duty upon local authorities to provide welfare services to children in need. This gives greater emphasis to the 'positive promotion of children's welfare', rather than, as previously, the prevention of children being taken into care or referred to a children's hearing…. Help for families should be geared towards supporting the care of children in their family and community (Skinner & McCoy 2000 p. 27).

Kinship care for children fits into this philosophy by reinforcing the idea that, where possible, children should be brought up by their own families and is an option for several categories of children.

1) There are children in need. These children may be supported by payment of cash or kind within section 22 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. In these cases, the child does not have the status of being looked after.

2) Children may be formally looked after by the local authority if they are the subject of a supervision requirement under section 70 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. Such a supervision requirement may require a child:

to reside at any place or places specified in the requirement.

This could include a kinship care placement.

3) Children in kinship care may also be accommodated by the local authority under section 25 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, if their kinship carers are approved as foster carers.

4) It is also possible for children to be in kinship placements and be the subject of a parental responsibility order under section 11 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995.

Where children are the subject of supervision or parental responsibility orders, the local authority may provide financial help towards their upkeep under section 50 of the 1975 Children Act. Children whose kinship carers are approved as foster carers may be paid allowances under the regulations governing foster care. These different routes by which children may be looked after in kinship care create a complex set of arrangements for local authorities.

How local authorities define kinship care

All 32 local authorities in Scotland responded to the survey. The investigation began by trying to find out whether there is a commonly held definition of kinship care among local authorities. It emerged that there is some variation. To a large extent, differences in names reflect the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 Regulations and Guidance. Authorities distinguished between foster children who were looked after and accommodated with relatives - under section 25 or were the subject of a parental responsibilities order within the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 - and the rest. Irrespective of their relationship to their carers, accommodated children were seen firmly as being in foster care. This distinction is spelt out in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, Guidance and Regulations, vol 2, Looked After Children:

Care will need to be taken that confusion does not arise between situations where relatives or friends need to be approved as foster carers because the child is fostered with them while being provided with accommodation under section 25 or because he or she is subject to a parental responsibilities order, and where relatives or friends have been found to be suitable to care for a child who is subject to a supervision requirement but who are not approved as foster carers. This distinction is likely to be clarified by describing the latter group of carers by a term other than foster carers, for example link or family carers (Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997 p. 69).

Just under two thirds of local authorities said they had developed a definition of kinship care. The rest either did not have a definition or were in the process of developing one. One or two commented that this was a gap in their procedures that they were attempting to address while one remarked that they were limited in developments by budgetary constraints.

For those who did have a definition, several commonly used terms included:

  • link carers
  • family and friends carers
  • relative care
  • non council care
  • kinship care

No authorities reported they specifically used the term 'family carers,' as suggested by Guidance and Regulations (Scottish Office 1997), although one did refer to this term in passing in a policy document. In most cases, the name chosen reflected the legal categories under which care by relatives or friends was offered. The term 'linked carers' was the most popular and was generally reserved for children who were looked after within a section 70 supervision requirement. The definition, which seemed to have been first used by Strathclyde Council in 1993, was still being used by at least five authorities, who now applied it within the context of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 section 70 supervision requirement placements.

Strathclyde had defined children needing link carers as follows:

(i) it is no longer appropriate for the child to remain at home

(ii) the child does not have needs requiring reception into care and placement in local authority foster home or residential establishment

(iii) there are relatives, family friends or neighbours willing to care for the child

(iv) the particular relatives, family friends or neighbours are assessed as being suitable to care for the child and meet the child's needs, at least in the short-term

(v) there is a legal basis on which the placement will be made

In every case these carers will have some significant link or relationship with the child, established before assuming the child's care. For this reason they are called link carers.

Some local authorities defined kinship care by linking the definition to the legislation under which the provision was operating. For example, one local authority said:

Children may be placed with a relative or friend, either by means of an immediate placement, or as a result of a placement made through the children's hearing. Such a person is known as a link or family carer.

For the purposes of the 1995 Act, a link or family carer will be a 'relevant person' as the person with whom the child lives. If the carer is not a relevant person, he or she will very soon become one.

Others took a broader definition, in one case drawing on the definitions being developed by the Department of Health in England. In the Scottish context, one local authority emphasised that, while children might be looked after, they were not accommodated in kinship care and that the placement was distinctly different from foster care:

A child is living in a family and friends placement if:

  • the child cannot live with parents, and is living away from the parental home with a relative or friend
  • the placement has in some way been assisted/initiated and/or is supported by social services
  • the child would otherwise be with foster carers, in residential care, independent living or adopted
  • children placed with family or friends by social work in circumstances whether they would otherwise be accommodated in local authority care
  • kinship care refers to those circumstances when children or young people are unable to live with their parents and are looked after

Clearly, defining kinship care has presented challenges to many local authorities. The complexities were well summarised by one authority:

The term kinship care has recently been introduced to cover all of the multifarious types of caring arrangements, and has been the subject of recent interest UK-wide, resulting in research and also in at least two High Court cases in England.

It should be noted that, depending on the individual circumstances, children may fall within the provisions of the private fostering regulations, or may become subject to residence orders, or the carers may be regarded as emergency foster carers.

This is a complex area of law and regulations, which provides a challenge for local authorities in standardising a procedural response.

The information gathered by local authorities suggests that there is a need for a common definition of kinship care across Scotland.

What are the policies adopted by local authorities in relation to kinship care?

Given the range of definitions of kinship care, it is hardly surprising that there is no standardised policy across the country in relation to kinship care.

Seventeen local authorities said they had a policy and ten were in the process of developing one. The remaining authorities said they did not currently have a policy. Eleven local authorities provided documentation on kinship care.

There were considerable variations in the way that local authorities used documents to describe their operational policies and procedures in relation to kinship care. The majority of local authorities took an approach which simply described the legal categories within which children could be offered kinship care provision and spelt out eligibility criteria for financial payments.

There was a minority which stepped outside a procedural approach to add a rationale for the importance of kinship care. These referred to the principle of minimum intervention in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 or said it was 'good practice' to consider whether extended family, neighbours or friends might be appropriate carers where parents were unable to care for a child. At least two local authorities went further, suggesting that the case for using kinship care was supported by research as well as by the legislation. One local authority had a comprehensive, overarching policy statement that located the rationale for the services in research, the legislation, and procedures. It also incorporated a definition of kinship care, in this case termed 'link' care. This policy statement also recognised that there is a continuum between occasional help with family support through facilitating informal kinship care and the need for a more regulated arrangement as specified by the legislation.

Good practice example

Research has shown that the outcomes for children who remain with their extended family are consistently better than for children who are placed outwith their family, in foster care or residential care. It also highlights that children removed from their families and looked after by the local authority can feel stigmatised and different. Placements with relatives are more stable, more successful and less likely to break down than other placements.

The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 is aimed at promoting partnership with parents and family support. One of the key principles underpinning the Act is promoting the welfare of children with minimum intervention.

Our local authority has a long tradition of supporting children to be cared for within their extended family network. Obvious benefits to the child include continuity of existing networks of support, continuation of relationships and the likelihood of the child being able to remain at the same school and neighbourhood.

Many children live temporarily, or sometimes permanently, with their family and friends without any intervention by the local authority. For other children, because they are already known to the social work department or because a parent or friend approaches the social work department for help, it may play a role, by agreement with the parents, in facilitating the arrangement. The child is not looked after by the local authority in either of the above situations and the carers need not be approved as foster or link carers.

Where, however, a child is looked after by a local authority, and is placed with a friend or relative, that person must be approved as a foster parent except where
the placement is an immediate placement and lasts for less than six weeks; or
where the placement is a condition of a supervision requirement made by a children's hearing.

In order to meet the needs of children in immediate placements or in placements as a condition of a supervision requirement, a link carers scheme has been developed.

One way of identifying the weight given to different aspects of local authorities' policies towards children is to look at their children's services plans.

Eight local authorities said kinship placements were mentioned in their most recent children's services plan, although, in most cases, this was only a sentence. One authority said kinship placements would be mentioned in their next plan. Local authorities gave the impression that kinship care was a growing issue that was beginning to climb up the ladder of priorities. At least two used the children's services plan to record an increase in the number of children staying with relatives as a preferred placement.

Information was sometimes presented as part of key objectives to be reviewed, such as promoting:

effective early intervention services in the community which support families to care for their own children and then identifying the need to review financial support to relatives.

One authority said that the development of policy and practice guidance for relative and friends' carers was set out as a specific target. Specific funding to resource such placements effectively was identified in the children's services budget.

Numbers of kinship placements

Local authorities were asked in January 2004, when the survey was carried out, to give a figure of how many looked after children in kinship care were known to their department in the current year, including those to whom they were offering family support under section 22 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. Some found it impossible to answer this but were able to recount numbers of children looked after in kinship care. These numbers reflected the official return for the number of children looked after by friends and relatives, which stood at 1,426 as of 31st March 2004 (Scottish Executive 2004). By October 2005, numbers had risen to around 1,600 (Scottish Executive 2005).

Local authorities reported that the most commonly used means of looking after children in kinship placement was through a section 70 supervision requirement. Far fewer children were accommodated under section 25 and there was minimal use of private fostering arrangements. Some children were the subject of section 11 parental responsibility orders and had gone out of the looked after system. However, they were still counted as 'looked after' children in kinship care placements because local authorities were paying their carers under section 50 of the Children Act (1975).


Over two thirds (22) of local authorities said they were aware of an upward trend in the use of kinship care. Around a fifth of authorities, representing both urban and rural areas, claimed a substantial increase of 50% or more in kinship placements over the last three years, between 2001 and the beginning of 2004. The official returns to the Scottish Executive indicate that the numbers of looked after children in kinship care overall from 2000 to 2003 showed a slight increase. As suggested above, between 2004 and 2005, the national number had risen by 200, endorsing the views of the local authorities gathered half way through the 2004-05 financial year (Scottish Executive 2004 and 2005).

Some local authorities viewed any upward trend linked to an increase in parental incapacity because of substance misuse. Local authorities believed that a greater number of younger children were being looked after by relatives, sometimes for longer periods. This group included children who were not formally looked after by the local authority. An extended stay with relatives was attributed to the fact that it was harder for parents to stabilise their lifestyles sufficiently to allow them to resume care of their children.

The use of kinship care was also tied into a commitment by the local authority to maintaining children in their own families and supporting families within communities. Both the legislation and findings from research had underpinned the development of this family support approach. This was well expressed by one authority as:

an increased understanding and acknowledgement of the significance of maintaining children and young people in their own families and communities wherever possible and a commitment to this.

The next five chapters explore how that commitment has been translated into practice, through the experience of the 30 children and their families in the study.

The main points

  • there is no common definition of kinship care nationally across all 32 local authorities
  • there are considerable variations in operational policies and procedures for kinship care across local authorities
  • all local authorities have children looked after in kinship care
  • it is sometimes difficult for local authorities to count children looked after in kinship placements because they are placed across different legal categories
  • overall there has been a small upward trend between 2000 and 2004 in the use of kinship care and a larger trend between 2004 and 2005
  • some local authorities believe that one of the main reasons for this upward trend is due to the rise in drugs and alcohol misuse by parents
  • local authorities also say they are using kinship care to keep children within their own families
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