4 Living in kinship care - the children's views
I love nana - even when I am cheeky. I love her and I think about her.
Understanding how children feel about their lives is now firmly seen as an important part of research which aims to improve services for them and their families (see Fraser et al. 2004). Among previous studies that have looked at kinship care, a number have explored children's perspectives on their relationships and sense of security and generally, have found these to be positive (see, for example, Rowe et al. 1984; O'Brien 1999; Altschuler 1999).
This chapter contributes to that debate by offering insights from the 30 children in the study about living in kinship care. It explores several areas:
- becoming a kinship child
- learning to live in kinship care - the differences from home
- children's networks and connections
- perceptions of school
- how children spend their leisure time
- children's sense of well-being
- children's understanding of kinship care
The literature extolling the positives of kinship care suggests that it provides the context for the development of resilience (see, for example, Greef 1999; Mcfadden 1999). At its best, kinship care can remove children from adversity while minimising disruption because:
- it provides children with stability
- it provides children with warm and loving relationships
- it reinforces continuities for children both within their families and within communities
- it reinforces children's sense of identity and self-esteem
- it allows for the preservation of links with parents
Recent writers on child development, such as Daniel et al. (1999) and Aldgate et al. (2006), take an optimistic view about children's ability to overcome adversity, provided conditions that encourage children to flourish are present. A developmental-ecological model suggests that many factors can help children. These include sufficient family income, secure attachments to sensitive caregivers, experiences of stability and continuity, experiences of achievement and good relationships with adults and peers (Aldgate et al. 2006).
Kinship care children by definition have experienced adversity which may have included life events that posed a threat to their development and well-being, such as maltreatment, neglect and loss, although the extent of adversity will vary considerably from child to child. Children's recovery will depend on the duration and character of adversity and on the constellation of positive circumstances that can be harnessed to safeguard and promote their development. Recovery from adversity is seen in the context of resilience, defined as 'normal development under difficult conditions' (Fonagy et al. 1994).
Becoming a kinship child - understanding the legacies
As shown in the last chapter, carers gave very clear accounts, speaking in great detail, about how and why children had come to live with them. One of the claims for kinship care is that it helps preserve children's sense of continuity. Knowing how and why events have occurred in families helps children understand and come to terms with not being able to live with their parents. Asked if they knew why they had come to live with their carers, 22 of the 30 children said they knew why they were living in kinship care. Three said they did not know and five did not want to talk about it or were too young to remember. Children's understanding went straight to the point:
'Cos of drugs. There was a lot of injecting at home. I know what drugs are now because I see it all the time - on streets, in fields. Dad takes green medicine now.
Because mum was taking bad medicine.
Because our mum was drinking and she couldn't cope with looking after us.
If I didn't come here I was going into care.
Yes, me and my mum don't get on. We fight all the time. We're too alike and clash.
Seventeen of the 22 children who knew the reason for the placement said they also knew why they had stayed. Mainly, it was because of the continuing problems of their parents:
Our mum is not in a fit condition to look after us - she's so heavily on the drink. She's not keeping well because of her liver and is having a big operation soon.
Because there was no-one else who could look after me when my mum died.
Five out of the 22 children (all of whom knew why they came to their placements) said that they did not know why they had stayed and two said they did not want to talk about it. One child gave some clues about the confusion children might be carrying in their heads:
I'd like to know the truth about why we went into foster care. I've heard two stories - I kind of believe them both - but don't know what to believe.
What did actually happen to mum?
At least two thirds of children in the study had a sense of why they had come to stay with their kin and why the placement was continuing. In spite of this, the fact that almost a third had no sense of personal history about the significant transition they had experienced, often at an early age, was of concern. These findings are unexpected and contrast with those of other studies. O'Brien (1999), for example, found that most of the children in her study had a clear understanding of why they were staying with their families. Since many children were also in contact with their parents, the finding suggests that any lack of communication was omission on the part of the adults, possibly because they took it for granted children understood their circumstances precisely because they were living in their families. Whatever the reason, the finding raises questions about the kind of support children may need in order to understand the legacies of their past.
Learning to live in kinship care - the challenges
One of the positive features claimed for kinship care is that it minimises the shock of separation for children because they are transferring to a familiar household (Hunt 2001; Greef 1999), although this may not necessarily always be the case. This study sought to explore the impact of change on the children. As Chapter 3 showed, many of the children were very young when they came to their placements. Some were too young to remember their arrival. Additionally, placements had rarely been planned but, in at least three quarters of cases, children had known their carers well before they came to stay.
In the case of some of the older children, the changes were minimal. Staying at 'granny's' or 'auntie's' for short or longer periods was part of the pattern of their lives. Staying there all the time was therefore an extension of the familiar:
I used to walk in here and stay if I wanted to - it wasn't a big difference.
Others had contact with their relatives but had never been part of their households. At least four children had moved to stay with relatives who were virtually strangers, which demanded considerable adjustment:
Aye it's different - just 'cos it's different people.
Children who could remember when they came to their placements identified three main challenges:
- adapting to different households
- adapting to different styles of parenting
- moving to a different area with accompanying loss of friends
Some children found it hard to adapt to different households. Moving from a small to a large multigenerational household brought difficulties of noise, lack of privacy, overcrowding and having to share resources. Five children found themselves having to share with younger siblings or cousins or, in eight cases, with adults in the households. Although some shared a room with others in their parents' homes, at least six children experienced the loss of privacy of their own rooms, with consequent disrupted sleep patterns. Among the worst things were:
When [my] uncle plays loud music and his alarm clock.
Not getting as much money as I used to 'cos there are more people.
Not having my own room - I don't get to sleep right for my baby sister waking up.
The second challenge was having to accept a different style of parenting. Moving in with grandparents posed particular problems. There was sometimes a heightened 'generation gap' where children felt older carers did not understand their needs and could behave in an embarrassing way:
She doesn't understand life for a teenager today. She wants to go to bed earlier so you end up having to go earlier as well.
She embarrasses me some days.
Staying in kinship care came at a cost for some older children, in having to adapt to what, from the children's point of view, were stricter regimes. This could cause friction. Coming in early at night was a major issue, as was being able to go out with friends:
She moans too much.
The third challenge was that of moving to a different area. Three children who had moved to inner city urban areas were sometimes frightened by commotions outside late at night, which left them feeling unsafe in a strange place:
I hear trouble and fighting after 11 o'clock at night in the street sometimes. I don't like that.
Conversely, four children who had moved to a more rural area complained that there was nothing to do or it was difficult to get to town to see their friends:
It's so boring here. I miss my friends.
Being in the middle of nowhere and not knowing anyone is hard.
Living in kinship care - the positive changes
Although there were some adjustments to be made, many children appreciated the positive changes that living with their kin brought. Over three quarters of the children had experienced very turbulent and chaotic lives before coming to their kinship placements. The exposure to the world of drugs and alcohol misuse had been at best, unpleasant, and at worst, unsafe. Even where substance abuse was not a problem, children might have had turbulent, even violent, relationships with parents. Several contrasted their lives at home with the sanctuary of the kinship household.
It feels better with my grandparents … less chaotic.
At mum's I just argued with her.
They valued the stable routines carers offered them. Some children had never known when the next meal would appear and parents had neglected getting children to school:
I eat at night.
I get fed at my gran's. I am treated very well here.
Before we didn't always get to school and the house was untidy. It's better here.
It's better going to school on time. We didn't know it was wrong to be late. It was a big change. It's good to be normal.
The kinship households were more child centred. The novelty of this was appreciated:
It's good fun. We all get on and do stuff together.
Several children felt that they had regained the everyday experience of childhood. Children described the thrill of the new 'ordinary' environment. Taking delight in sleeping in bunk beds or watching television in bed were two examples. The enthusiasm with which some of the kinship children described the commonplace was striking. Coming to stay with their kin represented an escape from a lifestyle which offered little fun. The following examples illustrate the changes as children saw them:
It's funny. You have fun and learn more.
I like shopping with gran. She knows the fashion.
I like everything - going out shopping with her.
Going shopping, getting groceries and that.
It's just like with mum but I laugh more here because of uncle Darren.
I like the bunk beds.
I watch TV later here. I watch it in bed.
I had to help my mum look after my brother and sister -I don't do that here. I get pocket money now.
Carers provided an environment where children could gain confidence and improve self-efficacy through achievements:
We do bags of stuff - making the football picture was good.
Gran lets me make bikes and sell them. She lets me do everything.
Most important was the relationship between the children and their carers. Carers made children feel safe. They protected them from exposure to the drugs misuse culture:
I get taken to good places. Gran doesna' take me to junkie places.
I don't like going to junkie houses. I don't like seeing that world. It annoys me.
All the children in the study felt loved, although one or two continued to struggle emotionally with the legacy of their experiences of neglect. Several children said they felt special. Some children felt spoilt. Others were able to accept that they could not always have everything they wanted but that this was a normal part of growing up in a family:
I just like it. It's good.
I'm looked after. Nana takes care of us.
If I ever want anything I just ask and get it. I'm a bit spoiled.
I wouldn't get as petted as much if I lived with mum and dad.
I don't get everything I want but I get some things like my new trainers.
Not surprisingly, in these positive environments, some children felt deep affection for their carers:
The best thing is being with my family and close to my gran.
The reciprocal, loving relationship that the majority of children in the study had with their carers was reflected in the fact that, when children were asked who they would turn to if they had a problem or were worried about something, 21 children said they would turn to their carer:
I always speak to my gran about anything. Grandad's different 'cos he's a man and he doesn't understand as much.
I can talk to uncle Archie.
In addition to their carers, six children said they would talk to their mother too. These tended to be children who had frequent, ongoing contact with parents, although, in one case, the child had not seen her mother for several months. Other family members were also sources of support, such as cousins, uncles and aunts, irrespective of whether they lived in the household or not. Teachers were an important source to turn to in six cases while, in one or two cases, pets were also mentioned as sources of comfort:
She takes care of me when I'm not well.
I would tell the teacher. She has to know everything.
Three children said they would turn to social workers. In two cases, these were workers in specialist therapeutic groups which children were attending. No child in the study felt there were no individuals to turn to. Even the minority whose emotional well-being was shaky felt they had at least one caring adult to whom they could turn. This was an important finding and suggested that the kinship children were, for the most part, living in households with individuals with whom they had close and trusting relationships. As writers on attachment theory have pointed out, being able to trust adults is an important part of children's development and underpins their ability to form positive attachments with their families and significant others (Aldgate and Jones 2006).
Children's networks and connections
To a large extent, children's responses about whom they would turn to reflected the individuals they saw as important in their networks. Children's connections with adults and other children both within and outwith their families are likely to have an impact on their development and well-being. While immediate family, including siblings, are clearly influential on children's emotional and social development, positive relationships with peers, teachers and other adults in children's communities are all relevant to different aspects of children's development (see Aldgate 2006). Rutter (1990), for example, suggests that belonging to a network of family relationships helps to promote children's self-esteem and self-efficacy. In kinship care, children are part of this wider network. Research on connections between children living apart from their parents in a range of circumstances has tended to suggest that remaining connected reinforces the reality of children's attachment to their immediate family (Owusu-Bempah 2006). As children grow older, positive peer contact also becomes important to children's social development. A caring adult outside children's households has been found to be a protective factor for children in adversity (Gilligan 1999; Jack and Gill 2003).
To gain a child-centred view of the daily lives of the 30 children, the study needed to explore children's networks. Who were the people children saw as important in their lives? To answer this question, the study used an ecomap based on the work of Brannen and Heptinstall (see Brannen 2001; Heptinstall et al. 2001) who looked at children's connections in different family circumstances (see Appendix 1). In kinship care, by definition, children already have complex networks between their extended kin, their parents and siblings. In this study, the ecomap was used as a mapping exercise to see where children located individuals who were important to them. Children were given a circle divided into household, relatives, other adults and friends and asked to place individuals important to them within the four quadrants.
Children had a wide range of connections. All 30 children placed the family they were living with and other non-resident family in their ecomap. Siblings and cousins were cited frequently, along with other relatives not living in the household. Most children who had living parents cited them in their networks. Four children with living parents did not place them in their maps. Mothers tended to be cited more often than fathers. This reflected the numbers of cases where children had no contact with their fathers, although there was one child who placed a father he had never seen in the map. The majority of children cited at least two friends while the average was around five or six. Older children tended to have more friends and one listed 17 friends. By contrast, one child, who had some serious emotional problems borne of a legacy of maltreatment, identified no friends. Over two thirds of children (21) cited teachers as important in their lives. Other adults, such as doctors and youth leaders, were rarely listed. Children to whom doctors were important tended to be those whose medical conditions needed frequent attention. The absence of youth leaders as key adults in children's networks reflected the paucity of community resources for children in the areas in which they lived. Social workers were listed in ecomaps in only two cases, which was somewhat surprising since, as Chapter 7 will show, over half the children saw social workers as people who were helpful to them. There was one foster family cited, with whom children had stayed for two years. Lastly, there were four dogs and three cats, all household pets, which provided a source of play and comfort to the children.
The exercise could only give a very broad feel for children's connections. However, it was significant in showing several trends:
- absent parents were as important as kinship carers
- siblings were equally important in children's networks
- wider family, including children of the carers, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents elsewhere were included in children's worlds. To some extent, this reflected the pattern of large families in the study. It also indicated that children perceived family beyond their immediate carers to be part of their supportive networks
- friends were extremely important to children
- teachers and other adults in the community were also a source of support
- in spite of being seen as helpful to them, social workers did not feature prominently as significant adults in children's networks
Children's views on school
School is a significant part of the lives of all children. It is well known that 'school experience can have a positive and long-lasting effect on the social as well as educational development of students' (Gilligan 1998 p. 14). Gilligan believes that 'the sheer normalcy, routine and safety of school may be powerfully therapeutic for the vulnerable child' (Gilligan 1998 p. 19). Positive experiences at school can therefore act as protective factors against adversity and promote resilience. However, not all experiences of school are positive. Bullying at school and exclusion by peer groups can do much damage to children both physically and emotionally (Dowling et al. 2006).
Continuities and discontinuities in school
Although school can be a source of stability, children who become looked after are likely to experience changes of school (Gilligan 1998). Nevertheless, there is some evidence that children becoming looked after in kinship care are less likely to change schools than children in foster care (Berridge 1997).
The study explored whether children who were of school age when they came to their placements had changed schools. Over half of this group of 16 children (10) had moved schools. Seven had lost contact with friends but three still saw friends when they went home to see parents. Children gave the impression that moving school was not a major issue. It may well be a reflection of the fact that children had moved at a younger age, when they were able to re-establish themselves more easily in a new peer group. There was also a sense of pragmatism about children's views which reflected the ability of many to see life in the round and move on, as the third comment illustrates:
I still see them when I stay at mum and dad's.
I did miss people when we moved but now it's not a big issue missing them because I've got friends here.
At the time I wasn't sure about it but I was happy when I saw the full size football pitch at the new school.
Children's perceptions of their progress at school
As Chapter 3 showed, carers believed that children were doing well at school, with all but one child in mainstream schools. In this chapter, children talk about their progress at school, confirming the views of their carers.
Over half the children (17) thought they were getting on well or very well at school, while nine said they were doing OK. Only one child, who was described by his carer as being unable to take praise, thought that his progress was not very good, while three said they didn't know.
School - a place to be?
Given the view that school is more than a place of academic attainment and can make a significant contribution to children's well-being, the study explored children's perceptions of school as a positive or negative environment. Children were asked to rate how they felt about school by using the technique of 'smiley faces':
Children's rating of school
As the faces show, 18 children were enthusiastic about school, nine children thought school was OK and three children did not like school.
Reasons for their enthusiasm related to the lessons, the teachers and their friends:
The teacher is fun and the lessons are quite good.
I like my teachers and I have loads of pals.
I've got lots of friends. I share my play piece with them and they share with me. If somebody took away my friends I would cry.
Twenty-five children said that they thought it was important to get good marks at school. Only two children said that it was not very important and the rest did not have a view. This was an important finding. It was encouraging that children felt positively motivated to achieve at school. Some children linked doing well at school with their aspirations for a career. Their ambitions included becoming lawyers, beauticians, care assistants, teachers, mechanics and social workers:
After school I would like to be a social worker because I'd like to help kids who have also lost parents or someone special.
School was not always positive. As Chapter 3 showed, there were five children who had been bullied at school. Although bullying is widespread and not confined to kinship care children, it was an upsetting experience for the five children in the study. Several children drew attention to the playground politics of discrimination against those who were seen as different. Kinship children, whose parents were 'junkies' or who had no parents, were obvious targets. In two cases, children had been moved to new schools to get away from the bullying. This included a child whose mother had died and who was bullied because of this.
I was getting bullied at school. People were laughing at me because I didn't have a mum.
If we had school uniform it would stop the bullying.
Guidance teachers were particularly important for some children who were being bullied at school and took on the role of 'minder' in the playground. One child was worried about losing his guidance teacher the following year when he moved to another school, a view shared by his carer:
She teaches me and looks after me.
Fighting discrimination at school
Many children who are looked after away from home have told researchers of their unease about revealing their circumstances for fear of being discriminated against (see for example, Stein and Carey 1986; Aldgate and Bradley 1999). Given the positive indicators from kinship care literature - of children gaining confidence and self-esteem from feeling they belong to and are part of the wider family - the study explored how children dealt with telling other people about their situation. Children developed four main tactics: dismissing the issue; defending themselves through aggression or refusal to respond; telling a cover story or giving partial information about their circumstances.
Four children said that they would just tell people about their circumstances and this was not an issue:
I just say my mum couldn't look after me properly and people don't push it.
I just tell them. It's not hard. I've always lived with gran.
Some children rebutted requests for information with refusal tinged with aggression:
I don't explain why or say it's nothing to do with you.
I just say it's none of your business.
I would not answer or I would say my mum's not well. I would shout at somebody.
Some children had developed a cover story or gave out carefully edited information:
So I tell a lie - or just say I live with my gran.
I'd say I didn't want to stay with them [parents].
I hate saying it in front of a group of people. When asked about my mum, I'll say where she is but not that she's in a nursing home. I prefer it just speaking to people on their own rather than in a group.
Generally it's a difficult thing - I don't like talking about dad. If you're a boy you want to be proud of your dad and I can't be. He used to be a good footballer and sometimes I talk about that.
Two children explained how talking to their peers, who were in the same situation, helped them cope:
People did ask about it at the start. I just started crying. I told people mum and dad were junkies but I don't talk about it now. There's a wee girl along the road she also stays with her grandparents.
At the time I would have been upset because I couldn't live with my dad. Now, I am so grateful. I don't know where I would be without my nan. I used to cry a lot 'cos everyone else was fine. I felt that I was the only one in this situation - everyone else had their mum and dad. Kirsty's [friend] dad died and she was like me - just knowing it helped me.
The children's replies suggested that, although many were coping well at school and enjoying themselves, they were conscious of being 'a kinship care child' and that this marked them out from many of their peers.
Improving the experience of school
Returning to the everyday events of school, children were asked whether there was anything that would improve school for them. Some children responded in terms of their general perception of school and were content with things as they were:
No it's good right now. I am at a behaviour school. I get outdoor education.
Children who were troubled at school related their wish list to their immediate experiences. Two children wanted to 'abolish bullying'. One child thought there should be more pastoral care in schools for children like themselves who had experienced loss in their lives.
For the most part, however, children's preoccupations were those of 'ordinary' children and emphasise the normal side of their daily lives. They were concerned with school regimes, personal dislikes of certain subjects and the behaviour of individual teachers. Some children queried the balance between formal and informal time at school, an issue which has been raised in studies of children's daily activities (Ben-Arieh 2000; see Aldgate and McIntosh 2006). Others were content with things as they stood. One or two would have preferred to abandon school altogether. The following quotes give a flavour of the range of children's wishes for change:
A sixth form common room.
Swings in the playground.
Stop the teachers shouting and let me play or draw.
If my teacher wasn't moany.
Less classes, longer lunch hours and more time to see your friends in the day.
Less homework - I do better at school than at home. I don't like bringing stuff home - I like being outside rather than indoors.
It's not interesting enough.
If I didn't have to go it would be better.
How children spend their leisure time
Children's lives extend beyond the boundaries of school. Child development research has consistently found that children whose lives are enriched by a variety of positive experiences will be more likely to be socially skilled and feel confident about themselves (see, for example, Mussen et al. 1999; Gilligan 1998). Jack and Gill (2003) have drawn attention to the influence of positive community experiences, such as clubs and participating in group activities, on children's lives. It is also known that children from disadvantaged backgrounds may be deprived of a range of leisure activities available to their more affluent peers (Jack and Gill 2003). Active leisure activities are increasingly being seen as antidotes to poor health and obesity in children (Scottish Executive 2003). As part of the exploration of the experiences and daily lives of kinship children, the study obtained a snapshot of how children spend their own time. Children were given a list of 18 activities and were asked to indicate whether, and with what frequency, they undertook activities. The activities included formal events, such as music lessons and creative activities, such as art or playing a musical instrument, as well as reading and using computers. They also included social and familial activities, such as chatting with family and friends. Children could also designate community activities, such as attending places of faith or youth clubs or entertainment, such as going to the cinema or watching sport.
We found that the top ten activities were as follows:
Table 4.1 Most popular activities
Top 10 activities
See my pals
Chat to my family
Listen to music
Have a hobby
Art or playing a musical instrument
Sport and dance
Go nowhere in particular
Being with peers was the most popular way that children spent their time. All children also said they spent time every day chatting to their family. Such exchanges in communication were an important part of family life. Watching TV and listening to music were also a large part of their lives. Doing some structured activity such as having a hobby, art or playing a musical instrument, Playing Play-Station, sport, dance and reading took place most days for just over half the children. Equally popular with the other half was simply going out nowhere in particular although this, as carers report in Chapter 6, was often a source of conflict because of worries about children's safety.
Table 4.2 Least popular activities
Bottom 5 activities
Go to church
Go to clubs or brownies
Go to concerts
Go to cinema
Go to watch sports matches
The five least popular activities are shown above. Although faith has been viewed as a positive source of community resilience (Jack and Gill 2003), 27 children in the study said they never went to church. It was surprising, but understandable, that few children went to clubs. There was a singular lack of community activities for children in their localities. This was an issue reported by both carers and children. While the problems in rural areas were more those of access, the facilities for young people living in inner cities and peripheral estates were poor. Those facilities that were available were expensive. Given the income of many of the carer families, it was also no surprise that children did not go regularly to concerts and cinemas or to watch professional sport, all of which were costly. Interestingly, as Chapter 5 will show, going to the cinema was a treat that children were occasionally given by parents during contact visits.
Children's overall emotional state
As this chapter has revealed so far, children's lives were, on the whole, positive and ordinary. They felt safe and cherished by their carers. They were getting on well at school. They had friends and a social life.
In spite of these positive daily experiences, lurking in the background was the fact that children felt that being a kinship child marked them out from peers who lived with their parents. Children had developed strategies to manage their difference. Some were well on the way to overcoming their past experiences but a minority were still troubled by the past, which showed in their attitudes and behaviour and emotional state. Nevertheless, on balance, children seemed to be doing well at home and at school.
As Chapter 3 showed, the kinship carers felt that the children in their care were generally happy. In this chapter, the children's perceptions are reported. Recognising that children's responses may be influenced by the immediacy of events on any one day, we asked children how they were feeling on the day they were interviewed. Nineteen said they felt very happy on that day and eight reported they were happy. The remaining three said they were OK (all three were experiencing emotional or behavioural problems). No child said he or she was unhappy. Although this was a rather crude measure of well-being, it did suggest that the majority of children in the study were enjoying positive experiences on a daily basis:
Sometimes I feel lonely because all my friends are on holiday and sometimes I get happy just mucking about with my gran and all that.
It's going up all the time now. I fell out with some mates here where I stay but I found a good group of friends in the town. Friends are quite important but it is a hassle to get there every day.
I'm OK most days but I am grumpy when I'm not well.
As suggested at the beginning of this chapter, most children knew why they had come to live with their kin. Fewer children understood why they had stayed with their carers. Only a third of the children said anyone had talked to them about how long they were going to stay in their placements. Where they had been informed, children were clear about the future:
I've been told I can stay for ever and ever. Nana told me.
I can stay for as long as I need to. Not bothered how long it takes. I might go back to mum's. Might go back to my step dad's. It doesn't really bother me as long as I've got some family.
Yes, we'll stay until we go to university.
Although one child had not been told about future plans, she felt sufficiently certain she would have control over the decision:
No. I'll stay until whenever I'm ready to go back. No-one talks about it much. I think nobody really knows.
Two other children were clearly anxious about contingency plans for their future:
What will happen to my mum? What if my gran passes away?
What might happen if gran passes away? My aunties don't always get on.
Children's uncertainty contrasts with the views of carers reported in the last chapter. In most cases, it was clearly in the minds of carers that children could stay with them permanently, although some hoped that rehabilitation with birth parents might be possible.
The fact that a third of the children in the study did not know what was going to happen to them is an important finding. It is difficult to understand exactly why no-one had talked to children about this. Carers may simply have taken it for granted that children would know they could stay. Conversely, the future may have been uncertain for many children in that there was continuing hope that they might go back to their parents. Given that most of the children in the study were the subject of some kind of compulsory order, it was of concern that, from the point of view of some of the children, there seemed to be little overt evidence of planning. Whatever the reason, the absence of communication with the children about their futures was not in their interest. It undermines the basic thesis that children in kinship care feel secure within their families precisely because of their connections. The fact that children did not know what was going to happen to them may have contributed to the higher than general population score by seven children (of 24 who completed the scale) on the emotional state dimension on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (Department of Health, Cox and Bentovim 2003). This dimension measures children's worries and fears (see Appendix 1).
Children's wish list for changes to their lives
We asked children if there was anything they would want to change about their lives. Children were also told that the Scottish Executive would be interested in hearing what might help children like them. Nineteen children said there was nothing they would want to change. The answers of the remaining 11 ranged from issues they felt affected the quality of their day-to-day lives to more fundamental issues about living apart from parents.
The day-to-day issues included:
Nothing except to get the park back and make a skateboarding park. We want a slide in the park as well.
To come in later.
I'd like to be more helpful around the house.
To have my own room.
To let my gran have more money.
To have a club for children who live with their grans.
In relation to issues about living apart from parents, top of children's wish list were issues relating to their parents. Six children wished their parents would get better and they could return home:
If only my dad wisened up. It's too late for my mum now but it would be much easier if my dad wisened up.
If I was staying with my mum and everything was normal.
The issue that most concerned children, and top of their wish list, was to have more contact with their parents. It is an issue that is dear to the hearts of many children who are living apart from their parents, whether they are in two households following parental separation, (see, for example, Butler 2003) or those being looked after away from home (Cleaver 2000). It is a fundamental part of the life of most kinship children and one of the most important dynamics in the management of kinship care. The next chapter deals with this issue in detail but it is relevant to include this topic here. The recorded conversation between two brothers and the member of the research team who was talking to them, about what they might want to tell the Scottish Executive about their circumstances, captured the essence of kinship care and the dilemmas it presents children living between two households within the same family, when they have strong attachments to both parents and carers.
Researcher: The government would like to know - Is there anything that would make this [your placement] better?
Child 1: I sometimes feel really sad talking about it. Now I don't want to stay with my mum because then it would be sad on my gran because I have been living with her for a long time. I still want to stay with my mum though and my gran. It's a hard decision.
Child 2: I want to stay at my mum's for one week and then at my gran's.
Child 1: Yeah me too. I want to stay at my mum's for one week and then at my gran's for the next week. Then we could start doing that more often.
Can the First Minister sort anything out about this for us?
This chapter has recounted children's perspectives about their daily lives in kinship care. There are several issues which arise from children's views.
The main points
- all the study children came to their kinship care placements with the legacies of their past
- two thirds of children said they understood why they were in kinship care
- becoming a kinship care child had brought challenges of adapting to new regimes and routines
- most of the study children found stability, calm and boundaries in their placements
- they had frequent experiences of fun and achievement
- there was evidence of deep reciprocal affection between children and their carers
- children had large elements of their lives which were ordinary and positive
- most children had a network of friends and normal leisure pursuits
- the majority of children felt they getting on well at school and valued educational attainment
- five children were subject to bullying at school
- children had developed strategies to deal with any discrimination they encountered because of their kinship status
- half the children were uncertain about the future of their placements
- contact with parents was a key issue on children's wish lists
There is a problem
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