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.

6 The rewards and challenges of being a kinship carer

The best is seeing them grow up and get a half decent life.

This chapter explores the issues important to the kinship carers of the 30 looked after children in the study. The chapter looks at the context in which carers were looking after children and it explores the personal costs and benefits of becoming a kinship carer. Some had to make considerable adjustments to their lifestyles in order to take on children. For others, it was simply an extension of what they were doing anyway. Although there were stresses, on balance, many were delighted at being given the opportunity to have young people around and enjoyed watching children blossom in their care. Finally, the chapter looks at carers' wish lists and the support they feel they need in order to provide the best care for the children they are looking after on behalf of their kin or friends.

In the study, carers had much to say about their experiences. Their views offer an insight into the challenges and rewards of becoming a kinship carer of looked after children. Many of the carers were remarkable people, robust and resilient individuals, who met life's challenges head on. Their tenacity and commitment to their kinship children were impressive. Many had their own emotional legacies and were facing problems, sometimes exacerbated by living in adversity. In spite of this, as the children themselves have revealed, the carers in this study were making a significant and positive contribution to the development of children in their care.

Keeping children in the family

All the kinship carers in the study had been motivated to take on the kinship responsibility out of a sense of obligation to the children. As Chapter 3 showed, in just under a third of cases, carers had initiated the placements and, in all cases, carers spoke of their familial obligations:

If he hadna' come to us it would have been a foster home. We couldna' have that.

It's knowing that she is safe with us and that we keep her in the family.

I'm glad he didna' have to go into a home.

It's having her here instead of being in care.

I feel very responsible for her.

When we found out they were in foster care, we were shocked. They had to come to us.

The familial obligation to children was generally accepted by other members of the household. For the most part this was done willingly, even if it meant the loss of a workroom for a husband or a son, and sons and daughters having to share bedrooms. Out of the 17 families where the arrival of children would affect other family members, carers reported overwhelmingly that children had been accepted by the whole of the household:

She's just part of the family. We all love her. She loves her aunt.

Adult sons and daughters living in the household were thought to provide positive role models and enjoyed babysitting for the children:

Uncle is like a big brother to him. It's important as he [child] can't always relate to me.

My daughter thinks of her as a sister.

He [adult son] loves the children being in the household, he is good with them and babysits.

In at least two cases, relatives of carers had died recently and had been much missed by the children because they were a source of mentorship and fun.

The support of other family members also manifested itself in other ways. First, just under half of the carers told researchers that they would turn to family first if they needed any help. Secondly, in some of the larger families, others rallied round to provide babysitting and respite care. There were two large matriarchal families in the study, headed by grandmothers whose ability to organise and look after all the children in the family was impressive. They took the view that looking after children was a family responsibility:

Our family have grown up all over the place so we are used to wee ones coming and going.

These 'grannies' took on the role of 'care manager' for the family's children. Not only did they provide care for the kinship child but organised regimes of child care across the generations. This was helped in one case by the housing polices of the local authority who had located different generations and nuclear families in dwellings within walking distance of each other. It was clear that, as well as providing day care, sometimes the family group would plan and organise respite care for the family's children, including the kinship care children. The essential element for all the children was that they knew where they were to be at different times. The family also managed contact with the kinship children's parents, sometimes using different households as meeting points. It was a model of care which has been found to work in other kinship families (see Broad 2000). As Chapter 4 showed, children in this study enjoyed the excitement and support of having cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents as part their network.

Responding to the practical demands of parenting

Looking after any child is demanding. To explore the daily demands on the kinship carers, they were asked to fill in the Parental Daily Hassles Questionnaire (Department of Health, Cox and Bentovim 2000, see Appendix 1). This records the range of commonly experienced parenting hassles and the frequency with which they occur. A score of above 50 on the frequency scale indicates that the caregiver has a high frequency of potentially hassling events.

In fact, the response showed a very individual and varied pattern of hassles. This, in turn, reflected the range of circumstances and the different ages of children. There was only one carer in the study who scored very highly on the questionnaire. This carer was looking after eight children of varying ages on her own, so the score might be seen as reflecting the reality of her situation.

Although getting children to school or negotiating bedtimes were not serious issues for the majority of carers, looking after kinship children was often described as 'hard work'. Two of the most frequently cited hassles were having to nag children to do things or that children did not always listen to carers. Twenty carers said that this happened 'sometimes' or 'more frequently'. It resulted, among other things, from normal family occurrences, such as untidy rooms, washing up not being done and a messy house. The personal hygiene of adolescents was also an issue for some. It resonated with older children's everyday 'complaints' about some carers being 'moany'. In return, carers had their day-to-day 'moans' about the demands of child care.

It can be demanding being a taxi service for the children but that is normal.

I just wish he would leave the bathroom clean and flush the toilet.

Some of the hassles also reflected carers' real concerns about the safety of children, especially those who were in or approaching adolescence, as will be shown below. Overall, the findings from the Daily Hassles Questionnaire reinforced the impression given by the study children that, in spite of some ordinary daily confrontations, carers were able to create a day-to-day environment which was safe, had routines and set appropriate boundaries. In other words, for the most part, they appeared to be providing confident and consistent parenting.


Overcrowding is an issue which has been identified in previous research on kinship care as a stress factor for families (see Hunt 2001). In this study seventeen children had their own rooms, although five shared with other children and eight with adults (see Chapter 3).

Although, in 19 households, carers said that they had enough space, in the other five households, carers said that they were overcrowded and that this did create tensions:

My cupboards are bulging.

There's crowding of everyone.

It's been difficult. We had to make adjustments in terms of space.

However, the definition of 'having enough space' was sometimes subjective, and varied between families. For instance, one family in a three bedroomed house said they had enough space. This was a family where two young children were sharing a room, the carer's husband - who had just returned from hospital - was sleeping in another room, and the carer was sharing with a two year old baby. There was a fourth child who stayed every weekend and during the holidays. For many, this would seem overcrowded but this family took it in their stride. Another family, who had a large house where children had their own rooms, felt overcrowded as they had just acquired a bereaved member of the older generation and were in the process of building an annexe. A further two families were building extensions to house the enlarged family.

In a minority of cases, as children had also recounted, space was a source of friction between family members. At least two families were waiting to be rehoused. In one case, an adult was using the spare bedroom in a two bedroom flat as an office while the carer and kinship child shared a room. There were particular tensions between late adolescent children of the carers sharing with younger children, with the older children increasingly resenting not having privacy. In large families, where the culture was for children to visit overnight, there were lots of instances of children sharing rooms on a temporary basis.

Coping with legacies - life events

In spite of the fact that carers were managing their children's daily lives well and were generally living in adequate material circumstances, their lives had not been without challenges. Indeed, all had experienced some demanding life events and had taken on children, sometimes at great personal cost to themselves.

In order to gain some context of significant events in carers' lives, the Recent Life Events Questionnaire (Department of Health, Cox and Bentovim 2000) adapted over a longer time scale, was filled in by carers (see Appendix 1).

Chart 6.1 Life Events

Chart 6.1 Life Events image

Key to Chart 6.1

Life event


Have any of your immediate family died?


Have you had a serious illness or been seriously injured?


Has one of your immediate family been seriously ill or injured?


Have any of your other close relatives or close friends died?


Have you moved house (through choice)?


Have you or your partner been unemployed or seeking work for more than one month?


Have you had any major financial difficulties ( e.g. debts, difficulty paying bills)?


Have any of your close friends or other close relatives been seriously ill or injured?


Have you, or an immediate family member had any Police contact or been in a court appearance?


Have you separated from your partner (not including death)?


Have you had any serious problem with a close friend, neighbour or relative?


Have you, or another individual who lives with you, given birth?


Have you had any housing difficulties?


Have you or an immediate family member been subject to any abuse, attack, threat - perhaps due to you or someone close to you having a disability of any kind (i.e a mental health problem, a learning disability or a physical problem)?


Have you, or an immediate family member been subject to any other form of serious abuse, attack or threat?


Have you or your partner been sacked from your job or made redundant?


Have you moved house (not through choice)?


Have you or an immediate member of your family been burgled or mugged?


Have you or another individual who lives with you suffered from a miscarriage or had a stillbirth?

All the carer families had been affected by at least one life event. Eighteen carers said they were still affected by a negative event that occurred in the past. The number of life events that still affected them ranged between one and ten, with the average being four. The life event which had affected and 'continued to affect' carers most was the death of immediate family and close relative. More than half the families (14 of 24) had experienced the loss of an immediate family member at some point and ten of these said they were still affected by the event, although it might have happened several years ago. In one case, the cumulative effect of death and separation was most poignant. Having lost a child, been divorced, then having buried mother, father and sister in the space of one year, one carer was struggling valiantly to maintain a supportive home for her own children and a bereaved kinship child.

There were two instances where carers were carrying the legacy of losing their partners. In three families, carers continued to be deeply affected by the past deaths of their own children, which had occurred several years ago. One small child had been killed in a road accident and there was a big photo of this child in the carers' living room. In another family, two adult sons had died tragically. In this family, the carer attributed the onset of her medical problems to the death of the older son. She also said her daughter, who was the kinship child's parent, had gone downhill since the first brother died.

The death of a close relative, whether it was a parent, child, partner or sibling, had a continuing impact on all the family. Some carers were visibly moved when talking about these issues:

It all started when he died, my daughter's problems, my epilepsy.

He's an angry wee boy. Takes it out on other kids. I sometimes worry what's going on in his head. There's times he looks really sad and I know he's missing his mum.

As Chart 6.1 shows, apart from death, serious illness or injury within the family was an equally important life event which had a continuing impact on family members. This was particularly associated with the early retirement of carers on grounds of disability. The accompanying loss of income and change in lifestyle which resulted from these changes had 'set families back'. Taking on the kinship child had added to the financial worries in some cases, as will be shown later in the chapter. On the other hand, there were instances when the presence of the kinship child had 'livened up the house' and had helped carers divert their attention away from the tragedies they had experienced.

Coping with legacies - the children's parents

Apart from the legacies of personal life events, carers had three further worries in relation to parents. They worried about the part their relationship might have played in causing parents' problem and there was a particular problem for carers whose sons or daughters engaged in substance misuse with the resulting inability of these parents to look after the children leading to the kinship placement. There was a pattern in these families of one adult son or daughter engaging in substance abuse, a trait out of character with the behaviour of other siblings. Some carers drew comparisons between the 'wayward child' and the rest, who had 'done well'. This was an issue which weighed heavily on some carers. One or two commented they had felt they might be to blame and had searched within themselves for an explanation of how their own parenting behaviour had contributed to this adult child 'going astray'. Generally, they had decided that this was nobody's fault. As one grandparent said:

Makes you wonder why. What went wrong, what did you do wrong, you know what I mean? And you know in the end, you didn't do anything wrong, it's just the way it turned out.

The second legacy was a continuing anxiety about the health and well-being of parents. This was heightened in relation to parents who were misusing drugs or alcohol:

I have to watch things with my daughter. I wish things would be OK.

At the moment he's clean. I hope it will stay like that.

For three or four carers, there was the constant, lingering anxiety that parents could reclaim children at any point. This was heightened where children were the subject of a section 70 supervision requirement and anxiety would mount as the time for the children's hearing approached (see also Chapter 7):

We all get worked up when the hearing is coming. She [child] cries and says, "Don't let them take me away nana". After it's over, it's a relief. You know she will be staying for another year.

I only worry that her mum will come and claim her.

Children in foster care have long-term stability. I worry that Paul will suddenly go back to his mum.

The anxieties of the carers mirror the children's anxieties about the future, reported in Chapter 4. The findings indicate that there is a place for clearer decision-making and care planning for kinship children (see also Chapter 9) so that plans for reunification or permanence with kinship carers can be part of the family's agenda.

Apart from these issues, there were some important consequences and costs for carers of bringing up the children.

The impact of stress on health

As Chapter 3 showed, the kinship carers were a diverse group of individuals. At the time of interview they ranged in age from 27 to 95, although the majority were in their fifties and sixties. There was considerable variation in the health of the carers which was not necessarily related to age, as shown in Chapter 3.

Ten carers said they had experienced a deterioration of their health since the beginning of the child's placement, although half pointed out that this was due to natural ageing and not because of the demands of parenting:

I seem to be more tired these days and the ironing is piling up.

Five carers did relate their frail mental health to the stress of being a kinship carer which had brought accompanying financial pressures. Four of these carers had also experienced the losses described above. The strain of looking after children had taken its toll:

My man and I were a lot closer before. There's been so much going on.

We are not as happy as we used to be. Looking after Carole has put a great strain on us. We don't go out at all and find it really difficult.

At least two families, who were beset by financial difficulties, were trying to keep going for the children:

We're trying to manage without letting the children know about all our problems.

The financial impact of looking after children

Chart 6.2 Financial impact on 24 families

Chart 6.2 Financial impact on 24 families image

Chart 6.2 shows that only two carers, both looking after children on their own, said they were better off since becoming kinship carers. One was a grandfather caring for a single child. He had previously been living on the basic state pension and the allowances from the social work department virtually doubled his income. This grandfather proudly showed the researcher savings accounts for all his grandchildren, including the kinship child. His pleasure at being able to provide for the children in this way was evident. The second carer was an uncle who had taken on two nephews and given up a professional career to do so. One child had special needs and, to care for this child, the carer had trained for, and had been given, the status of foster carer. The social work department also paid a generous allowance for the other child.

Seven carers said their financial situation had not been affected by becoming a kinship carer. These carers came from large families, such as those headed by the 'care manager grannies' described earlier. The family not only took on child care but shared the financial burden of the children:

They don't want for anything. I still work part-time. All the rest of the family also work.

There's no financial hardship. Everyone just accepted the children as part of the family.

The biggest group, 15 carers, felt that looking after kinship children had adversely effected their financial situation. As discussed in Chapter 3, many children arrived at their kinship carers' homes in an emergency, with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. This meant that, from the outset, the carer had to spend substantial sums on clothes and bedding. Some carers were reimbursed, partially by the social work department, while others footed the bill themselves. These outlays were particularly hard on carers living on pensions, as they were spending their savings on the needs of the children:

We had savings … and it's all been depleted … we take Kathy to dancing lessons, gymnastics, skating. Again, I'm saying this, not vindictively but because it's a fact. See, if Kathy was with foster parents, that would all be paid for.

The government keep telling us to save up for our old age, as I was in a pension plan. I used to put away so much every week. That's away down. I've got hardly any money left … I feel as if I'm giving all my savings back to the government and doing that for the privilege of looking after my grandchild.

At the beginning it was bad because they didna' have any clothes - they came here without a stitch. They came here with nothing, just the vests and nappies that they had on.

I am struggling as he needs teenage things - trainers and football shirts.

We're in debt and feel let down by the social work department and we have found it a struggle to feed and clothe the family.

Children in their teenage years became more expensive to provide for. Carers felt under pressure to buy teenagers fashionable clothing so that they could fit in with their peers. Teenagers also tended to consume a lot of food:

I have to buy everything for school. I can't make her feel different from other bairns round about. She has to have confidence and feel good.

It's amazing if one person goes away, you don't spend half the amount on food. Incredibly really, so yes, if Jessica is not around we actually are a lot better off financially.

The consequence of these demands was that some families found that they were denied their normal little treats:

All our money went on doing up this flat for our retirement. My husband and I used to have steak regularly. Now I can't afford to buy it.

I was in a band but I can't always do that now. Sometimes I take the children but you can't take children into pubs.

Changes in lifestyle

Apart from any financial issues, studies on grandparents who become kinship carers have suggested that one source of stress derives from the fact that they are taking on children at a time when they might be expecting to take life a little easier (see Hunt 2001). In this study, one of the consequences of becoming a kinship carer - not only for grandparents but also for uncles and aunts - were the sacrifices the task demanded. The biggest losses were the freedom to socialise when one wanted, and having no holidays:

I can't go away on a Saga holiday any more. I've got to go away on holiday at peak times.

We've no social life. Mary can be demanding.

We are tied down quite a bit now so we don't socialise now.

I really miss not being able to go and do the things I'd like to be able to do such as holidays or going to watch something at the cinema that isn't for children or visit friends at night. I can't do car boot sales any more. My son wanted me to go to Australia for ten days but I couldn't go because of the kids.

It can turn your life upside down and, in some cases, leave you with a house that's not actually the same as when the child arrived.

Worries about the children now and in the future

Carers had several specific worries about children's present and future safety and well-being. There were three themes:

  • children's continuing serious emotional problems
  • anxieties about the teenage years
  • worries about children's care in the event of their incapacity or death

The minority of carers who were looking after troubled children were seriously worried about them:

We are worried about her at school and also the fact she is so unhappy.

He's got attachment problems but we don't know how far back that goes. Emotionally he is a long way from being grown up.

A pressing concern for the carers looking after middle years children was that they could see trouble ahead as children turned into teenagers. Children ignoring boundaries and bad behaviour were the main sources of worry. There tended to be different worries about girls or boys. The main worry about girls was 'boyfriends,' while the fear was that boys would 'get into trouble' through delinquent acts, as indeed at least two had already done. Three carers indicated their worry that children would follow in the footsteps of their parents:

I've the normal worries about teenagers when they go out - getting into trouble.

That's what I'm frightened of, when she goes to high school, this is when it all starts, you know what I mean.

When she starts seeing the boys, I'll have them in the house to keep an eye on them.

We worry about the boys. We have a few rows about staying out.

He hangs around the street. We worry he'll get into trouble.

I worry about the girl (one of three). I worry she will take after her mum.

At least two carers told us that they had seriously thought about the future and had made the sacrifice of giving up holidays and other luxuries to either open savings accounts or purchase their house in order to safeguard the children's future. Two others spoke of contingency plans where other family members would take the children in the event of their death. One carer worried about the future for a child who had a degenerative condition and would need lifelong care in the future. One elderly grandmother hoped she would just be around for long enough:

We can't afford to go on holiday - we have ventured into buying the house to make sure that they have got security when anything happens to us.

My daughter and I have spoken. I have an informal arrangement with her to take him if anything happens to me.

Hopefully, I'll be here when she's 16.

In spite of the concerns, 19 carers out of the 24 spoke very positively about the advantages of becoming a kinship carer. Overwhelmingly, there was satisfaction from seeing children blossom:

It's good to see him doing so well.

It's good doing fun things and knowing that they are making progress.

We love them. We wouldn't part with them. I think the best thing is seeing them coming on. They are great sleepers.

For both grandparents and other carers, whose children were living elsewhere, taking the kinship children represented the opportunity to experience having a family all over again. One or two felt that kinship children would benefit from their previous parenting experiences:

I've more time for my grandchild than I had for my own.

It's like having a second chance.

Good company

One of the perks for kinship carers was the reciprocity of the kinship relationship by which, in return for being looked after, the child provided a source of good company for the carer. This was in no sense exploitative but merely a recognition that the benefits of kinship care did not have to be all one way:

It's like having a family all over again. He's excellent company.

She's really good company. We sit and blether. I love it when she makes me a cup of tea.

She's just like one more daughter really.

He can be a good friend.

She is just a joy. She fits in with us. It's lovely to see her and Kirsty (carer's own child) together. They are like sisters.

He's taking some of the workload off me, helping to make beds and doing some vacuuming or dusting. He offers to do it.

Keeping them young and fit

Finally, in the pay off for all the hard work of looking after their kinship children, a positive outcome for at least nine grandparents in the study was that the children kept them active and fit. These grandparents all said children had a positive effect on their health:

She just keeps me young. I know all the pop groups and I know all the music that's in and all that. It keeps me away from watching Coronation Street and going to the bingo.

He is such an amusing boy and he keeps you on the move.

They keep you young. They have made me get up and do things I would not have done otherwise.

It keeps me fit. I have to get up to see him to school.

It keeps me fit with young ones around. I'm very busy now.

The main points

  • carers had been motivated to take children through familial obligation
  • children were accepted by carers and other family members
  • carers coped well with the demands of parenting
  • carers were coping with the legacy of their own children's problems
  • stress had an impact on health
  • looking after children had an impact on lifestyles and finances, often for the worse
  • most kinship carers felt they had enough space but a minority said they were overcrowded
  • carers worried about the future
  • for the most part, in spite of the worries, looking after kinship children brought many satisfactions, such as seeing children do well and keeping carers active
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