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.

7 Children, kinship carers and social work

A social worker is someone who talks to you, explains things.

Social work support and kinship care in the study

Chapters 8 and 9 look at the organisation of kinship care services in the 32 local authorities across Scotland, including the organisation of financial support to children and carers. Most of the material in these chapters is drawn from the survey data, supplemented with some comments from practising social workers who were working with some of the 30 children and their families. Meanwhile, to provide a context for the survey findings and their implications, this chapter describes how the 30 children and their carers saw the role of social workers and the services social work offers. Both children and carers in the study had much to say about the services they experienced and those they felt should have been on offer.

Kinship care as a unique service for looked after children

It is important to find out what children and carers think of the services they have received because kinship care is unique within the range of arrangements for looked after children. On the one hand, it mainly stands outwith the services for accommodated children precisely because children are looked after by their families. Conversely, supporting children who are looked after in kinship care demands more than family support for children in need because the local authority has been concerned enough about children's welfare to make them looked after children.

Some researchers have highlighted the ambiguity and confusion that kinship care evokes in the social work response to supporting families. Kinship care is complex because children are living in their families but they are also being supervised by the local authority. One UK study represents the consensus of findings in the international research about the muddled thinking among professionals:

There is a lack of clear policy and practice and what appears to be ambiguity and great variation in the way carers are assessed, supported, trained and paid by local authorities (Waterhouse and Brocklesby 1999, in Hunt 2001, p. 39).

Several studies report considerable variation in services and support offered to kinship carers, which Hunts summarises as 'the impressively assiduous to the disgracefully negligent' (Hunt 2001 p. 65). The variability of services to kinship carers is contrasted with the more regular and trenchant support and training given to approved foster carers. Some research studies have also indicated that kinship carers value and make good use of a wide range of services when they are available.

Services for children

In this study, both children's and carers' perceptions of social workers and services they offered were explored. Children were asked about:

  • the process of consulting them about their wishes and feelings
  • their understanding of the role of a social worker
  • how they rated their own social worker
  • the services they had found helpful or unhelpful

Consulting children about their views

Section 16 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 states that any child appearing before a hearing should be given the opportunity to express his or her views. Just over a third of the children in this study said that they had been consulted by social workers or the children's hearing, while a third said that no-one had asked them how they felt at any point. The rest could not remember. It was heartening that at least a third of children felt they had been consulted but also discouraging that so many felt that no professional had talked to them. The children's views in this chapter confirm those in Chapter 4, where it was reported that around one third of children in the study did not know what was going to happen to them in the future. The constraints of the study made it impossible to verify with the adults concerned whether or not they had consulted children. However, such verification is less important here than the children's perspectives on consultation.

All the children in the study had attended a children's hearing at some time. Those who were the subject of a supervision requirement made annual visits to the hearing. Children had useful things to say about children's hearings. As suggested in Chapter 6, carers reported that children generally worried about hearings, seeing them as events which could change the whole course of their lives. The level of anxiety reinforces the findings reported in Chapters 3 and 4 in relation to children's responses in the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (Department of Health, Cox and Bentovim 2000 ) and their lack of understanding of their future. In going to a hearing, children were being asked to step out of their everyday lives and face up to the fact they were different from their peers. The hearing was also a tangible reminder of the legal impermanence of their status as a kinship care child.

Children had a mixed response to hearings. On the positive side, at least six children felt that panel members listened to their views and respected them:

I felt that people listened to us.

I felt listened to.

Children were pleased to hear that they could legally stay in their placements:

They said I could stay with my gran - I was pleased.

Not all experiences of hearings were positive. Some children felt intimidated when confronted by strangers. Other children reported that their views were ignored and, in one case, a child did not fully understand what was expected of her. When parents were present at the hearing, this raised one child's anxieties that he might have to return home. Another child clearly felt he was being put in a position where his loyalties to both sides were being tested. Perhaps the most significant issue was that hearings were seen not as part of the whole 'looked after' process but as 'one-off' events. Children's experiences raise issues about the need to integrate the hearings into any planning or process of intervention so that children may see them as confirming rather than intimidating events.

What is a social worker? - the children's view

Children in the study were asked about their understanding of the role of a social worker. Twenty-four reckoned they thought they knew what a social worker was while, of the remaining six, four thought they did not have a social worker and the others did not know. At least one third of the children gave very thoughtful responses. Twenty children ascribed to social workers a positive role and were able to articulate what they thought social workers offered.

Most commonly, children thought that social workers were people who helped you, supported you and look after you in some way:

Someone who helps you with any problems you have.

Someone who is there to make sure everything is OK or if there's anything needed done.

A person who helps with family problems.

Social workers had a role to protect children from harm and were sensitive to children's needs:

They help families where children are getting abused or neglected.

Someone who comes over, watches out for you. If there is anything bad, they'll help you.

They help you if you are getting bullied or you've lost someone or you are not coping very well or have problems.

A social worker sees how you are feeling sometimes.

Social workers could have an empowering role, both through giving information and helping children express their feelings:

They help children say what they think about their family situation.

A social worker is someone who talks to you, explains things.

Someone that tells you stuff about your mum and dad.

One young person was able to reflect on the social worker's positive use of authority within the helping role:

Somebody that helps families work things out. They take measures that people don't like but is best for the people … when I wasna' allowed to see my mum I was a bit down but I look back and it was the right thing.

However, there were four children who dissented from the generally positive views and saw social workers as unhelpful. Their experiences had shaped their views. In particular, social workers who timed their visits to miss children when they were at school were not appreciated:

I don't know [what the social worker does]. She always comes when I'm at school.

Rating social workers

It was difficult to work out the frequency with which children's social workers visited the kinship home. Much seemed to depend on the child's needs at any one time and, therefore, sometimes children could be seeing their social workers once a week. At other times, several months could elapse between meetings. In some cases, this might well have been appropriate but, in others, children felt it did not help communication. Children did not distinguish between generic and specialist workers within a therapeutic setting - they were all social workers. This applied to the social workers who came to visit the family from the social work department and those who worked for a voluntary agency and provided specialist direct work. The children saw the help provided by social workers as a seamless service, irrespective of whether it was provided by the statutory or voluntary services.

Overall, social workers got a positive vote from children in the study. Two thirds of children rated social workers as OK or better. Ten children rated social workers as good or very good. This was an important finding and suggests that social workers are able to offer children a positive and helpful service. The children were able to elaborate on the features of such a service, as they saw them. As the findings show, they were talking about what the professionals might call child-centred, direct work with children.

Child-centred direct work

Children particularly appreciated social workers who had a child-centred approach towards them, irrespective of whether they were specialist or generic workers. Setting any communication in the context of activities was one way social workers earned recognition from children. Another way was to show they related well to children's carers:

They are good. Yesterday was when I saw her. I see her every three weeks and I meet up with a resource worker every Tuesday. I play pool with the social worker.

She stays for half an hour. We sit on the settee and chat. She has a cuppa and so does my gran.

Four children were attending specialist groups organised by a voluntary agency. These groups had been set up to help children understand and come to terms with separation from parents and the transitions into new families. In some cases, workers were also helping children in a one to one relationship. Both carers and children spoke warmly about the child centred approach of the workers and the positive impact on their well-being of the individual direct work sessions or group work:

I talk to my worker. She comes round to see how I'm doing. It's all about me. We play games and that's what helps me talk.

The importance of communicating with children in a child-friendly way was exemplified by two children who talked about the unhelpfulness of social workers. One remarked:

She always asks me the same question: "How are you?".

Social work with children is an essential part of the looked after service. The comments of children in this study reinforce the need for the development of a child-centred social work service, with workers who are skilled in communicating with children, listening to their wishes and acting appropriately upon them.

Carers and social workers

We also asked carers about the services they had received from social workers. It was encouraging that over half the carers (14) rated the social work services they had been given as satisfactory or better. Ten of the carers thought the social work service was good or very good. The remaining ten rated the service as not good.

There were several issues by which carers evaluated the merits of the social work service. Some of these have much in common with findings from previous research on family support (see Quinton 2004). They suggest that social workers can be most effective when they provide a combination of emotional support and practical help.

Valued services provided by social workers

International research has identified that carers may be assisted by a wide range of services related to their roles and tasks as a kinship carer. These include:

  • practical help and information
  • help in accessing services
  • support groups
  • child care
  • mentoring
  • mediation and family counselling
  • counselling
  • help in renewing parenting skills
  • help in managing children's behaviour or other issues
  • respite services
    (see Hunt 2001 p. 64)

In this study, the principal services valued by carers were:

  • providing timely help
  • offering a psycho-social casework service
  • supporting carers in their contact with parents
  • workers being accessible and reliable
  • the facilitation of community-based support groups
  • providing appropriate help over time

Providing timely help

The first criteria by which social workers were judged was that they had provided the help that carers needed when they needed it. A good example of this was responding to the financial hardship at the beginning of the placement which resulted from the length of time the UK benefit agency took to transfer the child benefit to carers. Social work departments stepped in and were able to authorise emergency payments in lieu of child benefit, a service much appreciated by carers. There were also occasions when children had arrived with no clothing and the social work departments intervened to provide emergency grants for bedding and clothing:

It was five weeks before I got any beds even though they knew I was getting the children from July. It took 12 weeks to get me a second hand chest of drawers. They had to sleep in my bed for five weeks. I slept on the sofa. The social work department made me a grant.

They were very good and paid me the child benefit until the book got transferred to me.

Offering a casework service

Setting aside practical help, there were several families who had experienced turbulent life events. In two cases social workers were offering regular counselling to carers related to issues of loss or tensions in the family. For example, one carer had lost both parents and her sister in the same year and had taken in her nephew. The overwhelming emotional pressure that this succession of deaths had caused had naturally affected her emotional health. As well as organising necessary resources for the kinship child, the social worker had taken on a counselling role for the kinship carer, which was highly appreciated:

My social worker is my rock. I look forward to her coming. I feel under so much pressure all the time. I can't wait till she comes. I wish she would come more.

In another family, the social worker was working hard to maintain the kinship placement where the carer was suffering emotionally from the effects of a very turbulent history of loss and change. The kinship child had also been deeply affected by many changes and by spending her early years with substance misusing parents. The social worker was providing support directly to the carer but was also helping the carer to manage the behaviour of the child, who was regularly engaging in self-harm. This included linking the carer with a self-help group from which she had gained a great deal of support and arranging for the child to have specialist help from a voluntary agency, as well as arranging respite care. According to the carer, the social worker had done everything that she possibly could within the limitations of resources available. In both these cases, social workers were visiting at least every fortnight.

Being accessible and reliable

Carers appreciated social workers who were accessible and reliable. Social workers who were on the end of the phone or would ring back promptly to discuss carers' issues were especially important. Carers also appreciated social workers who kept their promises and carried out actions quickly and efficiently. Carers needed to feel social workers were on their side:

Social workers have backed me from the beginning. I never had any problems, everything was straightforward.

Conversely, when social workers were inaccessible or departments had no systems for emergency help, carers were critical. Complaints mainly centred on the lack of clear information about who was their social worker and how he or she might be contacted in an emergency. It was a particular concern in one authority where families simply did not know to whom they might turn:

Social workers don't tell you nothing, they don't keep you informed.

Supporting carers in their contact with parents

One key issue that arose from the carer role was the management of contact with parents. This has been described in some depth in Chapter 5, but it is relevant to raise it here again because it was an issue connected with social work support. Where social workers had supported carers to organise and manage contact in the way carers thought would work best, the outcome was satisfactory for everyone. The key factor was that social workers were responsive to children and carers' judgements about the situation (see Chapter 5) and could support carers to change arrangements which were not working.

Facilitating community-based support groups

Seven carers were members of a local community support group for kinship carers, organised and funded by the social work department (see also Chapter 8). None of the other four social work departments offered a similar service. Two carers who lived in a neighbouring authority wished such a group existed in their area. Carers who lived within the 'postcode lottery' that gave them eligibility to join the group valued their membership highly and all the carers interviewed who were involved in the group had nothing but praise for the experience. They had found it both informative and empowering:

I get a lot of help from the group. You learn from each other. There should be one in every area. It shouldn't be a lottery what you get.

Providing appropriate help over time

There were examples of good social work practice over time. These tended to occur when there had been time to plan placements. In three cases, there had been lengthy discussions between the social workers and the carers about the roles that they were taking on. There had been weekend stays arranged before the children moved into the placement. One carer described how one social worker had put in frequent visits and been very responsive by, for example, organising contact and making sure that children had settled at school. As time went on the social work contact, though still on a planned basis, became less frequent as carers became more confident. The hallmark of this arrangement was that carers thought that they could get in touch with social workers when they needed and knew that there would be a positive response.

The shortcomings of services provided by social work

By contrast, carers had much to say about the shortcomings of social work services. There were four main areas:

  • the problem of a high turnover of social workers
  • the unhelpfulness of infrequent or inappropriate contact
  • carers being put under pressure to take children
  • lack of clear eligibility criteria for practical and financial help

The problem of a high turnover of social workers

At least two carers in each of the five authorities cited the turnover of social workers as a problem. The changes of social workers were particularly noticeable in one of the city authorities and were mentioned by eight of the carers interviewed. Related to the issue of infrequent social work visits was the concern that social workers changed regularly so that there was a constant need to retell their story:

They are always leaving or going off sick. New ones don't know the history. You have to tell them over again.

The unhelpfulness of infrequent or inappropriate contact

In at least one quarter of cases, carers reported that social workers visited infrequently. This resulted in contact that was superficial. At least four carers highlighted that, in their experience, social workers rarely visited throughout the year but, as one carer put it, 'miraculously' appeared two weeks before the children's hearing to gather material for their annual report to the hearing. As the four children in these families had reported, these social workers spent little time with the children themselves. Carers found it deeply offensive when workers wrote reports without consulting them:

When a hearing is coming up they get in touch.

They come once a year when a report for the hearing is due.

They said they would send someone to see us because the panel would want to know, said they would send me a letter and tell me the name of my social worker. Nothing happened. Then the worker came a week before the hearing. She didn't even meet Sandra. She was telling the panel all about Sandra. I said, "Excuse me, you have never seen her. How do you know that?" I haven't seen anyone since.

While at least thirteen carers thought that this superficial contact was not very helpful, at the same time, three others made it quite clear that they would not wish social workers to be in regular contact. These three said they wanted financial support but without the regular intrusion of social workers:

I wouldn't want them continually coming round to see me.

This ambivalence has been found in other studies. O'Brien (2000) found that carers welcomed lower levels of contact after they had been through an initial assessment.

Carers being put under pressure to look after children

In Chapter 3, it was suggested that nine children came to their placements through the initiative of the social work department. Five of these carer families felt strongly that they had been put under considerable pressure to take children in an emergency, to which they had agreed for the sake of the children. Such requests had come with promises of financial and practical help which did not materialise. Families felt abandoned and extremely let down when social workers seemed to disappear shortly after the placement had begun. In one case, a young aunt and her husband had been asked to care for two children. In spite of their misgivings about taking on two school age children, they were persuaded to do so. She described about becoming a young parent and feeling completely de-skilled:

You don't have children until you can afford them but we suddenly had children without preparing, without having a collection of things for them. We had no resources. We had no experience of getting them enrolled but they seemed quite confident that I should cope.

A grandmother had already taken two children and was put under pressure by the social work department to take their siblings when the situation at home deteriorated. This carer was also caring for an adult son with a severe disability. She felt very guilty when she had to refuse:

I said I can't take another two, another two grandchildren. I said I can't take a seven year old and a three year old. I think she [daughter] really believed that I would take all her children and that was really, really hard for me to say to social work department "Please don't bring her child to me because if you bring it I'll no be able to - no. Don't even let me see the baby because I'll be going, oh yes, please".

Lack of clear eligibility criteria for practical and financial help

As Chapter 6 revealed, many carers' families were under considerable financial pressure. The biggest complaint about social work departments was where carers were not able to get the continuing financial support that they felt they needed:

I got £50 for school uniform. I went back a year later for the same. It was quite a struggle.

A major issue for carers was a lack of transparency about services that might be on offer while a related issue was that of not knowing what criteria underpinned financial help:

I find it a bit secretive, social workers are a secret society. Well, you don't know what you're entitled to.

In the view of at least one quarter of the study's carers, the system was not transparent and depended on the decisions of individuals. Consequently, it was seen as being inequitable and unfair. This was exemplified by two amusing stories from carers themselves: the tale of two grannies and the tale of the social worker and the bed. These accounts were given from the perspectives of carers. The first story was told to the researcher independently by both grandmothers. The stories serve to illustrate carers' perceptions of unfairness of the social work system and the perceived power of individual social workers.

There were two grandmothers, who were best friends and who lived across the street from each other. Both had very low incomes and each looked after a kinship child. One had approached the local social work department about help to repair a broken washing machine and was given a section 22 payment towards the cost of repair. Soon afterwards the second grandmother had the same problem and, on the advice of her friend, went to the same office of the same social work department to get help. She cited the case of her friend but was told that no such help was available and she would have to pay for any repairs. The grandmother was outraged but added that she had probably made the situation worse by shouting at the social worker!

Another kinship carer, who was looking after three children, had been asking for help to get an extra bed for one of the children for six years! One day last year, a social worker visited the family, sat on one of the children's beds and broke it. A voucher for a replacement bed and another one arrived the following week. The grandmother commented: "I've never seen help come that quick. I'll have to invite more of them over to sit on my other beds!"

Carers' wish lists about social work and support

One of the aims of the study was to gather information about what would improve life for carers in their role of being a kinship carer. Each carer was asked to give the research team a wish list. Some carers had already touched on the services they appreciated and those they would have liked. Asking them for a 'blue skies' wish list gave them a further opportunity to expand their views. The major items on the wish lists were:

  • adequate financial support
  • acknowledgement and recognition for their role
  • having access to the same services as foster carers
  • improved information and transparent criteria for services

Adequate financial support

Inadequate financial support was one of the major issues raised by carers that they wished to see changed. As shown in Chapter 6, many carers said that they were financially worse off having taken a kinship child. Not surprisingly, therefore, top of carers' wish lists was the issue of financial help. Eighteen of the 24 carers specifically said they would like more financial help. Some carers compared themselves unfavourably to foster carers and thought it unjust that they were looking after children with inadequate support whereas foster carers were paid much more. Others felt that their role was different from that of foster carers and they might not be entitled to such a large payment. However, the consistent and overwhelming view from the study was that family obligation should be rewarded financially in some way:

How can you give kids the best if you don't have the money to back it up? All kids need lots of things, new clothes, food, basics and also the extras, you know like a bike, things to play with, holidays - and grandparents and other family members are expected to pay for that. When they are in foster care they get money for that.

I know foster parents get £240 per week per child. I don't have that kind of money coming into my house every week. Even if they gave us £40 a week, I think the majority would be happy. But as it stands, we get nothing.

They could give us something. If the children had been taken into care it would cost a lot more.

I don't see myself any different from a foster parent. We get nothing. There were three [children] which was bad enough - now there's four. Maybe we shouldn't get as much as foster parents but we need enough to give children good things. I get nothing for him. What I get just barely covers food. He needs things. It's not fair on him.

Acknowledgement and recognition for their role

Adequate financial support represented more than a way to ease financial burdens. It was also seen by carers as recognition of their commitment to the kinship children:

It's obvious we're not doing this for financial reasons because we get none and we're not doing it to get a halo over our heads because there's no-one out there saying, "Oh thank you for doing this and that". It's just that I think that all grandparents should now be setting out the same because society's changed so much that lots of grandparents are now being left with grandchildren and I think you should be out there stating that the government has to change their views on how grandparents are treated.

Five carers used the word 'recognition' when asked what would make looking after their children better for them:

We need recognition from the government who just allows us to be used. Everybody's using us: parents, social workers and the government.

If the government would just acknowledge us that's all. We want to be recognised for what we do.

We are not asking for the world, all we want is a wee bit of recognition and to be treated as equal to other people who are doing the same job as us.

I think the government should be supporting us, recognising grandparents because no-one seems to realise what we're taking on.

Having access to the same services as foster carers

Alongside financial support and recognition, six carers wanted to see changes in the organisation of kinship care so that services would be more supportive to kinship carers. This would include advice on the management of children's behaviour. Three carer families who had received such advice had found it helpful. They were of the view that kinship carers should have access to the same supports as foster carers:

They've been very good, especially over Stephen's problems. I got good advice. I think more of this should be available.

The social work department have neglected us. There should be changes in the way of working with families to be more supportive. Kinship carers should be part of a fostering network and have the same supports that they have.

One carer fostered one child and looked after another as a kinship carer. His view was that many kinship carers would not welcome the rigour of the fostering assessment but, having been through the procedures and training, he was able to compare the support he received in his two roles. The foster care support was, in his view, far more trenchant and responsive.

Alongside the individual and group support, carers identified several different practical services which would help them. These included respite care, holidays and holiday clubs for the children:

Clubs for kids to give us a break especially in the school holidays.

A holiday - a break away from them because it's like being a lone parent with them isn't it?

Finally, there was a strongly held view that there should be clear information given about services on offer. The main reason for this was that carers could then decide what help they might need. Nine carers identified a need for more information:

No-one tells you what you are entitled to. If you manage OK the social work department thinks you do not need any help. They should be helping you by telling you what you are entitled to.

You have to make sure that you get everything in writing from the social work department so you know what you can get. We were very naïve and trusted the social workers. My advice to others would be not to do anything unless it is written down.

One carer summed up the reason for supporting kinship carers. This family had received an excellent social work service. The carer made important connections between social work support the family had received and a positive outcome for the kinship children:

If every family got the support that we had they would be just fine. There needs to be more awareness of children's needs for stable homes and for contact with their families.

The main points

  • only one third of children said they had been consulted about their placements by professionals
  • where children had been consulted in children's hearings, they valued adults listening to their views
  • over two thirds of children saw social workers as people who were helpful to them
  • carers valued social workers who offered timely practical help, especially at the beginning of placements
  • helpful social work services from individual workers included casework and help with managing contact with parents
  • community based groups were an important source of social work support
  • superficial, infrequent contact and changes of social workers were unhelpful
  • carers wanted clearer eligibility criteria for services
  • carers wanted better financial support, recognition for the job they were doing and a wider range of practical services
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