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.

8 Providing social work services for kinship care

Kinship care - a square peg in a round hole (Mandelbaum 1995).

In the last chapter, children and their carers gave their views on the social work services they found helpful and the changes they wanted to see to improve kinship care. This chapter looks at kinship care from the point of view of social work services. Most of the information in this and the next chapter is derived from the survey of the 32 local authorities.

This chapter examines the key roles and tasks in providing kinship care, as seen from the perspective of the local authorities and catalogues the range of services local authorities say they provide directly, or facilitate others to provide, for children and their carers.

The main areas explored are:

  • assessment of placements
  • decision-making in kinship care
  • services provided for kinship care
  • training and support for social workers

The literature and research on assessing kinship care

How kinship carers are assessed is at the heart of where the threshold lies between family obligations and state intervention. In normal circumstances, families would be expected to care for their children, with appropriate help from universal and other services as the need arises. In kinship care, the desire to avoid intrusion into family life can clash with issues of safeguarding and promoting welfare.

Unlike many traditional foster carers, kinship carers have come to their role unexpectedly rather than choosing to look after children as an occupation. Many kinship carers, as earlier chapters have shown, may already have their own health or housing needs, which require services from a range of agencies. These carers may also be service users. Social workers will therefore find themselves not only assessing the child's needs and seeking to reassure themselves the placement is safe but may also be asked to respond to the service needs of the carers and other members of the family.

Another major issue, elaborated in Chapter 3, is that the family may often initiate the kinship placement. As O'Brien's study showed, social workers experienced major role confusion between their assessment and support roles and were uncomfortable with many aspects of the assessment process that the relatives had to contend with. Additionally, relatives did not understand the process of assessment and found it intrusive (O'Brien 2000).

As Chapter 7 indicated, intrusion was not an issue for the majority of carers in this study, although a minority did worry that any extra funding from the social work department might come with attached strings of more visits from social workers. More commonly, families were aggrieved because of the dearth of help at the outset of the placement and the lack of transparency in criteria for services. The issue for the kinship carers was frustration, where they had identified the solutions but the help they needed to achieve them was not available.

The research suggests that the sources of difficulty for social workers in kinship care centre on three factors:

  • they are trained to analyse the problems of their clients, in particular the individuals who causes the problem and come up with solutions
  • the social worker in traditional fostering is seen as the expert who decides whether traditional foster carers are suitable
  • the social worker holds a central power position in traditional foster care, being in control of information by deciding what the child, parents and carers are told about each other

In kinship care, it is the family who are central. The family are both the problem and the solution. One part of the family - i.e. the parents - may have caused the need for care but another part of the family - the carers - provide the solution. Often, if a child is placed before social work services become involved, the worker is presented with a fait accompli about who is a suitable carer from the family's perspective.

Given the different dynamics in the relationship between social workers and kinship care families, it is not surprising that the literature suggests a systemic and network-centred approach to assessment and decision-making in kinship care, working in partnership with families and helping them to find their own solutions. This model, it is argued, plays to family strengths and encourages inclusive decision-making (O'Brien 1999; Ryburn 1993 and 1996; Portergen and van der Neut 1999). The model has been supported in practice through using techniques of family group conferencing (see, for example, Hamilton 2004).

Family owned decision-making is not confined to the adults in the family. At the centre of any assessment and decision-making about kinship care are the children who are to be looked after, who have a right to be consulted about their wishes and feelings. Although consultation with children is firmly embedded in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, as Chapter 7 showed, there was considerable variation in the extent to which children had been consulted about the placement. Though, in some cases, their age at placement would have influenced the nature of the discussion, the fact that this was not a normal part of the decision-making process is a serious omission.

Assessment and the legal requirements

Assessment and decision-making about the suitability of a placement for a particular child are required areas of social work practice for any child looked after by the local authority away from home. No matter the route by which children have become looked after, local authorities have the same duties in respect of all looked after children (section 17 Children (Scotland) Act 1995).

The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 guidance and regulations also makes no distinction between legal categories in relation to assessment of children's needs:

The gathering of information is the first step in assessing the need for a child to be looked after and is the foundation for future action. Assessment aims to identify the needs and problems which face the child and other members of the family and their potential for relief, reduction or change. It should highlight ways in which the problems can be addressed, needs can be met and strengths can be built upon (Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997, The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 Guidance and Regulations, Vol 2 Children Looked After by Local Authorities, p. 2).

The guidance goes on to say that information gathered in assessment forms the basis for the care plan which is required for each looked after child (Regulation 3). Guidance is clear about the purpose of assessment:

The information collected should be evaluated to assess:

  • the specific needs or difficulties which gave grounds for concern, or which are revealed as a result of the assessment process. The assessment should focus on the nature of the needs or difficulties; the possible reasons for them, and the likelihood of improving the child's situation or behaviour either through looking after the child or any alternative forms of action
  • the availability of care, support and guidance for the child and family including the extended family which should be considered along, where applicable, with the family's willingness and ability to change
  • the level and extent of the risk involved for the child (and, where offending is a factor, the risk to others) of remaining in his or her current home or moving to a different placement
    (Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997, The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 Guidance and Regulations, Vol 2 Children Looked After by Local Authorities, p. 3).

The minimum content of information for assessment of any looked after child is contained in Schedule 1, Regulation 3(2)(a), (The Arrangements to Look After Children (Scotland) Regulations 1996).

Assessing kinship care in the 32 local authorities

The survey revealed that, for the main part, there was a traditional approach to assessment across the 32 local authorities with the social worker at the centre of the process. There was an emphasis on safeguarding and meeting minimum requirements in Schedule 1 of Guidance and Regulations (Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997), tailoring these to the different parts of the legislation under which children were placed. Traditional methods of assessing and approving foster carers were applied to kinship carers where children were accommodated. The survey also revealed the beginnings of a shift in methods of assessment, with a third of local authorities moving towards using family group conferencing for decision-making and care planning, although only eight said they were fully using such an approach at the time of the survey (January 2004).

A varying range of assessments

There was a complex, varied range of assessments or checks, which were largely based on an individual local authority's operational policies and procedures in relation to supporting kinship placements. In just under one third of cases, separate procedures for assessment of kinship care had been developed where the authority mainly used kinship care in relation to supervision orders. At least six local authorities said they were in the process of reviewing their procedures and were working towards a more standardised system for kinship carers.

There were varying attitudes towards the use of assessment for children looked after in kinship care. Three authorities held the view that children looked after in kinship placements had the full status of looked after children and therefore should be treated in the same way as all other looked after children, irrespective of any different sections of the legislation by which they had come to be looked after.

The most common position adopted by the majority (25) was to relate assessment to the legal categories for looked after children and follow the minimum requirements demanded for each category within Regulations and Guidance of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. In emergency placements, for example, therewere fairly standardised system of 'checks' which followed the requirements in Regulations 14 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, Regulations and Guidance Vol 2, Looked After Children (Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997) . If there were issues about immediate financial support of families, the assessment could include recommendations for using section 22 budgets to support families on a temporary basis.

At least one authority referred explicitly to trying to implement 'no order' and 'minimum intervention' principles in relation to assessment, applying a light touch and making it as least intrusive as possible, provided the minimum requirements of the legislation were met. This seemed to be a misunderstanding of the minimum intervention principle. As McRae suggests, 'minimum' is not the same as 'minimal'. The spirit of the legislation allows for the provision of appropriate preventive action consistent with a proactive family support 'to help parents discharge their parental responsibilities and rights effectively' (McRae 2006, p. 101). As Chapter 6 showed, kinship carers were clear that the most effective help for them was financial help, or a combination of adequate financial support and casework or groupwork services.

There were four local authorities who thought that, over and above meeting the minimum requirements, there should be a 'sliding scale' of information gathered within an assessment, based on how long children would be staying with carers or on the complexity of children's problems.

Assessment or checks?

The different procedures adopted by the local authorities to reflect the letter of the law also showed that the term 'assessment' is interpreted in different ways. Some authorities used what they called 'checks' required both for emergency and section 70 supervision requirement placements under Regulations 14 and 15 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. These local authorities were following the Guidance, which states that assessment for supervision requirement placements can use the same criteria as that required for emergency placements (see Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997, The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 Guidance and Regulations, Vol 2 Children Looked After by Local Authorities, p. 69).

In these authorities, the term 'assessment' would be reserved for a full foster placement assessment of the carer under Regulation 7 of the Fostering of Children Regulations 1996. Others variously described using 'mini-assessments' or basic assessments for other types of placements in kinship care, to distinguish them from Regulation 7 requirements for fostering placements.

The complexity of this distinction between 'checks' and 'assessments' could be altered by other factors. In at least two local authorities, the minimum Schedule 1 checks for section 70 placements were not considered enough by local children's hearings. The two authorities said their children's panels demanded that a full fostering assessment be carried out. One authority also commented on the tension between the respective powers of social work departments and children's hearings. The assessment of a kinship placement was presented to the fostering panel who made a decision internal to the social work department. The final decision to place the child rested with the children's hearing, which could overturn the decision of the fostering panel.

In all 32 cases, authorities said they carried out basic checks. These are the same as checks required for an emergency placement within Children (Scotland) Act 1995 requirements (see Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997, p. 131). At least five authorities specified that such checks would include police checks through Disclosure Scotland, health checks on the carers, and ascertaining the child's views about the placement.

Two examples of assessment practice for section 70 cases follow, both of which demonstrate that assessment was very much seen as procedural, with the social worker acting as assessor and decision-maker. In both cases there was no emphasis on the needs and strengths of the family or the child. The first example is characterised by an absence of information on the children's parents and consultation with the child. The focus is very much on risk assessment, procedural checks and compliance with the minimum requirements in law.

Practice example 1

Prior to placing a child in an immediate placement the social worker must:

  • interview the proposed carer(s), obtain information on details of members of the household, including dates of birth, etc. Obtain permission for Scottish Criminal Records Office and health checks to be undertaken. Obtain details of two personal referees and obtain permission to contact
  • confirm that the person is a friend or relative, see birth certificate(s) and marriage certificate, if not readily available arrange to see at a future date
  • inspect the accommodation, including proposed sleeping arrangements
  • obtain any information about any other persons living in the household (family composition)
  • reach a written agreement with the proposed carer(s)
  • obtain information regarding their family circumstances

What this example does not do is to specify that the child should be interviewed, although it is possible that instructions to gather such information might have been located elsewhere. The second example is not so clear in its instructions but does emphasise the child's perspective. It links assessment of the placement to assessment of finances in order to ascertain whether financial hardship may occur. This was important to this local authority, which had adopted a policy to provide payments which they said were not designed to recompense carers for all the costs involved.

Practice example 2

A social work assessment must be undertaken prior to placement where consideration is being given to placing a child with relatives or family friends and a link carer's payment is being requested, in order to collate the following criteria:

  • the social worker requires to confirm that it is no longer appropriate for the child or young person to remain at home and that the child would otherwise require to be looked after/accommodated by the local authority in either a residential unit or foster home
  • the social worker should interview the proposed carers who may be relatives or family friends and confirm they are willing to care for the child or young person and assess whether they are suitable to meet the needs of the child or young person, at least in the short-term. The social worker should also inspect the accommodation to ensure it is appropriate
  • the social worker should confirm that the proposed carers have some significant link or relationship with the child or young person prior to placing the child
  • the social worker should interview the child in order to ascertain his/her opinion and acceptance of the proposed placement and the child's perspective of the nature of the relationship
  • the social worker should obtain information about any other person living in the household and where the person is over sixteen years, police checks should be undertaken
  • the social worker should make a written agreement with the proposed carer. This is the same agreement as for an emergency placement. See Regulation 13
  • the social worker will make enquiries as to whether or not financial hardship may occur

Several local authorities did say they would adapt any assessment beyond basic checks to take account of children's individual circumstances. Where permanence was intended, a fuller assessment was likely to be made. It was also clear that the depth of assessment could be driven by whether the local authority might have to make financial payments. Documentation from two authorities suggested that the depth of assessment was linked to whether financial support, in the form of a link carer's allowance, was requested by the family.

At least six local authorities commented on their use of section 50 of the Children Act (1975). This section indicates that local authorities can provide financial help to any adults who have custody of a child, other than the parent of the child:

Without prejudice to any existing powers and duties to make payments in respect of the maintenance of children, where custody of the child has been rewarded to a person other than a parent of the child any local authority may make to that person payments for or toward the maintenance of the child.

Section 50 was most commonly used where local authorities were trying to hand over parental responsibility to carers on a permanent basis.

Different standards for kinship care

Apart from not being required to carry out a full foster care assessment with kinship carers, at the heart of the debate for some authorities was the issue of whether carers would pass 'the rigorous test' of a fostering assessment. Accordingly, over half the local authorities adopted a 'fit for purpose' approach to assessing the placement for each individual child. It was difficult to tease out from the survey data just what the concerns about carers might be. In follow-up interviews with some of the social workers of the children in the study, however, it became clear that concerns related to three issues:

  • the standard of basic care in the carer household
  • the ability of the carers to deal with the management of children's behaviour and emotions
  • tensions in the social work role between supervision and support

The following examples give a flavour of these issues:

It's really difficult. You have to weigh the least harmful option. Jenny (carer) would not pass the fostering panel for her standards of care but the alternative is the child going to a foster home.

Gran is very fragile herself. She's needed a lot of help. There is a real generation gap too.

You cross your fingers sometimes and hope it is alright. The MacKay family are that kind of family that won't let you into what is going on. I can't get close to them. I suppose they are worried about losing the children. It's very awkward.

Social workers' comments raise the issue of how they make a judgement about what constitutes a 'good enough' placement for any looked after child. One tension for local authorities in making these assessments was the extent to which they should demand the same standards from kinship carers as they would for stranger foster carers. This is clearly an issue which needs further consideration.

Models of decision-making

As the level of information on which assessments was based varied, so did the process of decision-making. There were several different operational models reported. These may not represent the whole range of operational models, as not every local authority provided detailed documentation. The information supplied provides exemplars of the varied models of decision-making. It was clear that, in all cases, the burden of decision-making rested with the social work department. There was little evidence of families or children being actively involved in the actual decision-making, in spite of the fact that a third of local authorities said they were developing a family group conference approach.

In the most common model, adopted by at least one third of local authorities, decisions were made by a social worker at local level and confirmed by a social work manager, possibly with financial confirmation made at HQ. An alternative to this was for the social worker's assessment to be scrutinised by a resource panel or screening group, then signed off by a social work manager. In one case, a carers' panel scrutinised all applications by carers, including kinship carers for children. As the following example shows, decision-making, like assessment, related not only to the welfare needs of the child but also to accountability for financial payments:

Families/carers who receive link carers' allowance have been through a number of checks, namely, Disclosure (Scotland); area health board and departmental enquiries are made as well as an assessment of the link carers' circumstances and suitability to provide care. The child's care plan and assessed needs are linked to what the link carer can provide. Allowances are paid when the care plan can be met through placement with a link carer. The assessment is completed using the link carers' procedures and criteria. A planning meeting with the family would recommend that an allowance be paid. This recommendation is then scrutinised by a resource screening group and if possible signed off by a manager.

A less common model, but one operated by at least three authorities, was for an assessment by a social worker to be presented to the foster panel for approval in all cases. This was done in recognition of the need to protect and safeguard each looked after child irrespective of the route by which he or she had come to the placement:

We believe all children in a placement deserve the same level of protection and support. Due to this we assess kinship carers and present them to our foster panel and agency decision-maker. We assess using Form F2 ( BAAF) and present this to the fostering panel and agency decision-maker.

Decision-making for a placement under section 25 or section 86

Where children were with kinship carers on the basis of being accommodated under section 25 or were the subject of section 86 parental responsibility orders, in all cases local authorities said they assessed children fully, often using a competency-based method of assessment of carers, such as that developed by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering ( BAAF). In every case, as demanded by the regulations, the social worker brought the assessment to a foster panel. Across the 32 authorities, it was suggested that only a minority of children were accommodated with kinship carers in this way, a view that was borne out by the fact that only one child was accommodated in the study (see Chapter 3).

Decision-making for other children living with their family or friends, including private fostering

Very few children in the survey were the subject of private fostering arrangements, which perhaps reflects the small number of children living in households of friends as opposed to kin.

A second group which came within local authority assessment were children who were, or were about to become, the subject of section 11 orders. There were four children who had this status. Though not looked after, local authorities said they had a number of these children living with relatives. Local authorities included them in their information on kinship care for two reasons. Firstly, local authorities were in the process of helping relatives to gain parental responsibility orders and were assessing whether they might help with legal fees. Secondly, those holding parental responsibility orders might be seeking financial support within section 50 of the Children Act (1975) (see Chapter 9). In these cases, local authorities would apply the same criteria to assessing families as they would for kinship carers seeking financial support, within the possibilities afforded them where children were the subject of a section 70 supervision requirement.

The development of family group conferencing

Although the processes of decision-making were centrally located within social work services or children's hearings, around one third of local authorities said they were exploring the use of family group conferencing as a technique for assessment and decision-making in kinship care. There was evidence of considerable enthusiasm for this model of practice, which was actively being developed in at least six authorities, although one had abandoned the service after a low take-up. One had given priority to the service in its children's services plan. Family group conferences were regarded highly as a means of developing 'family-owned' solutions. Such an approach was seen as highly appropriate in the context of kinship care. Most often, family group conferencing was offered in partnership with one of the large voluntary agencies.

Summarising the 'guddle'

The routes by which children come to kinship care are varied. As the findings from the intensive study data have shown, children in kinship placements may have similar needs but social work responses to these are driven by current legal requirements for assessment of kinship care:

  • where children become looked after in kinship care as foster children they and their carers are assessed fully, as the Fostering of Children (Scotland) Regulations 1996 require.
  • where children become looked after in kinship care as the result of a section 70 supervision requirement, there is no requirement for a full assessment to address the longer term needs of children and their families, although a care plan will be required by the children's hearing. A basic risk assessment, as outlined in Schedule 1, Regulation 3(2)(a), (The Arrangements to Look After Children (Scotland) Regulations 1996) is required. It is very much left to the discretion of local authorities how this is interpreted, although the Guidance and Regulations suggest that this information will be the minimum required (Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997, p. 2). The requirement is for the same checks to be carried out as those in any emergency placement.
  • when children become the subject of a section 11 parental responsibility order, the local authority may elect to support the family financially within section 50 of the 1975 Children Act. Assessment and decision-making in these cases are related to financial assessment.

A presumption of kinship care being short-term

There seems to be a presumption in official guidance (see Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997) that kinship placements will be short-term. The findings of this study show that this is not the case. The majority of children in this study had spent the greater part of their childhood in kinship care. Where children are looked after because they are the subject of a section 70 supervision requirement, the current requirements do not address the need for long-term planning.

Care plans

Once an assessment has been undertaken, there is a requirement to make a care plan for each looked after child. It was outwith the scope of this study to examine the content of care planning in detail. It was, however, heartening that social work departments in the study confirmed that all children with the status of looked after children in kinship care would have a care plan. Where children were the subject of a supervision requirement, the children's hearing would also require a plan. It was clear that the information asked for by children's hearings varies considerably. Some demand a full fostering assessment of children in kinship care. Others do not. Although care plans existed for the children, the evidence from the carers interviewed in the study suggests that plans may be very variable. Further, carers suggested they seldom had a part in shaping plans (see Chapter 7). The findings seem to point to the need for some consistency of approach to care plans for all children looked after in kinship placements, irrespective of their route to becoming looked after.

The range of services on offer

Much of the research has tended to suggest that there is 'a critical gap between needs and services, with many carers falling through the cracks' (see Hunt 2001 p. 62). There are a range of services, which were listed in Chapter 7, that kinship carers identified as being useful. Hunt suggests that there is a need for specific services as well as for a more holistic approach:

In addition to specific service needs identified, the literature suggests that service provision needs to meet a number of cross-cutting requirements. It should, for instance, be customised - tailored not only to the unique needs of kinship families in general but to the needs of the individual family, not just the child or the carers. The aim should be to develop wrap-around services, which address the whole range of need. It should be culturally attuned.… Finally, it should be enabling, building on family's strengths (Hunt 2001 p. 67).

As Chapter 7 showed, both children and carers in the study had much to say about the services they had been given and those they felt should have been on offer. This chapter now describes the services that local authorities provide for children and their kinship carers.

Services available to children and families

In the survey part of the study, local authorities were asked to detail any services they made available to kinship carers and their children. The most common source of support for kinship carers was the allocation of a social worker, whose role was seen as the execution of the care plan in cases where children were the subject of an order or a supervision requirement. Authorities suggested that social work support would be offered in several ways. This included:

  • meeting statutory obligations
  • direct general support from the child's social worker
  • facilitating access to other social workers or services within the local authority's children's services
  • advising on and facilitating access to other support services within the local authority
  • referring to and arranging services with the voluntary and private sectors
  • offering or facilitating support groups for kinship carers
  • offering training

Meeting statutory obligations

As a minimum provision, statutory social work involvement was needed when children were the subject of a supervision requirement, or an order, or were accommodated. This mainly involved the child's social worker constructing a care plan, as well as co-ordinating and arranging any services that were needed to meet the care plan. It also included reviews and reports to children's hearings. In terms of understanding their statutory requirements, local authorities seemed clear about their minimum role. In practice, across at least one third of the authorities, it was the child's social worker, undertaking the statutory enquiries, who most often would be the pivotal individual for any other social work activity.

Three authorities made a point of saying that the full array of services for children in need and looked after children would be available for children looked after by kinship carers, accessed through the social worker. This was expected where there was a care plan. For example:

Kinship carers have access to the same council services as carers of their own or other children. If the child is looked after they will receive support and supervision according to the care plan for the child.

Direct general support from the child's social worker

Within the scope of the survey, it was not possible to identify the frequency or depth of either social work support or additional services across the 32 authorities. All the survey could do was to indicate the range of provision on offer but, as Chapter 7 has shown, social workers did provide a range of services directly. One authority in the survey identified as a good practice example, that every foster or kinship carer would have a minimum of monthly contact from a link worker for the family, as well as contact with the child's social worker.

The more common pattern was that social work involvement was offered as a response to demand on an individual basis, with social workers taking the role of responding to individual need at any one time. Several social workers said they located services for kinship families within their general policy of responding to all children in need. Kinship families would be offered help as they needed it, as this example shows:

It would be fair to say that, whilst there are not currently set policies and procedures in relation to other supports to relative and friends carers, they would be provided with appropriate services and supports as relevant to their circumstances and the needs of the child placed with them, either by, or negotiated by, the child's social worker. Not all these services would be in place automatically at this point in time and it may be a matter of carers requesting something specific or when a particular issue or problem arises that something is provided. For instance, while respite might not be built into the placement initially, it may arise as a need at a later point. It could be provided by other family and friends or through the formal looked after system.

The three authorities who did not distinguish between the support services for foster carers and kinship carers were at pains to point out that services were offered according to the child's needs and status as a 'looked after' child. This, they said, was an example of good practice. It was clear that, where children were fostered with kin, the full range of support available to all foster carers would be on offer. This included a wide range of individual and group support.

Facilitating access to other social workers or services within the local authority's children's services

Alongside any direct support, the child's social worker often acted as a facilitator of other services, a role that was confirmed by both children and families in the intensive study (see Chapter 7). In total, just under half the authorities gave details of other services available within their own local authority children's services. Not all authorities offered all the services cited but details do give an indication of the range of services that might be on offer. These included:

  • family support workers
  • advocacy services
  • childminders
  • day nurseries
  • respite care
  • school social work
  • transport
  • holiday play schemes

There was also evidence of working with youth justice services, both in the statutory and voluntary sectors. Where they were available, social workers facilitated access to mental health support for young people. Accessing services for children with disabilities was also seen as important for kinship carers.

The survey revealed that there was a degree of lateral thinking within social work departments about pulling together services that would address situations where children had several different needs simultaneously. Evidence of the value of this was revealed in the intensive study, where a child might be getting help from a social worker, who would be looking after the child's and family's general welfare. They might also be getting help at school from a school counsellor or guidance teacher. Some children had access to specialist services from a voluntary agency to address issues of loss and change.

Advising on and facilitating access to other support services for adults within the local authority

The same lateral thinking was brought to services for adults in several instances. Just under half the authorities gave examples of helping kinship families to access specialist advice from adults' services, especially in relation to how to deal with individuals with drugs and alcohol misuse - a familiar issue to many of the kinship carers in the intensive study. Several local authorities thought specialist services might be more acceptable to families than mainstream child welfare services, which were sometimes associated with child protection. It was argued that grandparents who had the care of children as a result of parents' drugs and alcohol misuse sometimes felt stigmatised and, at times, isolated from mainstream child welfare services. As a result, they often felt more comfortable receiving support from specialist local authority family support addiction services. It has to be said that this view was not borne out by our intensive study, where carers were generally happy to receive services from the social work department.

At least five authorities said they recognised that kinship carers who are grandparents may have health needs or require social services in their own right. One authority stressed that many older carers would be undertaking several roles simultaneously, in relation to different family members, including the care of their parents. Social work services believed that respite care was a valued service they could offer to families in these circumstances.

Good practice examples

  • one good practice example of facilitating other services was the funding by a large city authority of 14 family support workers in local addiction services, through the community care support fund
  • a second was the development of a flexible respite service, which included a sitter service, and the provision of 'overnights' and longer breaks to meet the needs of grandparent kinship carers, whose families had been specifically affected by addiction. The specification was being drawn up in collaboration with a local association of family support groups (see below). It hosted a link worker and allowed grandparents to have a choice between statutory respite services and the new association family support service

Offering or facilitating support groups for kinship carers

As might be expected, those who were assessed as foster carers had regular access to support groups for carers within the authority. At least five authorities said these were exclusively for carers approved as foster carers. Only two authorities said they opened these groups to kinship carers and made no distinction between them. Three authorities, in large rural areas or island authorities, said they had difficulties running support groups because of geography. Two had abandoned groups because of poor attendance while one authority suggested that continuity was difficult. Consequently, they had adopted a policy of 'one-off' group meetings.

There was evidence of successful use of support groups run by the voluntary sector, especially in large urban areas. Two authorities funded support groups. In one case, the group had become important in providing a viable alternative source of support to statutory social work.

Good practice example

  • In one case, the social work department had given £71,000 to a local association of family support groups from community care funding, to assist them to act as an umbrella group for a network of local family support groups. Part of the money was also to employ a counsellor to support families affected by drugs and/or alcohol. The authority reported that, over time, a significant number of the members of these groups had assumed the care of grandchildren where the child's parents had serious problems with substance misuse.

Referring to, and arranging services with, the voluntary and private sectors

The use of the voluntary sector was seen by social work departments as being a very positive way of supplementing statutory child welfare services. Over one third of authorities specified that they used voluntary sector services for children. Not all had access to every service but the range included specialist voluntary sector prevention of youth crime services, youth drugs services and intensive support programmes. This confirmed the carers' views in the intensive study, as reported in Chapter 7. Additionally, some local authorities said they helped families access benefits advice, family contact and conciliation services, family mediation and specialist alcohol services.

Offering training to kinship carers

The issue of offering training to kinship carers is complex It has been suggested that there may be tensions in offering conventional foster care training to kinship carers, who may not see this as relevant to their needs (see Greef 1999). Carers may need a different approach which builds on their strengths and addresses the issues that they feel are important. The Association of Directors of Social Work and the Fostering Network (2003) have suggested that preparation for becoming a carer may be a more appropriate way of describing the support kinship carers may need. This would incorporate the following areas:

  • what is abuse? - safer caring
  • child development
  • empowering young people

Across the local authorities it was found that, unless kinship carers were assessed as foster carers, it was rare for them to be offered formal training as a matter of course. A more informal method of preparation was often used, which seemed to be appropriate and worked well. The general expectation was that the child's social worker would offer any 'informal' training on child care issues. Some carers who attended support groups had access to 'one off' sessions from specialist workers, such as those from the addictions service. One authority commented that, though they had offered kinship carers access to foster care training groups, there had been a low take-up. They attributed this to kinship carers not seeing their role as 'professionals' but being more motivated by wanting to keep children out of the care system.

The need for sensitivity about offering services

It was clear from the responses of the local authorities that there was awareness that kinship care presented a challenge to them in terms of which services might be appropriately offered. There was clearly a tension between wanting to offer kinship families the services they might need but believing that any services should acknowledge kinship carers' family obligations. On the one hand, kinship carers should have access to any family support services that other families could receive. On the other hand, it was felt that offering services might somehow stigmatise families, (a view not shared by families in the intensive study, as reported in Chapter 7). Services from the voluntary sector were seen as a preferred option. The situation was well summed up by the response from one authority:

Services to relative and friends carers and children should be needs led and therefore provided on the basis of assessed need. This should encompass statutory, voluntary and independent services as appropriate to the needs of the situation. They should not be disadvantaged by virtue of their status in terms of the provision of supports and services. However, the emphasis needs to be on the promotion of family-owned solutions, maintaining children in their own families and communities without the need for the involvement of statutory services wherever possible. Some families find it intrusive and stigmatising to work with the social work service and may be reluctant to put themselves forward or engage with statutory services, thereby denying opportunities for a potentially positive placement or for support when caring for a child. To this end, some families find working or accessing support from the independent and voluntary organisations more acceptable.

The findings point to the need for further debate about the most effective services for kinship care. This debate needs to be grounded in the evidence from research of what works for kinship carers.

Organising and training the professionals to support kinship care

The picture emerges of some confusion about where kinship care lies within services for looked after children. In spite of the fact that children were coming to their placements with a history of parental neglect and other problems, serious enough to warrant the status of becoming a looked after child, local authorities were unsure where to pitch services. They were also unclear about whether kinship care warranted specialist training, such as that given to workers supporting foster families.

Kinship care was not seen by most local authorities as a specialist area of practice that demanded additional training on the needs of kinship carers. Only one local authority had a post dedicated to kinship care. The generally agreed view was that support for kinship carers would be seen as a normal part of children's social work. Training on the procedures for making financial assessments was included in induction training for social workers and others working with families. One authority said they were developing training in this area.

There was a divided view about whether the lead role of supporting kinship carers should rest exclusively with social workers. Most authorities said that they would expect trained social workers to take on this task but around a third also said that kinship care teams would include other experienced workers, such as groupworkers. At least three authorities indicated that experience and skills might be the most important criteria.

These issues were summed up by one local authority:

Although a social work qualification would not necessarily be essential for every member of a team supporting kinship carers, it would be essential that staff have experience and demonstrate skills in working with vulnerable children and/or families in crisis. A good understanding of child care and child development issues would be essential as would skills in relating to children and their carers. Within support teams, some staff should have experience of working with groups of carers as well as providing individual counselling and support. Knowledge and understanding of addiction issues would be a high priority. What is needed is a broader range of skills and experience relevant to providing training and support to kinship, including mediation, anger management techniques, negotiating skills, etc.

The main points

  • there were a range of policies for assessment from a minimal approach to one which assessed all looked after children fully
  • many authorities had a basic standard which they adapted for each child
  • the depth of assessment varied according to the legislation under which they were made with children who were the subject of supervision requirements receiving a more basic assessment than accommodated children in most cases
  • sometimes the depth of assessment was linked to the expected length of placement
  • the process of decision-making was as varied as the information upon which assessments were made
  • there were some developments of a family-led model of decision-making using family group conferencing
  • children had care plans but these had not always be developed in consultation with children and families
  • the most common source of support for kinship carers was an allocated social worker
  • the majority of local authorities distinguished between carers approved as foster carers and the rest. Foster carers had access to a much wider range of supports
  • many local authorities provided access for kinship carers to a wide range of services, such as day care and child minding
  • there was evidence of lateral thinking about using children's and adults' services for kinship carers
  • offering or facilitating support groups for kinship carers is seen as helpful and non-stigmatising
  • informal preparation of kinship carers is seen as preferable to formal training in most cases
  • there was clearly a tension between wanting to offer kinship families the services they might need but believing that any services should acknowledge kinship carers' family obligations
  • only one local authority had a post dedicated to supporting kinship care. For the most part, social workers were expected to work with kinship families as part of their normal duties
  • not all lead staff in kinship care would be social workers but all would require skills in working with children in need and their families
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