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Kinship care: A family commitment

6 August 2008

When children in care are placed with relatives or friends, do they do better or worse than children placed with unrelated foster carers – or do kinship carers look after less troubled children in the first place? In the first major study of kinship care in England, Elaine Farmer of the School for Policy Studies, addresses these questions.

The first major study of kinship care in England addresses these questions directly by comparing the characteristics, progress and outcomes of children placed with kin (family and friends) with those of children placed with stranger foster carers.  It also looks at the circumstances of kinship carers and the difficulties they face in obtaining support  and in dealing with family relationships.  This is important information for social work practitioners, especially as –partly as a result of this study’s findings - the Government is strongly promoting kinship care and the proportion of children in care who are placed with kin (11 per cent in 2007) is set to rise.

This study, funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, involved the participation of four local authorities, three of whom had a sizeable black and minority ethnic population.  Together they provided data on 2,240 children, who were in placement with a kinship carer or with an unrelated foster carer.  We analysed the basic data on these children, then reviewed the case files of 270 children, half of whom were living with kin and half with stranger foster carers on a set date, providing for a two-year follow-up.  We also interviewed a sub-sample of 32 kin carers, their social workers, parents and children.  Grandparents formed the largest group of kin carers (45 per cent), followed by aunts and uncles (32 per cent) and friends (18 per cent).  A few children were cared for by cousins or siblings.  Most children with kin were fostered, but some were on residence orders or were supported as children in need by children’s services.

The children in the two kinds of placement turned out to be remarkably similar in terms of their high levels of emotional and behavioural difficulties, the many adversities they had experienced and their characteristics.  Both groups were difficult to look after.  In contrast, the kin carers were much more disadvantaged than the stranger foster carers.  Significantly more were lone carers (27 per cent v 14 per cent), mostly lone women , living in overcrowded conditions (35 per cent v 4 per cent); many more had a disability or chronic illness (31 per cent v 17 per cent) and experienced financial hardship (75 per cent v 13 per cent).  Moreover, they made sacrifices to take in the children, often giving up a job or postponing retirement, experiencing strain in their marriages or becoming socially isolated.

Threats from parents were frequent, yet kin carers received relatively little help from social workers and fewer services overall than stranger foster carers.  Their most pressing needs were for adequate financial payment, assistance with children’s behavioural difficulties and with children’s contact with their parents.  Many kin carers were valiantly struggling alone to bring order to these children’s fragmented lives.  Whilst some social workers were very sensitive to the needs of kin carers, there was sometimes an attitude from managers that kin should manage without help.

The study challenged some myths: it is not true that more black and minority ethnic children are placed with kin carers (as in the US) but the reverse, nor do kin carers more often take sibling groups.  We also found that placements with kin were most successful when children were placed under the age of ten. 

Children did equally well in both types of placement.  A major difference was that by follow-up the placements with kin had lasted longer, partly because many stranger foster placements were only short-term but also because of the kin carers’ very high levels of commitment.  This led them to persevere beyond the point at which unrelated carers conceded defeat.

Kinship care occupies an uneasy position on the boundary between the public and private spheres of caring, and this leads to a situation where some kin carers struggle to care for needy children with low levels of support and financial help.  At present kin carers’ willingness to continue against the odds benefits the children they look after, but good outcomes for children are sometimes achieved at the expense of their carers.  We concluded that there is a need for an authoritative national policy framework to improve the situation of kin carers and the children they look after.

Professor Elaine Farmer, Centre for Family Policy and Child Welfare, School for Policy Studies

For more information, read the Executive Summary.

Book: Elaine Farmer and Sue Moyers  (2008) ‘Kinship Care: Fostering Effective Family and Friends Placements’, Jessica Kingsley.

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