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Value kinship carers properly

12 May 2023

Grandparents and others who raise children need more support, says Mark Oakley

Mark Oakley

Mark Oakley and his grandmother, Dorothy Lewis, who raised him after his parents divorced when he was aged two

Mark Oakley and his grandmother, Dorothy Lewis, who raised him after his parents divorced when he was aged two

AS I fed my 101-year-old grandmother the other day, spooning the easy-to-swallow yogurt gently into her mouth as she lay in bed, my eyes filled with tears as I thought of how she must have done the same for me, more than 50 years ago.

My parents divorced when I was aged two, and, although my father was granted custody, it was my grandmother who quickly stepped in to care for me. Looking back now, I understand much more of the sacrifice that she made, having already brought up three children of her own.

As I grew up, she was always there. She was the one I went home to, the one who came to see me in school plays, the one to whom I gave roses at my ordination, the one who scoured the Church Times each week to see whether I had written anything in it. Simply because of her love and pride in me, I have never felt that I lost out in my life.

Today, people who are doing what my grandmother did are called “kinship carers”. About half the kinship carers in this country are grandparents, but they can often be older siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, or family friends.

Such carers are currently raising more than 162,000 children in England and Wales. I am now a registered foster carer, trying to give some younger people a little something of the same support that I needed.

Kinship carers, however, are looking after more than double the number who are in foster care, but most of them do not receive the same financial, emotional, or practical support that foster carers receive. In a recent survey of more than 1500 kinship carers by the charity Kinship, eight in ten said that they were failing to receive crucial support. More than one third of these said that they might no longer be able to care for their kinship children. This would put thousands of children at risk of entering the care system.

MOST kinship carers do not hesitate to do the right thing, and, in the process, their own lives are often turned upside down. Some spend life savings; others give up jobs, or have to move home. Most do not receive any financial support, and are forced to borrow money or spend their pension pots. Retirement plans frequently go out of the window.

Similarly, most kinship carers do not receive any support, advice, or training. They usually struggle to know where to look for these. Unlike other families, kinship carers have no legal entitlement to “kinship leave” to settle children into their home, and so some are forced to leave their workplace. Neither do they receive legal aid to attend court proceedings that affect the child’s placement with them.

Add to these enormous challenges the fact that most children growing up in kinship care do not receive any access to emotional, educational, or mental-health support, and it is easy to understand why kinship carers frequently feel very alone in trying to manage the complex needs and challenging behaviour that can arise from the trauma of abuse, neglect, violence, or parental death.

For all these reasons, becoming a kinship carer can be a very isolating experience — sometimes coming at the cost of a relationship or friendships. Many feel that they do not know anyone else who comprehends what they are going through, and they struggle to find emotional support.

IN FEBRUARY, it was encouraging that the Government, responding to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, said that it would create the first-ever kinship-care strategy, promising funds for practical and emotional support for carers.

Details will follow, and will need to be carefully scrutinised, because the Government needs to make a commitment to the long-term and sustainable funding that local authorities need if they are to deliver reforms. It is vital that we work towards equalising support between kinship families and foster and adoptive families: financial, training, leave, and children’s welfare.

Kinship care keeps children in their family networks, and can often maintain better connections between children and their siblings and family members, keeping them closer to home, their friends, and school. The work and commitment of our kinship carers need to be valued properly. They provide stability that enables children to be healed and flourish. To lose these carers would add yet another stress on the children, besides placing a great burden on the care system — and on its funding by the State.

Our church communities will contain many kinship carers. It is essential and urgent that we support them as best we can, whether that means signposting them to the Kinship charity’s support and advice service (www.kinship.org.uk), or by starting a local support group for such carers.

On the cross, Jesus looked on Mary and asked John to “behold your mother”; and, we are told that, from that moment, “the disciple took her into his own home.” Those who do this are blessing the world, and they urgently need the loving and practical support of all of us.

The Revd Dr Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.

National Children’s Day UK 2023 is on Sunday: www.nationalchildrensdayuk.com

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