Local authorities leave family and friends carers to fend for themselves
Family and friends carers, who are raising some of the nation’s most vulnerable children, are being left to fend for themselves and suffer significant levels of hardship as local authorities fail to implement central government policy, according to major new research from advice charity Family Rights Group.
When children are unable to live with either of their parents, official guidance stipulates they should be enabled to live with a member of their extended family or social network, provided this is feasible and in the child’s best interests. Yet one of the largest series of studies to date, by Family Rights Group, in partnership with Oxford University’s Centre for Family Law and Policy, has uncovered a major lack of support for family and friends carers or ‘kinship carers’ and the estimated 250,000 children living with them.
The studies (can be downloaded below), which include: a survey of more than 490 carers raising more than 750 children; 95 in-depth interviews; an analysis of government data and a Freedom of Information request to local authorities, show:
• One in five children (20%) being cared for by a friend or family member had first been placed in unrelated foster care before eventually being moved to a kinship arrangement, creating twice the upheaval and placing unnecessary burdens on an already stretched care system
• Forty-five per cent of English local authorities had not published a family and friends care policy, more than five months after the government required them to do so 
• Almost half of carers (44%) surveyed said they had received no practical help from their local authority and 95 per cent identified at least one form of support they had needed, but not received – most mentioned several. The great majority – more than 70 per cent – rated the support they had received from their local authority as poor or very poor
• Seventy-six per cent of carers surveyed felt they did not have enough understanding of the legal options and the implications for the level of support they would receive to make informed decisions 
• Interviews with carers show that more than a third (38%) of children living with family and friends carers suffer emotional and behavioural problems and many have learning and physical disabilities
• Carers bringing up those children face significant challenges, with almost two-thirds having raised stress levels – twice the national average – and 38 per cent exhibiting high levels of stress
Family Rights Group research studies
Understanding family and friends care – Summary March 2012
Family Rights Group advises families whose children are involved with or need children’s services because of welfare needs or concerns. Its chief executive, Cathy Ashley, said: “Family and friends carers gain a lot of love and satisfaction from their role but it often has significant personal, mental and financial costs, which are exacerbated by the lack of support from local authorities.
“We know that the system simply cannot cope with the increasing numbers of children going into care – there’s a shortage of foster carers and there are huge delays in the court system. Consequently many children end up going through multiple moves, which can have a devastating impact on their lives.
“Our research shows many local authorities are not fully exploring and supporting opportunities to place children with family and friends, who can offer the security, continuity and love they so desperately need. These people are relieving a great deal of pressure from the state care system and acting in the best interests of incredibly vulnerable children, benefiting the rest of society. They deserve better. The amount and type of support carers receive from local authorities appears to bear little or no relationship to the child’s or carer’s needs, which is absolutely shocking.
“Councils’ failure to help and support people through the legal minefield when they are raising children that would otherwise be the authority’s responsibility is a dereliction of duty. The consequence is that carers, and, by direct implication, the children, are denied the legal, financial and practical support they are rightly entitled to.”
Paternal grandmother Irene and her husband look after their seven-year-old granddaughter ‘B’ and ‘B’’s half-sister, ‘A’, aged nine, who Irene refers to as her ‘gift of a granddaughter’.
She says she has been through hell and back with Cambridgeshire Social Services in a two-and-a-half year battle to gain a Special Guardianship Order, which was granted in January 2007.
The mum’s partner is believed to have caused non-accidental injuries to ‘A’ in April 2003, when she was four months old, and she was placed into foster care until her mother became pregnant with ‘B’ in 2004, at which point ‘A’ went back to live with her. Both girls were then subsequently removed from their mum in April 2005, which was when Irene and her husband decided to take on the children, even though only ‘B’ was a blood relative of theirs.
Irene said: “My involvement with social services was very upsetting and dispiriting. They backtracked on what they said and wanted to remove ‘A’ from us. They threatened to take my granddaughter if we did not let her go but I said no, they’re staying together.
“The council made me give up work as a nurse. They told me if I didn’t the children would not be placed with me. That was my career gone but the children’s needs came first. I sacrificed a lot but we felt that’s what we needed to do.
“This experience was very stressful. I served in the air force, and I’m a very strong character but they turned me into someone who easily broke down in tears because of the stress. I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid to open the door – we just did not know what social services were going to say or do next.”
Cathy Ashley added: “There has been a lot of talk from the Government recently about adoption but very little focus on alternatives for children who cannot live with their parents. We hope this report will highlight the incredibly important role family and friends carers are playing in providing permanent care for some of the country’s most vulnerable children.
“While the recent Government statutory guidance has helped to raise the issue of support for family and friends carers, there is considerable room for improvement. We want to see local authorities being audited and properly funded to ensure that guidance is being effectively implemented across the country. At present, that clearly isn’t happening.
“In the longer term, legislation is required to establish and fund a support framework and a national financial allowance for family and friends carers.
“The Government must also rethink changes to legal aid, which are going through the House of Lords today, which could further disadvantage carers resulting in a nonsensical situation where some family members cannot afford to obtain a permanent secure legal order for a child, who could otherwise end up in state care, at a significantly greater cost to the exchequer.”