CEO Blog: The amazing positive potential of kinship care

Michael O'Toole responds to a recent File on 4 programme on Special Guardianship Orders (SGOs) and reflects on Mentor's ongoing work with kinship carers in Scotland and England.

15 March 2016 | CEO Blog

Over the past week I have taken some time to consider my reaction to a File on 4 programme, ‘Special Guardianships: Keeping it in the Family?’ As CEO of a charity that supports kinship carers – that is, family and friends who look after children when their birth parents are unable to do so, often under the legal framework of Special Guardianship Orders (SGOs) – I was uncertain whether my initial response had been overly defensive. However, a report that posed the question, “does it work?” without considering the positive influence that so many special guardians have on children in their care does seem slightly unbalanced.

The tone of the report was characterised by an overture halfway through the programme: “I’ve come to Devon, where a little girl is growing up with the profound consequences of being given to a relative who should never have been made her special guardian.” The four examples chosen to represent special guardianship, and by extension kinship care, included family breakdown, child neglect, sexual abuse, and the use of child benefit and allowances for drugs and gambling.

File on 4 begins from the premise that councils like to grant SGOs – ``placements of convenience`` that shift responsibility away from the local authority – and, whether deliberate or not, the report leaves the impression that family members make wholly unsuitable carers.

First, it is clear that there have been a number of serious breaches of child protection and welfare, for which the various local authorities must be accountable. Those councils that did comment on the programme assured listeners that procedures had been revisited as a result of these cases. Lessons must be learnt to ensure that we provide better protection to some of our most vulnerable children.

But we should be equally clear that these cases are not reflective of special guardians, kinship carers, or indeed social work practice. File on 4 begins from the premise that councils like to grant SGOs – “placements of convenience” that shift responsibility away from the local authority – and, whether deliberate or not, the report leaves the impression that family members make wholly unsuitable carers.

I have had the privilege of meeting a number of kinship families, some of them under SGOs, others under equivalent legislation in Scotland, and still more that are informal arrangements. I am continually inspired by their stories: the personal, social and financial sacrifice made by relatives to nurture children, to help them overcome early experiences and form secure attachments; and the resilience of children themselves, and their ability to grow and thrive in a stable, loving, family environment.

Nowhere in Radio 4’s report do these types of stories appear. And this is particularly damaging when it concerns an issue that has a relatively low level of public awareness. Kinship carers often speak of the stigma they and their children experience, both from friends and colleagues and from professionals. This stigma can have a negative impact on children’s wellbeing, especially at school; it heightens the sense of social isolation, leading to increased stress and anxiety among carers and guardians; and it may even affect access to support services. File on 4 has perpetuated the negative representation that causes this stigma at a time when we should be challenging stereotypes: as a spokesperson for Northumberland County Council stressed, “in most cases, special guardianship is a positive thing [that] gives children long-term security.”

I am continually inspired by `{`kinship carers'`}` stories: the personal, social and financial sacrifice made by relatives to nurture children, to help them overcome early experiences and form secure attachments; and the resilience of children themselves, and their ability to grow and thrive in a stable, loving, family environment.

It is all the more disappointing because the report did raise some important issues about access to support services. The story of Hazel,  a great aunt who “simply had no idea how to handle some of the very extreme behaviour [that her] two children exhibited,” highlights the need for targeted information and training for kinship carers – something that Mentor is developing in Scotland – and improved access to specialist support services when necessary. Perhaps this mix of guidance and support could have prevented Hazel’s family breaking down; certainly it would have averted such tragic consequences.

Returning to the (slightly modified) question then, “Kinship care: does it always work?” There are exceptions, as File on 4 has shown, highlighting a need to improve procedures to ensure that these failures never happen again. But there are also some 200,000 children living with relative carers in the UK, the overwhelming majority of whom are happy and healthy, benefiting from a stable, family environment. A swath of research shows that children in kinship care do as well as peers in foster care and better than those in residential care, which is pertinent when we consider the impossible alternative of finding 200,000 new foster carers and adopters. Kinship care families face challenges but with support, such as our Families Together programme, they can thrive and provide the secure home which is so important in building young people’s confidence and self-esteem.

This is the real picture of kinship care: thousands of people often sacrificing their careers, pension plans, social lives and financial security to look after a family member, and thousands of children and young people thriving as a result of their care and love. Rather than this wholly negative perspective on the SGOs and by extension kinship care, why not use this discussion to start a debate about how to improve support for all kinship carers, so that those in their care have the same opportunities to thrive as every other child?