Sandra didn’t start out as a family support worker. In fact, she went back to study and gained her qualification in childcare and education once her children were all in college.
After graduating, Sandra worked in Musselburgh, just outside Edinburgh. Her work included both childcare and outreach in the local community, and it was through this part of the job – working with families who weren’t always accessing help – that Sandra first came to know about Kinship Care. As she put it to me when I sat down with her, “I worked with families that were at risk of getting their children removed and then, through that, I got to know families that had taken the children on. I thought – these people don’t get any support!”
Sandra tried to find out where the carers she met might go for information. “I told them… I can’t support you in any way, but there’s an organization called Mentor! And that’s how I got to know about Mentor, because one of the Project workers had come in and left the Kinship Care guides – and that’s how I got involved”. When a job came up with Mentor’s Families Together project, Sandra jumped at the chance to join us. She applied, got the job and never looked back.
Mentor’s work around Kinship Care in Scotland is a good illustration of how to develop effective programmes through research and use this to influence policy. When the Scotland Office first opened in 2008, it had funding to find out just how far Kinship Care families were being overlooked and what kind of support they might need. The research that Mentor did in this area flagged up how ‘invisible’ many Kinship Care families were. It also provided a platform to engage people in conversations about how this might change. This work is still going strong today and Mentor regularly brings together an advisory group of kinship carers to discuss what progress has been made raising awareness around Kinship Care in Scotland and what barriers to effective support still exist. This advocacy work dovetails with the delivery of after-school clubs and kinship carer groups in partnership with Big Hearts Community Trust in Edinburgh and our Kinship Connections training with carers across Scotland.
One of the challenges with Kinship Care is how complex it can be, especially when it comes to different forms of care and knowing what families are entitled to when you are working to support them. Sandra’s learning journey and how she built up her knowledge in this area after she started working for Mentor illustrates just how hard it was at the time for even family support and social workers to access the right information. As Sandra put it to me, “I knew about the affects it could have on the family, but I had no idea what was out there for kinship carers. So, that was all totally new to me. Which, when you think about it – it’s ridiculous that people [who were working in the area] didn’t always have easy access to information. If we didn’t have access, how’s a carer – who’s under so much stress, supposed to find it?”
Today, this is a big part of Sandra’s job, alongside providing support to kinship carers through group work and training sessions. The latter, she thinks, can be especially helpful when delivered in an accessible, open and non-judgmental way. Mentor’s Kinship Connections training helps carers understand more about the effects of trauma on children, as well as providing training around attachment and how to navigate bereavement. Sandra said to me about this work, “[It was] brilliant, because it addressed attachment. Carers hear things like, ‘he’s got attachment issues’ a lot, and they think – what’s attachment? What do we do with it? So – a lot of the carers loved that part of the course because it showed them why the children have some of their behaviours but, more importantly, how to deal with them”. The training also focuses on topics like children’s relationship to technology, which carers also said they found very useful. Partly this is because a lot has changed in this area since their own children were young.
Sandra’s work with carers intersects with the support that Mentor and our partners Big Hearts Community Trust also provide for children in Kinship Care. After-school clubs and family days (to name two examples) give these children the space to build up confidence and trust by participating in activities with other young people who understand where they’re coming from. This may seem like a small thing, but as Sandra puts it, “A lot of them can’t fit in so easily to after-school clubs, brownies, that sort of stuff, because they already feel isolated and they’re just waiting to be put out. It’s hard because they’re meant to turn up at school every day and just carry on as if everything’s normal. If you were an adult and had gone through that – you could express it. For a child, it’s harder and so that’s what sometimes makes participating hard for them”.
This is why the activities at Big Hearts are so important. In Sandra’s words, “We never ever say to them, ‘this is because you’re in kinship care’. Ever. But you see occasions where they get this light bulb moment. One time, for example – we were away on a residential and there were girls – 13 to 14 years-old – getting a bit stroppy. And then one of them said, ‘well, you know – I stay with my Gran too!’ and they all sort of stopped and said, ‘I stay with my Gran! I stay with my Auntie!’ They realized together that they all had that in common. It’s the same at Big Hearts – they hear everyone shouting, ‘Gran!’, ‘Uncle!’, ‘Auntie!’ and so the kids just realize, we’re all the same here – I’m not running out of school shouting ‘Granny’ or ‘Nanna’, where most people are running and shouting, ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’”.
Though awareness around Kinship Care and the challenges that these families can face has been growing over the past decade there is still a lot of work to be done. Sandra, for one, is looking forward to the future of Mentor’s Kinship Care work and her work with Big Hearts supporting and empowering carers with the information and skills they say they need.
If you are a kinship carer in Scotland and you want more information, visit the National Kinship Care Website for Scotland at: www.kinship.scot