Special feature:
Families need more support to take on caring role

By Connie Osborne 01/05 Updated: 01/05 16:31

THE IDEA of children being cared for by members of their extended family is nothing new, in fact it has been around for centuries.

But increasingly it is being looked at as an alternative to taking children into local authority care or traditional fostering, as research suggests encouraging children and young people to stay with family members when they cannot remain with their own parents has a more positive effect on them. Children and young people feel more secure, happy and integrated into the family, remaining at the placement longer and having fewer moves.

There are estimated to be between 200,000 and 300,000 children in the UK being brought up by members of their extended families or friends - known as kinship carers - and about 77 in Worcestershire although the true figure could be higher as many have informal living arrangements not known to the local authority.

But many of these grandparents or other family members start caring for children in a crisis or emergency situation as a short-term measure, which eventually becomes a permanent residence and as a result they have little or no time to think about the financial responsibility they are taking on, causing them money problems.

Many kinship carers do not receive the same minimum weekly allowance as foster carers - currently £114 for babies and up to £172 for 16 to 17-year-olds. And those outside the system are struggling without any support.

Chris Leaves, who has set-up numerous support groups for kin carers worldwide and looks after her two granddaughters full-time, said there is a need for the everyday and financial issues carers face to be addressed.

"Some people are raising their grandchildren but do not receive any financial support from the local authority. Some people choose not to involve social services as they feel as if they are interfering but others, who do need that extra help, can find it difficult, especially when you want to provide that child with the best life."

A group she recently set-up in Worcestershire has up to 20 families already attending and it is this kind of support group that helps carers feel as if they are not alone in raising a completely different generation.

Nationally and across Worcestershire there is now a growing shift towards providing greater support to kinship carers.

In 2010 the Government published a green paper on the family which stressed local authorities should prioritise rehoming children, who have to be removed from their parents, with a family member first. They should then look at foster caring if the family will not care for the child. But many organisations representing carers argue local authorities sometimes seek to minimise the financial and other support they offer.

Cathy Ashley, chief executive for the Family Rights Group charity which advises families in England and Wales whose children are involved in children's services because of welfare needs or concerns, said: "Family and friend carers have been overlooked for so long now and had to face huge financial struggles."

Worcestershire County Council, however, is aiming to change that with the launch of its new Kinship Strategy which proposes a new payment system should be introduced based on a number of factors such as income, level of training and the level of complication.

The council want to 'top up' the allowance kinship carers receive, so it is equivalent to the age-related foster carer rate.

In addition, if the kinship carer was a foster carer before taking in a child from their family, the council will also add to the amount the carer was previously receiving as a foster carer. Under the proposal the money would be payable until the child is 16-years-old or 18-years-old if in full-time education.

It is hoped the move will encourage more kin carers to apply for what is known as a Special Guardianship Order, which provides a legal foundation for building a permanent relationship between the child and their guardian, while preserving the legal link between the child and their birth family. This will allow children to stay within their family and keep their birth parent involved in their lives.

According to the strategy, this is the most favoured option by existing kinship foster carers and aims to ensure a child or young person is in the right placement, with the right legal status and level of support.

It could mean kin carers, who could become the subject of Special Guardianship Orders, will be eligible to receive an average annual payment of £7,520. It will also save the council an average of £2,547 per a child, compared with the cost of the child remaining looked after in the care of the council.

Coun Liz Eyre, responsible for children's social care and lead member for children's services on the council, said the proposed new system would be easier to understand and was based on what people could bring to the role.

"Society owes a debt to all foster carers including family and friend carers. We are required to revisit the current payments to family and friend carers. This is a matter of parity."

Coun Barry Gandy, who is conducting the review of the strategy before it is officially adopted in June, said: "It is a big sacrifice for grandparents or other family members to give their time to another child, when they have done it all before and got the T-shirt. So we are looking to provide a well deserved financial support."

The move was welcomed by Ms Ashley.

"It is a great start and the fact they are high up the council's agenda is very welcoming and encouraging to carers. There is always room for improvement, but it is good to see they are making progress."

Visit www.frg.org.uk to read more information on the Family Rights Group and find local kinship carers meetings.

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