Helping families stay together

There are more children in this country raised by kinship carers, commonly grandparents or older siblings, than there are in care or who are adopted. Earlier this week Tristram Hunt MP proposed a package of reforms to enable more children, who cannot live safely with their parents, to be raised by extended family members rather than go into the care system. He also stated that he would take steps to improve support to these children and their carers, for example in relation to school admissions. I would have liked him to go further, so that support is on par with that provided to adopters, such as paid leave for kinship carers so they can settle in the children without having to give up their job and falling into severe poverty. Nevertheless the statement was welcome, as was the amount of time Hunt and Steve McCabe MP spent on Wednesday listening to kinship carers and young people they were raising. One of the carers they heard from was Tom, an uncle who had spent four years fighting the local authority for his baby nephew to live with him. It was Tom who told the local authority that he feared his nephew was in danger. It was Tom who was there for his nephew when the child was accidently injured by his mother, Tom’s sister, during an alcohol binge. This baby, who when in care, had nine placements in the first few months and was later diagnosed with cancer. It was Tom who looked out for his nephew and successfully represented himself in court when the local authority wanted his nephew adopted. Tom’s nephew is now six, living with Tom and is ‘as bright as a button’.

Tom’s story is vivid and memorable but has much in common with many of the other family members that I come across as chief executive of the charity Family Rights Group. It is family and friends who are often the ones who alert children’s services that they fear a child is at risk, despite the conflictual feelings towards the children’s parents, who may be their own son or daughter, sister or brother. Research shows the children feel more loved and secure and often fare better than those raised in unrelated care. The sacrifices that I have seen these kinship carers regularly make are breathtaking.

A week or so ago Josh MacAlister, chief executive of a major new social work education initiative, Frontline, stated in an interview with Liz Kendall and Steve Reed that the job of the children’s services system should be about changing families. Josh is by no means alone in articulating such a view – indeed, it is a given among many involved in children’s social care. But it needs to be challenged!

The consequence of assuming that the primary role of the child welfare system is to change families, is that it affects how practitioners and systems work with families. Instead of engaging with families, practitioners often ‘do to’ families, sapping them of their own strengths, resources and understanding. It reinforces an ‘otherness’ of families in the system, in which their time, views and contribution are treated as secondary or even inconsequential. It results in a disrespect that minimises the significance of the family bond, hence we tolerate a half of sibling groups in care being split up. It creates an anxiety and hostility rather than dialogue between families and the state, yet it is lack of cooperation which is often the trigger to local authorities issuing care proceedings. It leads to a situation whereby too often kinship carers tell us that the hardest part is not raising traumatised children but having to ‘fight’ the system.

There are many excellent people within social work, and there is much that different social work educators are doing to promote the wellbeing of vulnerable children and prevent harm – and we anticipate that Frontline will make a very good contribution to this. But too many are also failed by our system. That is why some of us, families, social work academics, practitioners including social workers and policymakers have got together in Your Family, Your Voice, an alliance of families and practitioners working to transform the system. We need a system that support, respects and challenges. As Tom says, if that is how the system treated me, then what is it like for others? After all, Tom is a social worker.

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Cathy Ashley is chief executive of Family Rights Group. Family Rights Group leads the policy work of the Kinship Care Alliance and has been at the forefront of setting up the Your Family, Your Voice Alliance

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Photo: Takashi Hososhima

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