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164,000 children are growing up in kinship care in England and Wales

Published: 26th September 2023

7 minute read

New Census 2021 analysis released by the ONS today provides a snapshot of the population of children and carers in kinship care in the UK.

Kinship care is when relatives or friends step in to raise children who cannot stay at home with their parents. Such situations come about for reasons including parental death or illness, domestic abuse, parental substance misuse, and imprisonment.

Family Rights Group estimates that there are at least 164,000 children in England and Wales living with relatives and friends.

Here is how we got to that figure:

  • The headline numbers from the ONS estimate that 113,690 children in England and 7,705 children in Wales are living with relatives in kinship care. This excludes households with 6+ people and friend carers.
  • The ONS estimate that a further 20,000 children across England & Wales are living with kinship carers in households of 6 or more. See below for data limitations.
  • Family Rights Group estimates that a further 23,460 children in England and 320 children in Wales are living with non-relative kinship carers such as family friends.

While there are limitations to this new census data (see more below), the insights it does provide can tell us more about the kinship care population in the UK in 2021.

Headlines from the 2021 census on the characteristics of children and kinship carers in England and Wales:

*Note: this analysis only includes kinship care arrangements with relatives in households of 5 or less.

  • The North East of England had the highest proportion of kinship care households (2.3%), while the South East and the East of England had the lowest proportions (both 1.2%).
  • Most children living in kinship care (59.2%) lived with at least one grandparent
  • A quarter (25.3%) of kinship care households contained one or more residents whose long-term physical or mental health condition or illness limited them a lot, compared with 10.0% of parental households.
  • Children in kinship care are more likely to be teenagers than children living with parents. 4 in 10 children living in kinship care (41.8%) were aged 13 to 17 years, compared with 27.1% of children living with at least one parent.
  • A third (33.1%) of kinship care households contained no employed adults, compared with 13.0% of parental households.
  • Kinship care households were more likely than parental households to be deprived in every dimension measured.
  • Children living in kinship care were more likely than children living with at least one parent to identify within the “Black, Black British, Black Welsh, Caribbean or African” ethnic group (6.1%) and within the “Mixed or Multiple ethnic groups” (8.7%) aggregated categories than children living with at least one parent (4.7% and 6.9% respectively).

Read the ONS analysis here

Cathy_AshleyCommenting on the figures, Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive of Family Rights Group said:

“The evidence shows that for many children who can’t live with their parents, the love and stability of their kinship carers gives them the best chance to thrive in life. However, too often, both children and kinship carers face adversities and cannot access the support they need.

“It’s clear from the census that most children in kinship care are living with grandparents, many of them older in age. They are also more likely to be living in more deprived parts of the country. Children in the north of England are more likely to be in kinship care than in the south.

“The children’s social care review was stark in its warning that without putting family-led solutions first and properly supporting kinship care, many more children will be raised in a care system which is already struggling to cope and too often leaves young people isolated.

“This new data is a reminder that thousands of children rely on the love and support of kinship carers stepping in, but this cannot be taken for granted. Many are struggling. Kinship carers often have to give up work to take on the children driving them into poverty, and the children aren’t getting the professional therapeutic support they need to deal with their tragedy or trauma. Yet without these kinship carers, the care system would buckle.

“It doesn’t have to be like this. As the children’s social care review made clear, reforms and investment would not only assist current kinship care households but would lead to some children being able to be raised with loving family and friends rather than being in the care system.  Kinship carers are doing right by the children, now it’s time for Government to do right by kinship care by raising its ambitions in the upcoming Kinship Care Strategy.”

Our six tests for Government

The Government has committed to publishing the first national kinship care strategy by the end of the year. Family Rights Group has set them six tests to meet. Devised with members of our kinship carers panel, they are designed to ensure that the Government commits to both important reforms and adequate funding to support kinship care going forward.

You can read about the six tests here.

Our calculations and data limitations:

While the 2021 census provides useful insights on the state of the nation on census day, there are limitations, especially when dealing with a relatively small population group. The issues we set out here highlight why the Government must ensure better data collection and analysis is a key part of the national kinship care strategy.

The first of those is in relation to households of six people or more. The ONS have advised us that accurately identifying children in kinship care in those households is difficult due to limitations in the way the relationship between household members was recorded. This means that the ONS’ headline numbers will be underestimating the number of children in kinship care. We know from census data on the general population living in households of six or more, that they are more likely to be from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities and more likely to be in major conurbations. Therefore, we expect kinship care arrangements in those communities and geographies to be particularly underrepresented.

The ONS have calculated a rough estimate of the overall number of children in kinship care in England and Wales living in a household of six people or more. This estimate is based on applying the proportion of children in smaller households to the child population in larger households.

Our analysis of the number of children living with friend carers should also only be taken as an estimate. We have taken the census data on children living with unrelated carers and removed the number of children in unrelated foster care as of March 21 drawing on DfE data. The ONS advise that their methodology on children in unrelated care will include households where unrelated teenagers either side of 18 years live together. This could overestimate the number of children in such arrangements.

About Family Rights Group

We are the leading national charity working to ensure the child welfare system supports children to live safely and thrive within their family and strengthens the family and community networks of those children who cannot live at home.

Our free specialist advice service supports parents and kinship carers in England, helping them to understand their rights and options.

We pioneer innovative child welfare practices including family group conferences and Lifelong Links.

For almost 50-years, our legal, policy and campaigning work has influenced developments in the child welfare system including securing the two-child tax credit exemption for kinship carers and a recent extension to legal aid for special guardians. We provide the secretariat to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Kinship Care and the Kinship Care Alliance.

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