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Family Rights Group’s response to the national kinship care strategy

Published: 15th December 2023

4 minute read

Today (15th December 2023) the Government has published the first ever national kinship care strategy. Read more below about what it means for children and families.

Kinship carers are wider family and friends – including grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters – who step up for children when they cannot stay at home.

Family Rights Group has been at the forefront of championing kinship care for more than two decades. We have done so with families every step of the way, including with our kinship carers panel.

Members of our panel sit on the Government’s Kinship Carer Reference Group, alongside our Chief Executive. We have utilised our legal, policy and practice expertise to secure important changes for kinship families including an exemption from the two-child tax credit rule and a 2023 extension to legal aid for some prospective kinship carers.

Earlier this year, we set the Government six tests for the strategy, to deliver meaningful change for children and families.

Responding to the strategy, Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive of Family Rights Group, said:

Cathy_Ashley“The publication of the first ever national strategy to promote and support kinship care should be a cause for celebration. This is a moment Family Rights Group has been working towards, alongside families, for more than two decades. Thousands of relatives and friends step in to raise children every year, and many more could do so with the right support.

“The strategy provides an important opportunity to raise the profile of kinship care and it does make some welcome steps forward. However, we are concerned that the strategy falls victim to the same timid ambitions that are holding back the Government’s wider plans for children’s social care.

“Family Rights Group worked with families to set six tests for the strategy, for it to deliver meaningful change to families across the country. It falls disappointingly short on them all.

  1. Defining kinship care – Family Rights Group has led the campaign for a clear, inclusive definition of kinship care written into law. We welcome the Government’s commitment to develop that definition and we have worked with them to do so. However, failing to commit to putting this in primary legislation will significantly curtail its potential impact.
  2. Advice– Without independent specialist advice, many prospective kinship carers do not understand their rights and options, and this can have long term consequences for them and the child. The strategy makes no further progress on this.
  3. Employment leave – We very much hope the new guide for employers will be widely adopted. Without a nationwide right to paid employment leave, akin to adoption leave, there will be another lottery in support.
  4. Financial support – The small-scale pilot could open the door sometime in the distant future to a national allowance. For now, children will have to have been in the care system in one of only eight local authorities, to qualify. Families are facing real hardship today. The current system of financial support is not fit for purpose. Failing to fix the present problems squanders an opportunity to start helping families nationwide this coming year.
  5. Education – A lack of support in school is a struggle for many children in kinship care so expanding the Virtual School Head role may help some.
  6. Therapy– Rebranding the Adoption Support Fund will remove a barrier to eligible special guardians accessing therapeutic services for the children. But this is purely a cosmetic change that fails to expand eligibility to all children who need it.

“The strategy has been billed as a once in a generation opportunity to put kinship care on a level playing field. With the children’s social care system in crisis, more children could be living safely and thriving in the love and care of their relatives and friends. Will this strategy make a meaningful difference to families on the ground? As it stands, we fear not.”

Read our initial analysis below

Statutory definition of kinship care

“Improving the visibility of kinship carers through a new definition of kinship care that will be used in statutory guidance”

  • A single definition of kinship care, encompassing the different types of kinship care arrangements, will be set out in statutory guidance, including Working Together to Safeguard Children 2023 and the new Children’s Social Care National Framework.

Our response:

Family Rights Group developed Time to Define – a legal proposal and campaign – for a clear, inclusive definition of kinship care to be written in to law, specifically into primary legislation. This article by a kinship carer highlights why this step is so needed. We have welcomed the Government’s willingness to draw heavily on our work, including consulting on our draft definition, developed with expertise of Family Rights Group’s kinship care panel.

It is a major step forward that the definition is part of its new kinship strategy.

But their failure now to commit to putting this definition into primary legislation will significantly curtail its potential impact.

The status quo is failing. Statutory guidance on kinship care for local authorities has been in place for 12 years, and yet it has not resolved poor recognition and understanding. In fact, it is often not complied with. Primary legislation is necessary to give the definition sufficient weight so that it will be understood and followed by the full range of agencies that children and families come into contact with. Not just local authorities.

We are also disappointed to see inconsistencies within the strategy which risk impairing the clarity of the definition. This includes a conflicting short form definition of kinship care which features in the glossary. As well as an unclear definition of informal kinship care within the glossary.

Specialist advice and legal aid

No new announcements made.

  • The strategy notes current funding for Family Rights Group’s dedicated Family and Friends helpline to ensure that kinship families receive tailored advice and support for their specific circumstances.
  • The strategy also notes the extension of legal aid entitlements to prospective carers making applications for Special Guardianship Orders in private family law proceedings.

Our response:

Without independent specialist advice, many prospective kinship carers do not understand their rights and options and this can have long term consequences for them and the child.

Family Rights Group’s free advice service provides specialist legal and practice based advice to parents and wider family and friends involved with children’s services. We help families, including prospective kinship carers, to understand the law and their rights and options. The service receives a grant from the Department for Education but on current funding levels can only answer 4 in 10 calls. Independent evaluation shows that the service averts children from care and saves the state £15 for every £1 invested. If the government’s strategy succeeds in raising awareness of kinship care and encouraging more family and friends to step forward, demand for specialist advice will increase too. Yet the strategy commits no further funding.

Earlier this year, means and merits tested legal aid was extended to prospective special guardians wishing to apply for a special guardianship order. Family Rights Group led the campaign to secure this change over several years. However, as the APPG’s 2022 legal aid inquiry found, there remains a significant gap in legal aid and advice for prospective carers, especially at the early stages of children’s services involvement, the formal pre proceedings stage and in care proceedings. Earlier this year the Government committed to exploring further legal aid reforms with the Ministry of Justice but the strategy neglects to cover this.

Employment support

“Producing government guidance for employers on how kinship carers can be supported at work. This will include advice on adapting HR policies, signposting to workplace entitlements carers can access and creating a culture of support.”

“Introducing a kinship leave and pay entitlement for Department for Education staff (subject to discussions on the detailed arrangements between the department and employee representatives).”

  • A new best practice guide has been published for employers with advice and signposting recommendations
  • An earlier commitment to work across government to explore possible additional workplace entitlements for kinship carers is ongoing
  • Staff at the Department for Education who are kinship carers may soon benefit from a right to employment leave and pay

Our response:

Over half of kinship carers have to give up their jobs or reduce their hours to provide care for their children. We very much hope the new guide for employers will be widely adopted. It is also good to see the Department aiming to model that best practice and we hope other Departments will follow suit.

We applaud those employers who have introduced kinship friendly changes – for example Card Factory, Tesco and John Lewis – but it is not enough to rely on individual employers choosing to introduce such a step.

Without a nationwide right to paid employment leave, akin to adoption leave, there will be another lottery in support. The Department for Education has not yet been able to persuade the Department for Business and Trade to move on this. Without this, many kinship carers will still be forced out of work.

Financial support

“Launching a kinship financial allowance, paid at the same rate as the fostering allowance, beginning in up to 8 local authorities.”

  • A new Pathfinder will start in 2024 and run until 2028, working in up to 8 local authorities initially. (5% of all local authorities in England)
  • It will provide special guardian kinship carers who care for previously looked after children with a financial allowance, paid at the same rate as foster care allowances.
  • £16 million will be provided towards this work in 2024-25.
  • The Government will explore expanding eligibility to broader cohorts of kinship carers and all local authorities in the future, subject to the findings of an evaluation led by Foundations (subject to funding).

Our response:

This small-scale pilot could open the door sometime in the distant future to a national allowance, if Treasury are persuaded. However, we have two significant concerns.

  • The first is the initial focus on children raised in special guardianship who were previously looked after. This is at odds with the avowed desire to avert children in kinship care from needing to spend time looked-after in the care system before they and their carers are entitled to It perpetuates this perverse inequality from the beginning. While Government state the intention is to later expand to other children in kinship care, this will be subject to securing further funding from Treasury which cannot be guaranteed.
  • The second is that the pilot only covers 5% of the local authorities. Kinship families across the country are facing financial hardship now. The current system of financial support is not fit for purpose. Failing to fix the present problems squanders an opportunity to start helping families nationwide this coming year.

Currently whether a kinship carer receives financial support from the local authority is highly variable. Even when an allowance is initially provided by a local authority, they can be later reduced or taken away. Our advice service often hears examples of heart-breaking, unfair and inconsistent practices. Investigations by the Local Government Ombudsman and judicial reviews also demonstrate highly variable practice and misinterpretation of the law in relation to financial support for kinship families.

We have presented Government with advice on how to improve the current system. This has included setting out for officials the specific pressing legal and practice matters which require urgent clarification and redress in respect of how special guardianship financial allowances are understood, calculated and reviewed.

Educational support

“Expanding the Virtual School Head’s role to promote the education of children in kinship care.”

  • £3.8 million in 2024-25 to expand the role of Virtual School Heads to include championing the educational attendance, attainment, and progress of children in kinship care.
  • The Virtual School Head strategic role will include:
    • Raising the visibility of the distinct needs of children in different types of kinship care arrangements and the disadvantage that they can experience.
    • Promoting practice that supports attendance and engagement in education.
    • Promoting practice that improves children in kinship care’s outcomes to narrow the attainment gap
  • The responsibility for Virtual School Heads’ to provide advice and information on request, will be extended to all kinship carers with Special Guardianship and Child Arrangements Orders as part of their non-statutory role.

Our response:

Many children in kinship care have additional educational needs and struggle to access appropriate support. Too often, any access to additional support is dependent on whether the child has been  looked-after in the care system. Expanding the overall remit of the Virtual School Head to champion the needs of children in kinship care, and extending the Head’s advice responsibility without the ‘was previously looked-after’ qualifier are very positive measures which could improve situation at school for some children.

However, we would have like to have seen the advice provision extended to all children in kinship care regardless of legal order. Equally, the strategy makes no further changes to eligibility for Pupil Premium Plus for which many children in kinship care fall through the net. Only those who have previously been in care can qualify.

There is also growing concern among kinship carers raising young people approaching 16 or 18 with lack of financial support preventing them pursuing further and higher education and training. The strategy fails to explore this.

Therapeutic support

“Ensuring more eligible kinship carers are aware of their ability to access the £48 million Adoption Support Fund, by renaming it to the Adoption and Special Guardianship Support Fund, as well as analysing the fund’s applications and the therapies provided.”

  • The Adoption Support Fund pays for essential therapeutic services for eligible children and young people. This currently includes adoptive children and a subset of children in kinship care – those subject to Special Guardianship who have previously been looked after.
  • The fund will be renamed to Adoption and Special Guardianship Support Fund. Eligibility criteria will not change.
  • A formal analysis will be commissioned of the fund’s Special Guardianship applications, and the therapies provided to better understand how the fund is used.

Our response:

Children raised in kinship care have often experienced loss, tragedy or trauma. Many kinship carers struggle to secure the therapeutic support the child needs to help deal with this.

The name of the Adoption Support Fund is often confusing to families and many special guardians raising children who were previously looked after do not know they can access it. The rebrand is something that was recommended by the Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care in 2020 and we welcome this change. However, it is  a cosmetic change that misses an opportunity to expand eligibility to all children who need it.

Family Rights Group has called on the Government to extend the eligibility criteria to all children in kinship care. No child should be left to carry the legacy of trauma into adulthood without help to address it.

The analysis of applications could help improve understanding of the therapeutic needs of children in kinship care.

Practical support

No new announcements

The strategy highlights previous announcements on:

  • Establishing a training, information and advice offer that all kinship carers will have access to.
  • Sustaining the delivery of peer support groups across England for all kinship carers.

 

Our response:

£9 million for a training and support offer for kinship carers was one of the Government’s headline announcements at the start of the year. A £3 million contract has now been awarded to the charity, Kinship, and other partners including Kinship Carers Liverpool. The service is expected to be live in 2024. We hope to see the Government invest the remaining £6 million in kinship care support but to date this has not been confirmed.

The Government has also retendered for the national kinship care peer support service. We welcome the continued commitment to vital peer support.

Family Group Conferences

“We will partner with Foundations and the sector to work towards every family being offered high quality family group conferences at pre-proceedings stage.”

  • Updated statutory guidance will encourage local authorities to implement the family group conference approach more widely.
  • A commitment to explore the use of legislation to mandate the use of family group conferences at the formal pre-proceedings stage in the future, alongside encouraging their use earlier in the system.

Our response:

Family Rights Group introduced the family group conference approach to the UK in the 1990s, from New Zealand. We remain at the forefront of their promotion and development.

Family group conferences can change lives. Whether by helping families to overcome their problems or identifying potential kinship carers when a child cannot live at home. We strongly welcome the foregrounding of the family group conference approach within the strategy. Family Rights Group has urged the Government to make it a legal right for all families to be offered a family group conference before decisions are made about their children. We welcome the commitment to explore legislation to achieve this at the pre-proceedings stage.

In New Zealand, family group conferences are now the only mechanism of decision making about child welfare, as set out in legislation. As a result, fewer children are removed to the care system and a greater proportion of children in care are raised in kinship care. Moreover, a major UK study by Foundations, published this year, has shown that family group conferences could help over 2,000 children a year remain safely with their families and avoid the care system.

Our concern with the government’s approach is the inconsistency within the strategy, and in comparison to statutory guidance, between referring to family group conferences and the generic umbrella term ‘‘family group decision making’. The latter covers a range of approaches which involve engaging with families to varying degrees. Many are not evaluated or genuinely family-led. Family group conferences are an internationally recognised and evaluated approach. The lack of clarity risks promoting a diverse of approaches by local authorities, some of which fall short.

Statutory Guidance

“Publishing an updated version of the 2011 Family and Friends Care: Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities. This will be called Kinship Care: Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities and will clarify how local authorities should support kinship families”

Family Rights Group was key in influencing the then Government decision in 2011 to introduce Statutory Family and Friends Care guidance and we worked closely with the Government to influence its content. It is the primary means for central government to give direction on kinship care to local authorities. However, the lack of updates for 12 years has contributed to local authorities too often not taking it seriously. This is a welcome opportunity to bring it up to date, but we urge the Government to go further than a mere factual update. This is also chance to enhance the guidance and give it more teeth. For example, we have proposed recasting the requirement on local authorities to have a local family and friends care policy, to an outward facing ‘local offer’ similar to that required for care leavers and disabled children. Read more about that here.

Kinship Care Ambassador

“Creating a new Kinship Care Ambassador role, to work with local authorities and kinship carers to raise standards and share best practice”

Building on the positive impact of the creation of the National Implementation Advisor for care leavers role in 2017, held by Mark Ridell MBE, this is a welcome development. We would like to see more detail to understand exactly what the role will entail, how local authorities will be expected to work with them, what the intended impact will be and how that will be evaluated. This post must also have sufficient infrastructure and support around them to undertake the role effectively. Working directly with 152 local authorities is a significant undertaking.

Kinship Care Advisory Board

“Establishing the National Kinship Care Advisory Board and extending the Department for Education’s Kinship Carer Reference Group”

We have championed the need for kinship carers and the sector to be embedded in the government policy making. Family Rights Group nominated kinship carers from our panel to join the Reference Group and pay tribute to the efforts of those carers, providing insight and constructive challenge. We therefore welcome this step. And we encourage the Government to go further and consider how they may also include children and young people raised in kinship care in policymaking.

Law Commission

“Agreeing work with the Law Commission to review legal orders and statuses for kinship carers and understanding how we can both simplify and streamline these”

Family Rights Group  looks forward to engaging with the Commission and supporting kinship carers to contribute to this process.

We hope that as part of its work, the Commission will:

Consider the urgent need for a definition of kinship care to be written into primary legislation. This is a critical, foundational step in ensuring kinship care is fully and properly perceived within the child welfare legislative framework. As well as the gateway to a clearer and improved system of provision and support for carers and children.

Joined up data

“Working with the Ministry of Justice to improve our understanding of kinship care through better data join up”

There is a real dearth of data on kinship care which hampers our understanding of the experiences of families and hinders effective policymaking. Family Rights Group supports any efforts to improve this.

We are concerned about ONS proposals, recently out for consultation, to replace the decennial census with other methods drawing on other government data more regularly collected. Analysis of the census remains the only means of gaining a comprehensive picture of the kinship care population in the UK. The ONS’ recently published analysis of the 2021 census revealed difficulties in identifying kinship care arrangements in larger households due to methodological changes – highlighting the consequences of decisions on data collection which do not consider kinship care.

Ofsted

“Confirming that Ofsted are updating their inspector training and guidance, so kinship care is well embedded in inspection practice”

This is a welcome move to improve the extent to which Ofsted focus on kinship care within inspections. This could help to drive changes in the way local authorities prioritise kinship care. One question we have is how are kinship carers and experts within the sector involved within that process. Another is whether the training will ensure that Ofsted have the requisite legal and practice knowledge base to more fully inspect in relation to kinship care.

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