By Janet Kay – Experts by Experience board member
Next week is Kinship Care Week (4th – 10th October 2021) and as both a kinship carer and member of the Expert by Experience board I hope the week offers us an opportunity to move some issues up the agenda.
We’re not a new phenomenon and I feel our work and the love and security we provide to tens of thousands of children deserves more attention. Next week I will be taking part in a debate as part of Kinship Care week and in preparation I find myself thinking about one of the toughest parts of a kinship carers role – for me, and many kinship carers I speak to, it is undoubtedly managing the relationship with birth parents.
Kinship carers are often unprepared for their role. Unlike foster carers or adopters we do not apply for our role, we don’t spend months or even years thinking about whether becoming a carer is the right thing for us or have time to mentally prepare ourselves for the life changing experience of taking on a child. Instead we are usually rocketed into caring for one or more children at very short notice with very little preparation. Training, preparation and ongoing support often range from minimal to appallingly poor.
One part of the role which we are especially unprepared for is dealing with the complexity of contact with family members. It can be incredibly stressful and often heartbreaking to realise that in taking on a child or children, we have effectively damaged our relationship with our own child or family member irreparably.
Despite the inherent difficulties of maintaining appropriate boundaries in contact, many of us are left to manage this by ourselves with little or no support in dealing with the practical and emotional issues this raises. Court orders can be prescriptive or very vague about contact arrangements and not always helpful.
In my family, the Child Arrangements Order for my grandson states that ‘the mother will see the child sometimes’. ‘Sometimes’ is open to many interpretations and gives us no clue as to what should be expected.
Contact involving family members can be fraught with tensions as birth parents adjust to the reality of the removal of a child and distress, grief and resentment can be a major factor in negotiating contact. Birth parents can view the child as having been ‘stolen’ by the carers and feel strongly that the situation is unfair to them and their relationship with the child. They can blame the carers for the child’s removal.
Kinship carers are often trying to ensure that they manage the contact safely while trying to maintain fractured relationships with their family member. This can be exacerbated where alcohol or substance abuse are also factors, leaving kinship carers responsible for policing a family member’s condition and state of mind during contact.
Birth parents are often treated as ‘the enemy’ during court proceedings and we need to get away from this mentality and the damage it causes. In my case, my daughter was not allowed to visit my house or see me for 9 months during care proceedings and we could only have contact in a grimly awful contact centre, despite the fact that she posed no risk to the child at all in contact situations. During that time her mental health problems escalated until I feared for her life but I was told that if I didn’t like the arrangements the baby could go to foster care. Like so many other kinship carers I was forced to choose between my child and grandchild.
I hope I haven’t painted a terrible picture of kinship care in this post. Caring for my grandchildren and being a part of their life, knowing they will grow up with the stability, lifelong relationships and love that every child needs makes it all worthwhile. I just hope that policy makers will realise that kinship carers are being asked to not only turn their life upside down but also to take on a delicate negotiation and diplomacy role – to suddenly acquire the skills of a trained social worker, lawyer and counsellor all rolled into one.
Kinship carers need to have more on-going support and training in dealing with contact and strategies and mechanisms for helping us with the emotional fall-out of kinship care arrangements in terms of family relationships.
Birth parents need to have therapeutic support when they lose a child into the care system- support to come to terms with their loss and grief and to make choices around potential future children which will mean they never have to experience that loss again. It may be that joint therapy is needed for carers and birth parents to be able to work together to make contact a positive and enjoyable experience for all.
It’s not easy and it’s not cost free but this kind of support and groundwork will allow children to see that the people they love are in harmony with each other and this will allow them to thrive. In my opinion that is a small investment worth making.