Kinship Carers (1)

Developing virtual support for kinship carers

Published: 08/10/2020

Author: Lucy Peake

Kinship carers are family and friends who are raising children who would often otherwise be growing up in local authority care.

The 5-12 October 2020 is Kinship Care Week. Charities, local authorities and others are coming together to raise awareness and thank kinship carers who are raising around 200,000 children in the UK. While many kinship carers tell us that Kinship Care Week helps them feel more visible, more valued and more hopeful that change is coming, we have a long way to go to address the lack of support they experience day in, day out. As the coronavirus public health crisis continues, the vulnerabilities of kinship carers are amplified and the risks of not supporting them are stark. If kinship carers are unable to care for the children, more children will come into care.  

Kinship children have experienced similar adversities to children in foster care (Farmer and Moyers 2008; Selwyn et al 2013), yet research identifies consistently that kinship carers struggle to access the support they need. Support is determined by the child’s legal order and provision is ‘a postcode lottery’ (Kinship Care Parliamentary Taskforce, 2020). In a survey released for Kinship Care Week, 82% of kinship carers said they don’t get the information and support they need from their local authority, while 70% have found parenting as a kinship carer during the Covid-19 pandemic difficult or very difficult, with half saying their children had also struggled. Previous worries have been exacerbated, including concerns about money (31%), feeling alone (32%), limited resources and space (23%) and children’s behaviour (26%). 24% are worried they will be unable to cope with a second lockdown (Grandparents Plus, 2020).  

Even before the pandemic, kinship carers were living in precarious situations. When compared to others raising children, they are more likely to be older, have a chronic health condition or disability, be single, live in poverty, unemployed, poorly housed and socially isolated. There is also a higher prevalence of kinship care in areas with higher levels of deprivation and among some ethnic minority communities (Wijedasa, 2017).

Grandparents Plus is the largest provider of kinship family support in England and Wales and we recognised early on in the pandemic that carers were vulnerable and likely to be disproportionately affected. We acted quickly in March, moving resources to extend our advice service opening hours. Our on-the-ground project workers redesigned services, delivering face-to-face work online, offering one-to-one support by telephone and email. Peer support groups were supported to move online, using WhatsApp and Zoom, with project workers building digital skills and confidence among kinship carers. We collaborated with charity grants partners to arrange delivery of essentials like beds, white goods and laptops to support home schooling, as well as financial support to cover food and energy bills.

Tailored information and advice were essential. With no specific guidance offered for kinship carers, they often feel invisible. Even worse, government guidance that grandparents should not see their grandchildren stoked fear among kinship carers, especially those who are older and in ‘clinically vulnerable’ groups. We sifted and translated government guidance, adding it to a new Covid-19 section on our website. During the national lockdown, we increased the frequency of our e-newsletters to our community of 7,500+ carers, sharing information and carers’ stories weekly. Carers told us how important it was to feel connected and be ‘held in mind’.

We surveyed kinship carers monthly during the lockdown, so we could spot emerging issues and respond to their changing needs (McGrath and Peake, 2020). We shared findings with local and national government and in the media. This helped achieve three things: first, government recognised the unique needs and vulnerabilities of kinship carers; second, they made funding available to local authorities and the voluntary sector to meet those needs, particularly through changes to the Adoption Support Fund; third, we adapted our programmes rapidly to develop a new Kinship Response service to support carers through the pandemic. We are partnering with 68 English local authorities and 12 regional adoption agencies to provide tailored, one-to-one support to over 900 special guardians by April 2021. Other funding, including from the Department for Education, means we’ve increased our advice and support services for all kinship carers across England and Wales, with a significant expansion of our Someone Like Me peer-to-peer listening service.

The emphasis on social action – people helping people – runs through our programmes. By connecting carers and recognising their skills and experience, we encourage supportive relationships and networks, building community resilience and reducing dependency on statutory services. Kinship Response builds on our Kinship Connected support programme which includes peer support group development and independent one-to-one support from a community-based project worker. Scale-up during 2018-20 was supported by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport through innovation foundation Nesta, with 15 local authorities now commissioning the service. An independent evaluation of Kinship Connected (Starks Consulting and Ecorys, 2020) found it led to reduced concerns among carers regarding their children’s behaviour, health and wellbeing, educational transitions, diet and friendships. They reported an increase in confidence in their parenting role and felt less isolated. Significantly, the programme led to an increase in their mental wellbeing to above the point at which people would be considered to be at high risk from mental ill-health and depression. The evaluation sets out an economic case to invest in supporting kinship carers, with a 20% return on investment.  

We had been testing virtual support approaches through our work with Nesta. Once lockdown started, resistance from carers and project workers fell away. However, barriers remained. While we support all kinship carers, the majority are grandparents and in an older and poorer demographic.

Key barriers included digital skills and confidence as well as access to smart phones/computers and internet data. Initially our local project workers focused on practical support. In West Yorkshire, where we set up WhatsApp groups in each local authority area, Rachael telephoned carers to offer individual support to join and use the platform. In the north east, Darren offered digital drop-in sessions on Zoom before support groups met, creating a safe space for carers to become familiar with the technology. Kinship carers said they didn’t want to ‘feel silly’. Our project workers, who had trusted relationships with them, made sure they felt supported. Our approach took time and it was successful because it was supportive, empowering and confidence-building.

Virtual support has developed over time. In West Yorkshire, we’re running fortnightly groups for each local authority. In Kirklees, their family support worker joins the group regularly, extending access to support. A regional group meets monthly too, with outside speakers and themed discussions. We expect these to continue after the pandemic. In the north east, WhatsApp is being used by kinship carers for light-hearted day-to-day chats while Zoom is used for online support group meetings, where they discuss kinship care experiences and offer practical and emotional support.

There are many benefits. Carers living in more remote areas, those who find travel difficult, or who are balancing working and caring, find it easier to get involved, reducing isolation. Some kinship carers with pre-school aged children say they find it easier to participate online, without the need for child care. When children were off school, they became frequent guests, becoming part of the community and enjoying opportunities to meet other kinship children. However, some kinship carers needed to concentrate on home schooling, or said they missed the respite that face-to-face support groups offered. In London, our project worker Maxine is running evening groups, after the children have gone to bed.

There are also limitations. Peer support groups can be emotional and physical spaces, where carers respond with touch and reassuring hugs. Lockdown amplified many of the pressures kinship carers already faced – financial worries, contact and family relationship pressures, lack of access to therapeutic support for their children. As a consequence, we saw an increase in reports of child on carer violence and abuse. When complex issues were shared in virtual groups, it was important that project workers were there to offer follow up support.

Key learnings

We’ve worked in partnership with local authorities to help carers move online during a time when social work teams were under pressure. Our project workers are friendly, down to earth and flexible – and not digital experts. They are approachable, practical and without jargon! This has enabled us to build skills and confidence over time. We’re also able to access grants for IT equipment and data.

We are continuing to test and learn from different virtual support approaches, and consulting with carers and local authorities about how virtual support will fit alongside face-to-face support in future. What is clear is that there is an urgent need for more information, advice and support for kinship carers, and that virtual support can be part of the solution. While our programmes are underpinned by relationships and connections with carers and we look forward eagerly to being together with carers in their homes, support groups and in the community, we do expect a blended approach in future.

In an increasingly digital world, the legacy of helping kinship carers move online during the pandemic should be that they will feel more confident in connecting with each other and seeking advice and support online in future.

Useful links

Grandparents Plus

 

Lucy Peake

Lucy Peake

Lucy Peake is chief executive of Grandparents Plus, the kinship care charity. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the charity has focused on understanding and responding to the unique challenges faced by kinship care families with a significant growth of advice and support services across England and Wales.

References

Farmer, E. & Moyers, S. (2008) Kinship care: Fostering effective family and friends placements

Grandparents Plus (2020) Kinship Care State of the Nation Survey, Grandparents Plus

Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care (2020) First Thought Not Afterthought: Report of the Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care, Family Rights Group

McGrath, P. and Peake, L. (September 2020) The impact of COVID-19 on kinship care: Evidence from the kinship care charity Grandparents Plus, Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care Special Feature: Reflections on COVID-19

Selwyn, J., Farmer, E., Meakings, S. & Vaisey, P. (2013). The poor relations? Children and informal kinship carers speak out: A summary research report. Bristol: University of Bristol.

Starks Consulting and Ecorys, (2020) An Evaluation of Kinship Connected (in publication)

Wijedasa, D. (2017) Children growing up in the care of relatives in the UK. Bristol: Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies.