Katie is a kinship carer – she was asked to take in her young niece two years ago. Image: Kinship
Katie and her partner Mark dropped everything when social services asked them to take in their eight-month-old niece in April 2020. They knew authorities were involved, but they weren’t aware just how bad things were when they were told to pick her up from her mother’s house immediately. All they knew was she needed to be somewhere she was safe and loved.
Now, in the cost of living crisis, they are struggling to cope. Raising a child, one who has already faced such trauma, takes its toll financially and emotionally. The family has sacrificed as much as they can, but they need to keep the little girl warm and fed. As highlighted by this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert, which has a focus on fostering, there are good people out there to help the thousands of children who need a home. But they also need support themselves.
“It’s embarrassing to admit we’re struggling,” Katie says. “I’ve got a good career. My partner’s got a good career. I fought so hard for my life to go in a certain direction. I was brought up in care, and I didn’t want to turn out like my birth parents. I’ve done everything I could to make sure my life is better and positive, and then to be pulled back into potential poverty… it’s not something I fought for all these years to happen.”
“Too many families are not getting the support they need, and some carers are worried they may not be able to continue,” Dr Lucy Peake, chief executive of Kinship, wrote in the charity’s Cost of Living report. “This risks enormous costs, not just for the experiences and outcomes of children, but also financially for the state.”
Katie and Mark had to sacrifice their plans for a baby of their own. “I’m not sure we’re ever going to have a baby now because she’s got to be prioritised over our needs and I couldn’t realistically have a baby and take money away from her,” Katie says. “How would we be able to financially cope with that? It’s been quite an emotional situation.”
Katie and Mark were foster carers for the first few months their niece was living with them, and they received an allowance. When it became clear that she would be with them more permanently, social services said they would have to end the temporary foster care status. They became special guardians and were left with limited financial support.
“I think the issue is the government and local authorities take advantage of the love that we have for these children,” Katie says. “We will jump through hoops, no questions asked, because we love these children and we don’t want them to get put into the care system.”
Katie described access to support as “a postcode lottery”. According to Kinship, a third of kinship carers do not receive an allowance from their council to cover the costs of raising children. And nearly eight in 10 say they don’t get enough help.
“Without support, thousands of carers who have been pushed to the brink of despair may no longer be able to look after the children they love, risking an influx of children into the care system,” Peake says. “It’s outrageous that in today’s society many kinship families will be cold and hungry this winter because they don’t receive enough support to maintain their basic human rights.”
Kinship carers are often thrown into a situation for which they are not financially prepared. Less than a third of carers receive advice before or shortly after the child moves in.
A 2020 economic study of kinship care found that for every 10,000 children who were placed with kinship carers the state saved £370million. If a third of the carers of the estimated 162,400 children in kinship care in England and Wales could no longer afford to care for their children, it would cost the state around £2billion.
“You take on all the responsibility for them,” Katie explains. “You are financially, emotionally and practically responsible. All of the decisions about their everyday life and upbringing are yours to make. That’s something we were never really forewarned about.”
Nursery fees are £600 a month, and she needs clothes, food and warmth. They have also been taken back to court multiple times, and the cost of parking outside the courthouse is around £80 a week.
“We don’t have the money to do the things we used to do,” Katie adds. “We don’t go on holidays. We don’t spend a lot of money on ourselves. We start to lose our connections with our friends because you’re constantly saying: ‘I can’t go out.’ It can be quite isolating.”
“We’re cutting back,” John says. “Everyone’s cutting back. It’s a hot meal for him. Three meals costs so much. My wife and I decided we’ll just have sandwiches because it makes it easier. Otherwise, you’re using the oven all the time and it’s just costing too much.”
According to Kinship, many carers are worried about the coming months. Four in 10 carers reported skipping meals, using food banks or buying less food in the past year. Six in 10 say they will avoid putting the heating on this winter.
John had to give up work 16 years ago, when he ended up hospitalised due to the stress of overworking and caring for his wife. John knew taking on their grandson would be a commitment, but he would do anything for his family.
Kinship have launched a campaign #ValueOurLove, urging the government to provide immediate support for kinship carers. It also asked the government to implement recommendations from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care – including stronger financial support, a right to paid leave and legal aid, access to peer support and training, and earlier identification of and support for kinship arrangements before crisis point.
“We would like some clarity regarding emotional support, practical support and financial support,” John says. “We’re not asking for the earth. If we don’t, we’ll reach a crisis point and then the children will have to go into full-time foster care. Then the children will have more trauma because they’ll be taken out of the family and will believe it’s their fault which of course it isn’t.”
Nearly half of kinship carers have given up work to care for their children and seven in 10 have been forced to spend their savings or pension pots. Particularly worryingly, over a third said the lack of support meant that they may have to stop caring for their children in the future. This was strongly associated with higher levels of financial insecurity.
Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner, says: “We know that providing children with care from family or friends they know and trust can provide the kind of stability and support they may not find elsewhere.
“It also makes long term financial sense, reducing costs on already stretched statutory services as fewer children end up going into an increasingly expensive care system. The government should be doing all it can to recognise the value of kinship care, and to expand support for kinship carers, and make kinship care a key part of its children’s social care reform.”
Kinship’s #ValueOurLove Campaign is encouraging kinship carers and the public to lobby their MPs and sign a petition urging the government to provide immediate support for kinship carers. Sign the petition here.