Plea for better support for 'invisible' family carers

A child rides past a closed shop on a bicycle
Image caption Children in poor inner-city areas are more likely to be raised by other family members, researchers say

Better support is needed for the thousands of children being raised by family members who are not their parents, a children's charity says.

The Buttle UK study showed one in 77 UK children were being raised in "kinship" care in 2001 and it believes the figure has risen "considerably" since.

These children were more likely to be living in poverty and overcrowded homes, it added.

The report argues new policies are needed to help the "invisible" carers.

The study, produced by the charity in conjunction with the University of Bristol, found that more than 90% of families with kinship care arrangements were working on informal agreements and therefore not entitled to financial support from social services.

The research was gathered using 2001 Census data.

Although more up-to-date data will not be available until 2013, the report authors say the study marks the first time an accurate estimate on the number of kinship families has been made.

"If the government is going to meet its targets to reduce child poverty, children in kinship care need to be recognised as a group with specific and considerable needs," said report co-author Dr Julie Selwyn, director of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies.

'Critical role'

Buttle UK says it hopes its findings will be used by local authorities to inform new policy decisions on family and friends care due in September this year.

"Kinship carers are an invisible population who have little contact with social services," said Gerri McAndrew, Buttle UK's chief executive.

"This report shines a light, for the first time, on this hidden group who play a critical role in raising a generation of children and young people with little assistance, financial or otherwise.

"Even in these economically difficult times, we owe it to these families to give them the support they need."

The report notes that children in kinship arrangements were twice as likely as other children to come from poorer areas, while one in five children in sibling care also lived in overcrowded households with more than one person per room.

In England, one in five children lived in a kinship household where no adult was working.

Increasing levels of drug and alcohol abuse were cited as a key factor in the rise, as well as changes in "the nature of the family".

Children from minority backgrounds were over-represented in the study - with one in 11 of all African boys in England aged 15-17 reportedly living with relatives.

'Groundbreaking research'

In England, Scotland and Wales, the majority of children in kinship care were living with their grandparents.

In Northern Ireland, however, half of all kinship care children were being brought up by a sibling.

Paul, 24, has looked after his six brothers and sisters - aged eight to 18 - for the past two years after they were taken away from their mother following accusations of neglect.

"I had to give up my job to look after them so it's difficult and money is an issue but we're all alive, we all eat and there are few moments of madness," he said.

"Things will get tighter as the family grows older but for now everyone is still in school and we're all together as a family and that's what matters."

Sir Mark Potter, a former Head of Family Justice, which is linked to the High Court's Family Division, welcomed the study's findings and the renewed call for greater recognition of family carers.

"This is a very important piece of groundbreaking research," he said.

"I hope it will provide much needed impetus for action to improve their circumstances and their chances in adult life."

In a statement, the Department of Education said: "Local authorities need to consider how best to support carers and children involved in kinship care arrangements.

"That's why we have recently published new statutory guidance to local authorities to help tackle any inequality in how services are provided for kinship care families.

"We have also asked every local area to produce a plan by September this year setting out how they will identify and support these families."

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