We’re hearing more and more about the role grandparents are playing in children’s lives. We know that millions of families rely on them for childcare, for managing the summer holidays and emergencies, and for providing flexible (and usually free) support to working parents.
We know that as children grow up, grandparents are more and more likely to be lending a helping hand financially, and that the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ now extends beyond the generations. And yet when most people think about grandparents, they think about comfy retirements, winter cruises and plentiful pension pots. It’s true that, for many, becoming a grandparent is a wonderful experience, with all of the love and none of the responsibility of being a parent. However, for thousands of grandparents in the UK, the reality is very different.
At Grandparents Plus, we support the grandparents (and other family members) who’ve had to put their lives on hold to step in for children who need them as ‘kinship carers’. Most commonly due to parental drug or alcohol misuse, abuse, neglect or bereavement, kinship carers often prevent children from going into local authority care, enabling them to stay with their family, and in many cases allowing siblings to stay together.
It’s far from easy: very few kinship carers are entitled to statutory support, they face stigma and isolation and they are caring for children with complex needs – children in kinship care are likely to have experienced trauma, and a higher than average proportion have a disability. We offer them support: our advice line is there to make sure carers get the best guidance possible when they need it most, and our programmes connect carers with a network of essential services. But we still have a long way to go.
One of the biggest challenges within kinship care is that everyone knows about it, without knowing about it at all. Every parent will have considered what would happen to their children if something happened to them, and almost all say they’d want a family member to step in – most commonly a grandparent. Few follow that train of thought further – to how that grandparent would manage financially, what support would be available to the children and how they’d all cope with the change in their relationship. Some say that it’s natural for family members to step in – it’s how it should be – and therein lies the problem.
When relatives do the natural thing and step in to raise children, should it be about plunging them into poverty? Should it be about families struggling to get help for traumatised children? Should it be about carers feeling that the children will be taken away from them if they ask for help? This is the reality for too many kinship carers in the UK, and with an estimated 200,000 children in their care, it’s time things changed.
MESSAGES OF SUPPORT
Our new campaign aims to shine a spotlight on kinship care. We asked Rochelle, a grandmother caring for her two granddaughters, to talk about her experiences. We then asked her to go to Trafalgar Square in London and, blindfolded, ask the public for messages of support. The response was overwhelming. ‘You are brave and selfless’. ‘Stay strong’. ‘Keep going’. When people heard she was a kinship carer, their response was compassion and solidarity. We believe that this is the first step towards better recognition and support for kinship carers – a reminder that behind the categories, budgets and classifications there are people, trying to give children the best start to life they can.
Small steps can lead to big changes. Knowing that kinship care families might need more support and being able to point them in our direction can help families get back on their feet. Making sure services are inclusive to grandparents and other family members can reduce isolation for both children and carers. The more carers we can reach, the stronger the case there is for better statutory support.
Speaking to kinship carers, the stories you hear can be devastating. One grandmother describes how taking on the children was like a juggernaut hitting her, and years later she is still fighting for them. Others say the process is like a minefield, with the children’s future at stake. Young people who’ve grown up in kinship care describe not knowing how to make sense of their family situation, saying it would have been easier if their parent was dead than unable to care for them. They describe the gratitude they feel to their carer for putting their childhood first. It’s time we did the same.