Representatives from Grandparents Plus (the Relative Experience Project), Kinship Carers Middlesbrough and the Association of Kinship Carers Tees Valley had been invited to the meeting to provide:
Information on the characteristics of family and friends care in Middlesbrough, including benefits, outcomes and challenges.
An outline of the support that was currently offered to family and friends carers.
An overview of how the Local Authoritys work with family and friends carers could be further improved and developed.
The Project Manager for Grandparents Plus (the Relative Experience Project) explained that family and friends care involved caring, nurturing and protecting children who were separated from their parents or whose parents were unable to provide care and support. Instead, care was provided by grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles or other relatives, godparents or step-grandparents or other adults who had a relationship or connection to the child. Members were advised that the role of providing care within the family was often regarded as natural and was taken for granted. As a result, family and friends care had low visibility in terms of public policy and social welfare provision.
Members heard that children in family and friends care could have experienced neglect, abuse, parental alcohol or drug misuse, domestic violence, parental mental or physical illness, parental disability and/or the imprisonment or death of a parent. It was highlighted that those children would be in local authority care if their family member had not stepped in. By keeping these children out of care system, family and friends carers were saving the state billions of pounds each year.
In around 95% of cases, children in family and friends care were not classed as looked after children and whilst they had similar needs and difficulties to children who were, they had no legal entitlement to any type of support.
Grandparents Plus was a national charity that championed the vital role of grandparents and the wider family in childrens lives. As part of its work, the charity had undertaken numerous surveys, which identified that around half of children in family and friends care had additional needs of some kind. It was reported that that the most common needs were emotional and behavioural difficulties (36%). In many cases, difficulties arose from the childrens traumatic early experiences, with birth parents being unable to provide the appropriate level of care and support.
It was also reported that family and friends carers themselves experienced multiple challenges. More than half were grandparents, they tended to be older, had long-term health conditions (42%) and a significant number had multiple caring responsibilities. Research had also indicated a clear link between the prevalence of family and friends care and poverty.
Members were advised that the complexities of care arrangements and issues within the family could lead to considerable strain on family and friends carers and their children. In addition, many family and friends carers experienced stigma, due to the reasons their children came to live with them, and many were reluctant to seek support from statutory services, due to fears that the children would be taken into care. Despite the high needs of children in family and friends care and the financial, practical and emotional strain on their carers, family and friends carers often felt invisible, isolated and unsupported.
As part of its work, Grandparents Plus also published research on issues affecting family and friends carers in the UK. The charity worked in partnership with renowned academics to produce high-quality research papers and articles. Past research demonstrated that family and friends placements tended to be more stable than unrelated foster care and children could more easily maintain a sense of family, cultural identity and contact with wider family members. It was added that children placed with family and friends carers felt loved and were able to bond with their carers. Family and friends carers could build on existing relationships with the child to help them feel loved and cared for, which enabled them to grow and develop as happy children. It was also highlighted that children placed with family and friends carers also tended to achieve better in respect of educational outcomes.
A recent research study conducted by the University of Bristol, identified that around 2,290 children in the Teesside area were being raised by grandparents, other family members or friends. It was added that the prevalence across the North East was the highest in England and the number of children being cared for by family and friends was rising.
Members were informed that Grandparents Plus was working in partnership with two leading family charities, Family Lives and the Family and Childcare Trust, to support family and friends carers in the North East England through the Relative Experience Project.
Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, the Relative Experience Project began as a pilot in Tyneside in 2012, and had been rolled out successfully to all local authority areas in the north east. The project had an established infrastructure and strong staff team in the region, which included ex social workers, youth workers, and community workers, all of whom had strong professional knowledge of family and friends care. Members heard that the project was specifically targeted at isolated and poorly supported family and friends carers, who were disproportionately likely to be raising children in disadvantaged areas and deprived households. To date, the project had supported 386 family and friends carers across the north east.
A Member asked how family and friends carers became aware of the project. The Project Worker for Grandparents Plus (the Relative Experience Project) explained that the charity had established close links with local authorities and Voluntary Community Sector (VCS), therefore, referrals were received from statutory services and voluntary and community groups. It was highlighted that that good working relationships had been developed with the Local Authoritys Fostering Team. It was also commented that family and friends carers could refer themselves.
The Project Manager explained that the Relative Experience Project Team had worked actively in the Tees Valley area since January 2015. The team started work in the Middlesbrough area, then established support networks in Stockton-On-Tees and then in the Redcar and Cleveland area.
The project currently supported 85 families in Teesside through one-to-one support from project workers and volunteer befrienders. The volunteering befriending service comprised a team of trained and dedicated volunteer befrienders, often family and friends carers themselves, who provided a listening ear. The volunteers would listen in a non-judgemental way to help family and friends carers find the confidence to cope with the problems they faced. On a practical level they also offered basic information, including the Kinship Care Guide for England, and referrals to the Grandparents Plus national advice service and other local and national sources of help.
The project supported family and friends carers to speak out, helped to raise awareness and challenged policy and practice both locally and nationally. The project also offered a grants service, whereby family and friends gained access to advice and information about grants from charities and benevolent funds and received assistance with completing grant application forms. Specific reference was made to Middlesbrough and Teesside Philanthropic Foundation. The charity awarded small grants that could be used to purchase white goods, school uniforms etc.
The project worked with family and friends carers to organise local support groups so that members could share information and concerns, campaign for change or simply spend time together. Five family and friends carer support groups had been developed across the Teesside area, including Kinship Carers Middlesbrough. Middlesbroughs Project Worker had supported the other Teesside groups to come together as a new Association of Kinship Carers Tees Valley, facilitating peer support, enabling sharing of knowledge and expertise and ensuring capacity building and future sustainability.
The interim independent evaluation by York Consulting reported the project's significant and positive impact on family and friends carers. Feedback received included:
"The Relative Experience Project saved my life, in the beginning I was at the end of my stress level and was full of despair, I was crying out for help. If it wasnt for the project I may not have been here now"
"I didnt realise that other people were going through what I was going through; it was so good to meet others who understood what I was feeling."
The Relative Experience Project was funded by the Big Lottery until March 2017. It was anticipated that a decision would be made in December, as to whether the funding would be extended. Future funding would help the project to continue work the Teesside area and reach isolated family and friends carers.
Kinship Carers Middlesbrough and the Association of Kinship Carers Tees Valley were initiated by the Relative Experience Project and with support had been developed to become autonomous, with continued access to project support as required.
The Chair and Vice-Chair of Kinship Carers Middlesbrough explained that their group met weekly in the Thorntree and Grove Hill areas of Middlesbrough. The group operated at full capacity and it was currently unable to accept new members.
The Secretary and Treasurer of the Association of Kinship Carers Tees Valley commented that the association continued to accept new members and the network of support groups in the Tees Valley area was vastly expanding. The work of the association involved peer support chat groups and meetings took place in Stockton, Whinney Banks, Linthorpe and Hemlington. It was added that new groups had been arranged for Billingham and Redcar. Members also heard that from 3 November 2016 a Kinship Family Support Centre would be open at The Methodist Church on Stainsby Road.
Kinship Carers Middlesbrough and the Association of Kinship Carers Tees Valley provided family and friends carers with the opportunity to meet, discuss and learn from others in similar situations. The groups provided valued peer support; shared knowledge; organised meetings, events and training sessions and regularly arranged trips, activities and holidays for family and friends carers and the children they cared for. The groups financed their own work by actively fundraising and had been successful in securing a number of grants for activities and trips. It was commented that Kinship Carers Middlesbrough had encountered problems when attempting to hire a mini bus from the Local Authoritys fleet. A Member explained that enquiries would be made in this respect.
The Chair and Vice-Chair of Kinship Carers Middlesbrough and the Secretary and Treasurer of the Association of Kinship Carers Tees Valley provided the scrutiny panel with information in respect of their own experiences and the challenges they faced when taking on the caring role in difficult family circumstances. This information enabled the scrutiny panel to gain an awareness of the sacrifices and losses that family and friends carers incur when acting upon the love they have for their grandchildren and their wish to make their lives better.
It was explained that children usually found it easier to form and develop attachments to family and friends carers than someone they had not known previously. Members heard that a lot of satisfaction was gained from being a family and friends carer, but it was not always easy. For those cared for outside of the looked after system there was a lack of, inconsistent or low level financial payments or allowances. Grandparents or other family members stepping in to bring up a child often felt they had to give up work or reduce their hours. The scrutiny panel found that grandparents were risking hardship themselves in order to provide care and support for their families. The experiences outlined to Members demonstrated that family and friends carers sometimes felt lonely, isolated, unsupported and struggled to cope. Furthermore, some children in family and friends care had emotional or behavioural problems, special educational needs, illness or a disability.
Support from local authorities varied widely according to where children, placed in family and friends care, lived. Members heard it was essential that, at the first point of contact with local authorities, family and friends carers were helped to understand their rights and responsibilities. It needed to be ensured that family and friends carers were made aware of different legal statuses and associated levels of support, both practical and financial. This information would assist carers in making comparisons and inform their decision-making.
A Member commented that it was essential that family and friends carers were provided with advice and guidance on the key features of family and friends care, what the law said, the different types of care and legal orders, how to get help and what benefits, options and choices were available. Family and friends carers should be in a position to explore the options available, and should be made aware of the welfare benefits and other sources of financial support that they may be entitled to claim. The Project Worker advised that the Local Authority had discretion to make one-off or regular payments under section 17 Children Act and family and friends carers should be made aware of this. It was noted, however, that these payments were means-tested.
It was advised that the Relative Experience Project, Kinship Carers Middlesbrough and the Association of Kinship Carers Tees Valley aspired to work in partnership with Middlesbrough Council to develop the Local Authoritys services for family and friends carers, in order to create a culture of support. A discussion ensued in respect of the work that the Local Authority could undertake to further develop and improve its practices to support family and friends carers and work in a more transparent and open way. The following comments were made:
It was agreed that the Local Authority would benefit from developing an information pack/resource for family and friends carers to provide clear and helpful advice and information on the different types of care arrangements and legal orders and the support (practical, financial and legal) available from the Local Authority and local and national organisations. It was commented that guidance should also be included in respect of the pupil premium plus. This resource could then be utilised by practitioners and ward councillors.
It would be beneficial if ward councillors received training to gain a greater awareness of family and friends care. Training would enable ward councillors to offer advice and signposting to appropriate organisations, charities and groups.
Representatives from Grandparents Plus could deliver a briefing session to the Local Authoritys leaders in respect of the research, studies and work undertaken by charity and this evidence could be utilised to inform/develop the Local Authoritys processes, policies and procedures.
Social workers required a transparent and thorough policy framework, in order to ensure consistency of practice and informed decision-making. Frontline staff and social workers would benefit from receiving training to enable them to provide professional and specialist advice in respect of family and friends care.
Measures needed to be implemented to ensure that family and friends carers gained knowledge and awareness of the local support groups.
There was a need for family and friends carers to be provided with opportunity to engage in training sessions and development workshops on relevant topics, such as safeguarding, contact, maintaining positive relationships and life story work. It was commented that it was vital that family and friends carers received access to the appropriate training, support and development opportunities, to enable them to develop new skills and gain knowledge on a variety of issues. It was explained that Grandparents Plus offered training and support specifically developed for family and friends carers.
It would be beneficial if family and friends carers were provided with access to free, impartial and ongoing Local Authority support from a specific dedicated contact, as currently many families were left to deal with the complexities of family and friends care alone.
It was of the utmost importance that children placed with family and friends carers, whose early experiences have led to developmental, emotional, behavioural or educational difficulties, received access to the appropriate support.
Members were made aware that Leeds City Council demonstrated good practice in respect having clear policies and systems in place to ensure family and friends care arrangements were appropriately assessed and supported. A Member queried what work the Local Authority would need to undertake to aim for excellence. It was advised that a shift in policy would be required. The scrutiny panel was in agreement that it would be beneficial to hear from representatives at Leeds City Council to establish the principles of good practice for local authority work with family and friends carers.
The Local Authoritys work with family and friends carers needed to be governed by consistent principles, regardless of the legal status of the carer or child. It was commented that although entitlement to support by family and friends carers is detailed in statutory guidance, the Local Authority should endeavour to ensure that support was based on need, not legal status.
The representatives from Grandparents Plus explained that a Relative Experience Project Conference was scheduled to take place on 29 November 2016. The conference would deliver a showcase of the Relative Experience Project and explore best practice and successful and sustainable approaches to supporting family and friends carers. An invite would be circulated, to the scrutiny panel, following the meeting.
AGREED as follows:
That the information presented at the meeting be considered in the context of the scrutiny panels investigation.
That the representatives from Grandparents Plus (Relative Experience Project), Kinship Carers Middlesbrough and the Association of Kinship Carers Tees Valley be thanked for attending the meeting and providing information that would undoubtedly add value to the ongoing review.
That the appropriate representative from Leeds City Council be invited to a future meeting of the scrutiny panel to provide Members with information on the policies that had been embedded in Leeds to ensure family and friends care arrangements were appropriately assessed and supported.