Square Peg in a Round Hole – Part 2 – where does kinship social work practice fit?
I worked in a specialist kinship care team for 14 years, before joining CoramBAAF as Kinship Consultant in February. Since then, I’ve spoken with many of our members in Practice Forums and Committees, and in training events and workshops. I’ve been struck by the passion and commitment from so many to develop and deliver high quality social work services for kinship families.
For many years, kinship practice has felt like the poor relation to adoption and fostering. Although there is much we can all learn from these areas of social work, I feel that kinship practice needs to develop further as a specialism in its own right. And I’m left pondering the question – where does kinship social work practice fit?
For many kinship families with formalised arrangements through a legal order, their journey involves assessment and approval as kinship foster carers. Approving family members as kinship foster carers can feel like trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. Many of these carers will not have made a deliberate decision to become a foster carer but the law requires them to be one - to make sure a child they love can live in a lawful ‘placement’. It leaves me wondering whether the assessment and approval of those carers would be better done by kinship specialists, in specialist teams.
We know from our members, that kinship carers can be assessed and supported by various teams, including fostering, kinship, special guardianship, adoption and safeguarding. We also know there are artificial transfer points within services for kinship carers according to the legal status of the carer. For families this means re-telling their story to yet another professional and forming yet another relationship. For example, a carer can start their journey by being assessed by the safeguarding social worker, then referred to the fostering team to be assessed, supervised and supported. Later they are transferred again to a special guardianship support team once the special guardianship order is made. In worst case scenarios, they may be transferred back to the safeguarding team if for example, the local authority wasn’t able to approve them as a kinship foster carer quickly enough and the ‘placement’ became unlawful. Meanwhile, the kinship carer and the children in their care – their situation – stays the same.
I’m left with the overriding feeling that there is more that unites kinship carers together with a common identity than separates them depending on their legal status – but that we too often don’t reflect this in our practice.
At CoramBAAF, we believe every local authority should have a specialist team that performs the range of kinship work, from assessment through to support. In a specialist team, the starting point of the assessment and their relationship with professionals is ‘how can we assess and support you on your journey as a kinship carer’. It is not therefore driven by the regulatory framework and legal status of the ‘placement’.
This would prevent the creation of an artificial distinction between kinship carers being assessed and supported as either foster carers or special guardians. The kinship assessment by the specialist team can consider their strengths and vulnerabilities, and any risks. It then recommends their approval as kinship foster carers or special guardians (sometimes both), with a clear support plan and with the support being provided by the same team, regardless of legal status and who will understand the specific needs of kinship carers better. I’m left wondering whether when services are being provided to kinship carers from fostering teams there could be an unfair comparison made about the different types of carers, even at an unconscious level?
The majority of carers with informal arrangements are unlikely to even be receiving much support at all. Specialist teams would also provide an opportunity for local authorities to review eligibility for informal carers and map out the support offer to this even more invisible group of carers.
Children in kinship arrangements do as well, and sometimes better, than children in unrelated foster care - Two Decades of Research (Hunt, 2020). Kinship arrangements are an entirely different context to be caring for a child than foster care, and there are many complexities that can arise because of family relationships, poverty and poor housing, as well as the unplanned and often crisis driven nature of a child needing care. There are sometimes risks that need to be carefully balanced and mitigated against, to be able to give the priority to the pre-existing relationship, including the love and the trust, between a child and their kinship carer.
Social workers should be given the support, the space, and the structure within specialist teams, to build meaningful and authentic relationships with kinship families that enables strengths-based and trauma-informed kinship social work practice.
The Care Review has highlighted the need for more support for kinship families and it suggests more kinship arrangements need to be identified and supported via Family Network Plans. But it leaves unanswered questions around the many care planning scenarios that are required before permanency can be achieved for a child in a kinship arrangement, including the need for kinship carers to be assessed as foster carers.
At CoramBAAF we have a role to play in thinking about social work practice within kinship care and supporting our members to develop and share good practice. As kinship consultant, it’s an essential part of my job to engage with members and listen to their experiences. I also reflect on the impact of our interventions on kinship families, and listen to the experiences of kinship carers themselves.
So my question today is – could a national conversation about where kinship practice fits serve both families and social workers better?
Please join the conversation and share your thoughts about the role of social workers in kinship care. Please email me firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com with your thoughts, or join our next practice forum on 2 November.
Ann Horne, Kinship Care Consultant, CoramBAAF