‘There was no support’: Getting kinship care support right
Written by Noel Macnamara Janise Mitchell
Kinship care, or family care as it is known in some jurisdictions, is when family members or non-family members in a child or family’s social network offer a home and support to a young person who is unable to live with their parents.
Kinship care placements have greatly increased across all Australian states and territories and are the fastest growing form of out-of-home care (OOHC) in Australia. In Victoria, between 2017-2021, kinship care grew in Victoria by 33.2 per cent from 5,577 to 7,429 children in OOHC living in kinship care.
Kinship care is now recognised as having many advantages over other forms of OOHC.
- The evidence suggests that kinship care may provide better outcomes for children and young people than foster or residential care in terms of behavioural development, mental health functioning and placement stability (Winokur et al., 2018).
- In the literature, policy and practice, kinship care is seen as the option that provides the most stability for the child. This has been attributed to greater continuity of care, minimising the stigma of being a child in OOHC, maintaining the child’s family identity, understanding the child’s history and experiences, and continuity of culture.
- Children and young people in kinship care regard their family life as normal and a part of the diversity of Australian families. This perception challenges concepts such as ‘placement’, ‘access’, ‘leaving care’ and even ‘kinship care’ itself, as terms that may not be relevant.
- Qualitative studies indicate that children in kinship care feel safe and understood and would choose to remain in kinship care over either foster care or returning to their parents (Kiraly & Humphreys, 2013).
There are a range of unique challenges for kinship carers
- Although kinship carers are not a homogeneous group, the literature and practice consistently highlight commonalities between the characteristics of kinship carers.
Kinship carers are more likely to be older, single, and female.
They are more likely to experience poorer health, have lower incomes and have lower levels of education.
A significant number of kinship carers are grandparent carers.
Kinship caregivers can struggle with dramatic changes to their life plans, stress, or health problems, especially if they are elderly.
- Kinship carers need to manage the relationship that they have with the parent(s) of the child they are caring for, whether that be their biological child, sibling, or other relative. Managing relationships and contact with birth parents is reported as one of the most stressful elements of being a kinship carer (Kiraly & Humphreys, 2013)
- Kinship carers must manage their own feelings about birth parents’ behaviour and its effect on children. These areas require targeted intensive intervention and support.
- Relationships can change outside the family when someone becomes a carer. This can result in the kinship carer becoming isolated.
Kinship carers have a multiplicity of needs that require understanding and support
- They require increased practical support with parenting and understanding the impact of trauma on the behaviour of the children in their care.
- They required consistent access to respite and childcare services, and advice about services relevant to the child’s needs.
- They require financial and other support related to their stage of life and health needs and the needs of the children in their care.
- Very importantly kinship carers need to feel listened to and understood by the systems that are designed to support them.
So, what are we doing about it and are we getting it right?
There are a range of initiatives across Australia that are seeking to meet the needs of kinship carers. The question is are we getting it right?
In 2018, the Victorian government introduced a new kinship care model to improve child protection services to kinship carers and the children who live with them. The Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFH) state:
In June 2022 the Victoria Auditor General’s Offices (VAGO) released a report into Kinship Care.
The question the audit sought to answer was:
The resounding answer to that question was No. The VAGO report concluded that there was a lack of assessment and support of kinship carers needs.
’’’VAGO found that half of the children who are being placed in kinship care are not having their placements assessed, either for safety or for what kind of support they and their carers might need.
Nearly 86% of the kinship placements were not followed up in the first week to check if the placement was safe and meeting the child or young person’s needs.
Over 90% of the annual assessments to check the progress of the well-being, development and placement stability were not done on time.
Essentially, VAGO found the new model to be struggling in many key areas a complete failure. In response to the report DFFH have accepted that there is a need for significant improvements to be made to the processes and structure supporting carers.
VAGO made 12 recommendations to improve Victoria’s child protection system. It included six (6) about identifying kinship networks early, one (1) about completing mandatory assessments, two (2) about support for carers and three (3) about monitoring and reporting on the new model. In response to the report, DFFH accepted all 12 recommendations.
Please see the full VAGO report here: https://www.audit.vic.gov.au/report/kinship-care
For a video presentation of the report check out the following video:
How do we get it right?
Children have a right to live within their family networks if they cannot live with their birth parents – this is commonplace in many cultures and not new! But what are the principles upon which a kinship care support system should be built?
It is our view that kinship care remains poorly understood and conceptualised.
Existing paradigms around family support and out-of-home care practice are not working for kinship care. Policy and program design and delivery is failing to recognise the unique context of kinship care and will continue to fail kinship carers until we understand it in ways that are helpful to kinship carers.
Kinship carers do not make a planned decision to become kinship carers – it often occurs in the face of a crisis or critical challenges facing the family. This is not the case for foster care.
Kinship carers have to navigate a complex set of family dynamics in their roles as kinship carers that are a source of significant stress. This is not the care for foster care.
Many kinship carers are at a later life stage with less support and resources. This is not the case for the vast majority of foster care.
Kinship carers are family to the children they care for. Children and their kinship carers do not consider themselves offering a placement – they are family looking after family. Whilst offering a home, foster care is considered a placement to a child with no pre-existing relationship to the carers.
The lexicon and traditional paradigms related to out-of-home care do not work for kinship care. Neither does a family support approach.
We need a new paradigm, or way of thinking about kinship care that informs policy, service, and program design. This must be co-designed with kinship carers.
This needs to be underpinned by a set of principles and practices that understand the complexity of kinship care and holds multi-generational relationships at its centre.
Kiraly, M., & Humphreys, C. (2013). Family contact for children in kinship care: A literature review. Australian Social Work, 66(3), 358– 374.
Winokur, M. A., Holtan, A., & Batchelder, K. E. (2018). Systematic review of kinship care effects on safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes. Research on Social Work Practice, 28(1), 19– 32.