The underclass of carers: grandparents in the UK

Hundreds of thousands of children in the UK are brought up by family members who are not their parents. These ‘kinship carers’ - overwhelmingly women - save the taxpayers billions, but with little support from social services often endure poverty, ill-health and isolation.

Angela Neustatter
16 May 2014

Lily, aged 52, tells how the tranquil life she had settled into once her three children left home and she reduced work to part-time was dramatically changed when she took on her nine-year-old granddaughter and became a kinship carer.

 ‘My own daughter, Eliza, was 17 when she had Susie. She was living with a violent boyfriend and they were heavily involved in drugs. She lost her home and ended up in a refuge, then descended further into drugs and alcohol abuse, living with a man who had never worked and had a history of violence.

‘Susie was likely to be taken into care  and I didn’t want that. After all she had been through she needed family I thought. So I brought her to live with me. That was six years ago and she is still with me.’

Some 300,000 children in the UK are being brought up by kinship carers - primarily grandparents though they may be other family members. Many of these children have been neglected, abused or suffered the death or serious illness of a parent. Almost half have special needs or a disability. In other words, these are an exceptionally challenging bunch, victims of the tough lot life has thrown at them.

Sam Smethers, CEO at the charity Grandparents’ Plus which is currently running a campaign for the rights of kinship carers, says: ‘What you have is an unsung and undervalued population who take on children because they cannot bear to see them suffer and do not want them taken into care.‘

Just over two-thirds (67 per cent) of these children are abandoned by parents who are affected by alcohol or drug misuse, including nearly a quarter (24 per cent) who are misusing both. So the decision to take on a child is frequently done because the grandparents want to keep the child within the family. For example, there have been babies dumped on doorsteps with no nappies or food; children filthy and hungry, phoning a grandparent in desperation to ask if they may live with them.  In some cases the parent is sent to prison at a court hearing and has made no provision for the child.

A major study, The Poor Relations: Children and Informal Kinship Carers Speak Out  published a year ago by leading children’s grant-giving charity, Buttle UK and the University of Bristol, provided the most comprehensive picture to date across the UK of informal kinship care - children cared for by relatives and friends because their parents are no longer able to look after them. More than three-quarters of children had been abused or neglected and more than a third had experienced the death of one or both parents. Exposure to domestic violence and parental mental illness was also common.

The poorest of all informal carers are the brothers and sisters who are obliged to bring up 38 per cent of all kinship-cared-for children in the UK.

By taking on these desperately needy children and striving to give them a family home, kinship carers save the state some £12 billion annually, according to Grandparents Plus. That is the kind of sum that those at the other end of the economic scale are permitted to put offshore as a way of avoiding tax, a fact that seems spectacularly wrong set against the fact that informal kinship carers frequently have no right to funding for the children.

Hardship, sacrifice, isolation

It is not hard to imagine the financial burden incurred by taking on a child, possibly for years. As well as the direct costs, the carers will frequently find they cannot cope with the competing demands of a job and the needs of a child who most probably has been through a damagingly traumatic time. Grandparents Plus research shows that almost half of carers previously working gave up their job when the child moved in, though 83 per cent had wanted to stay in work. These informal kinship carers, of whom half (51 per cent) are lone carers, have foregone retirement and given up their jobs and their freedom. The young carers miss out on further education and job training and are the poorest of all. More than half of the carers (60%) had to manage difficult contact with the children’s parents’ according to The Poor Relations report.

Unsurprisingly poverty is all too often the result and the Buttle report gives an authoritative account of the financial hardship, sacrifice, isolation and the cost to health of the relatives bringing up children across the UK.

 You hear the anger at this in the words of a grandmother bringing up her 14-year-old grandchild: ‘Successive governments have never ever wanted to acknowledge this underclass of caring that is going on. I can't tell you how hard it's been ... and the eternal phrase “But this is a private arrangement”.’

The Family Rights Group which, along with Grandparents Plus, campaigns for change, produced a report It’s Just Not Fair that explained what a Cinderella group kinship carers are: ‘They suffer from two disadvantages. There is no statutory framework for support nor the safety net provided by court proceedings.‘ Sometimes, but by no means certainly, a small amount of support can be provided through services set up for children in need. Even this, the Buttle report suggests, is far from the norm. Indeed, those who had only ever cared informally identified unmet needs for support and a higher number of unmet needs than any other group.

The situation is strikingly different for carers with foster status, and kinship carers who gain foster care status through the courts. In these cases, reports the Family Rights Group, ‘‘Support for kinship foster-care arrangements is more likely to be equivalent to that available to mainstream foster carers.” Nonetheless, what kindred foster parents get is at the discretion of the local authority and not all have policies that cover it adequately.

This raises the question of why informal carers do not always apply for kindred foster-parent status themselves. 

One reason they may be reluctant to go to court and argue for fostering status is fear that they will fail and the child be taken away, explains Sam Smethers. And some social workers may feel they themselves would be vulnerable if they left children with an unregulated person, even though the carer is family and may have had a relationship with the child since birth.

‘Social workers may prefer to be able to tick all the boxes by placing the child with one of their foster parents or by having them adopted.’

Nor do local authorities, with budgets stretched to the limits, necessarily want their social service teams getting involved with kinship cared-for families if that means they need to be given financial support.

Even where a local authority agrees an allowance, the level is variable and some payments are evidently meagre.

It angers Sam Smethers that the chance for change was missed in the recent Family Justice System reforms: ‘The government should have taken the opportunity to require local authorities to consider the wider family before placing a child with stranger foster carers or placing them on the path to adoption. There is a real risk that family members are pushed out of the process.’

The Buttle research which surveyed kindred carers in depth provides insights into how well, both emotionally and academically, such children are doing compared with children in the formal care system and the impact such arrangements have on both children and carers. 

‘Despite the often difficult circumstances of the carers, the research shows that these informal kinship arrangements provide stability for the children. The children are doing well, have strong attachments to their carers and have good levels of academic attainment, particularly when compared to children in the formal care system. Many children have high educational aspirations with half planning to go to college (47%) and almost two-fifths aiming for university.’

A number of charities have come together to attempt to get the law changed so that informal kinship carers get the support they need in taking on children who would be likely to cost the state a good deal if they mirrored the low educational and employment situation of children who have been looked after by the state. And that is without considering the high costs resulting from later and statistically likely encounters with the criminal justice system.

Grandparents Plus are also campaigning to get unpaid parental leave from work for kinship carers. Explains Smethers: ‘We want this to be either as general childcare support or perhaps at times of intensive need such as after a baby is born or during times of parental separation or divorce.

‘Isn’t it odd that something like a holiday which people have time to plan for is supported by time off, yet unplanned caring responsibilities are not? There is a policy gap in how kinship carers are treated, as well as a care gap.’

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