Kinship care and well-being

 The huge growth of statutory kinship care in the last decade in Australia is now well documented (AIHW, 2011). This growth has preceded policy development and as a result, kinship families have had little support until recently. Australian Federal and State Governments are now responding; in Victoria, Australia, funded kinship support programs in community organisations are in their second year of operation.

Research to date shows that kinship care brings many benefits. Carers show great love and commitment; children feel a strong sense of belonging; and there is greater stability of care and likelihood of siblings being placed together (Connolly, 2003). There are also clear warnings of the vulnerability of a model of care that is predicated on caregivers who by comparison with foster carers are predominantly older, with more health problems, materially poorer, and more likely to be sole carers (McHugh and Valentine, 2010; O’Neill, 2011).

The nexus of the extended family and child protection intervention brings both a means of ensuring safe and secure care, but also risks of unintended consequences. Among these are the risks posed by ‘careism’.

The British children’s rights advocate Dr Michael Lindsay, who himself grew up in care, coined the term ‘careism’ to describe discrimination against children in care (Lindsay, 1998). The unique aspects of kinship care arguably give a window on the ingrained nature of careism in our society. An example was provided by a grandmother who described with faint amusement the requirement to start preparing a ‘leaving care plan’ with her 14-year-old grandson. How many Australian or British families start planning for their child to leave home at 18 these days, far less starting such a conversation in the early teens? More likely is a conversation about the young person’s particular interests, and how they might be pursued in postsecondary education – with the support of family home life.

Kinship research to date has largely focused on the experiences of caregivers, usually grandparents. Few kinship studies have included the views of children and young people. The right of children to be involved in decisions that affect them and to have their views heard is increasingly recognised by the Victorian government (State of Victoria, 2005; Department of Human Services (Victoria), 2007). Their insights need to contribute to a body of knowledge to better inform developing policy and practice in protective kinship care. Nevertheless, some of their views are confronting.

The University of Melbourne (Australia) has been engaged in a collaborative research project exploring family contact in kinship care. One aspect of this research was to solicit the views of a range of family members. Here we focus on the views of 21 children and young people with experience of kinship care. Interviews were a moving experience for the researcher. A clear set of themes emerged in their view of family life and interventions designed to keep them safe.

‘Normal kids with normal families’

A big theme was a sense of normality: one of the key strengths of kinship care. Young people[1] understood families to be diverse in nature.

I never thought it was a form of care … I just thought that it was going to stay with Nanna or Grandad for this long time and that’s it. It didn’t seem weird or strange to me anyway. (David, 21)

 

It’s pretty much the same life that everyone else has really. Just different circumstances … Really I don’t think I’m disadvantaged compared to other kids. Don’t treat us as special kids – because we’re just normal kids, living our normal lives. Just different ways of living it. (Aiden, 14)

 

It was clear that for children, the family is who they say it is, not defined by a conventional definition of nuclear family. Brothers and sisters were defined according to the significance of the relationship rather than the number of shared parents. Cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents were also important. Pets are part of family life. Family is family even if there is no ‘shared blood’.

My uncle … was really lots of fun, he was more like a father to me than what my actual father was at the time. (Amelia, 17)

 

Also another person important in my life is Benny. He’s a miniature dachshund – aren’t you Benny? He’s a good boy. (Tom, 13)

 

She may not be ‘blood family’ but who says blood is needed to make a family? If you’ve had friends who have stuck by you through the worst then personally in my eyes they are family. (Oscar, 19)

 

The theme of normality permeates young people’s views about when and how they want to maintain their family relationships.

Relationships with mother and father

Young people reported many difficulties with their parents. Although there were some workable arrangements, most stories included keenly felt disappointments. Children frequently spoke of feeling let down by their parents. Fathers were frequently missing, or had died. The loss of the father frequently also meant the loss of connection with his side of the family. With one or two exceptions, parents’ partners rarely appeared to be interested in the children.

I don’t really like it because [Mum] sticks with the boys and [little sister] and she makes us upset … She doesn’t really respect me and Hannah. She doesn’t really care about us, it feels like it … We actually don’t do anything. We just sit. (Lisa, 10)

 

My Dad passed away when my Mum was pregnant with me. I’ve never known that side of the family (Grace, 17)

 

I’ll go to Dad’s place now and then, but I kind of try and stay away from the house because of his girlfriend. When I lived there [two years after my Mum died], she used to scream and swear at me and Andy. (Brianna, 14)

Forced contact arrangements

At all ages, children wanted some control in their family relationships, and a family-friendly environment to visit in. On occasion when desperate, they would take decision-making into their own hands, with all that entailed.

[After Court] she was like, ‘Oh come on give your mother a hug,’ and I’m like, ‘No, I don’t want to touch you, I don’t want to be anywhere near you’. Then her boyfriend’s like, ‘Don’t talk to your mother like that, just give her a hug’. Then I just said to her, ‘I don’t have a mother’, and I walked away; and we went outside and I was composed the whole time, and as soon as the doors closed and she couldn’t see me anymore I’ve never cried so hard in my whole life. Like I was in Grade 6 – like what 13-year-old says to their Mum … ‘I don’t have a mother’. But I have always thought it, and like I’m glad that I had the chance to finally say it to her. (Tessa, 17)

 

I love seeing my parents and my brothers and all that. It was just hard because we’ve found we had to do it behind the Department’s back … because we had to watch what we were doing. It’s just we were supposed to do it through ‘access.’ I don’t like the idea of sitting in a building and being watched seeing my parents. Whereas I just wanted to act like normal around them. I was mostly seeing them at my brother’s place … It was just more comfortable, like every day, back home sort of thing. (Zoe, 19)

 

The centrality of brothers and sisters

 

Children often spoke about how important their separated sisters and brothers were to them, even sometimes when they have not lived together.

I always go there … A couple of months Dillon had a cricket final the next day so I helped him with his bowling, and he actually won … [So if you could wave a magic wand, what could you make better in your family?] That I can live with Dillon, and I would still see my baby brother more often.
(Lisa, 10)

 

It’s very important [to keep kids together] otherwise you don’t really know each other. We were always pretty much split up. It was very hard for me not really knowing them. What to buy them for their birthday. The music they like, simple things, their favourite colour … Brothers and sisters, they’re the ones you lean on. Now I can see them any time I want to, so that’s good. (Grace, 17)

 

I have a half-brother, he’s 18, Tyson. He’s in Sydney. I’ve never seen him so…I talk to him on Facebook. It’s pretty good because I can’t really go over to Sydney so it gives me a way to talk to him. (Aiden, 13)

 

Again, prohibitions on contact were not always effective.

Everyone says [my brother’s] bad, he’s not allowed near me … He has been in trouble with the police … I do get annoyed with him and the friends he hangs out with, but I’ll never hate him because he’s always been there for me … I’m not allowed to text him at all, much. But I still do because I need contact with him. (Brianna, 14)

The wider family

It was clear that children and young people were being nurtured by frequent, informal contact with their wider family network. They want these relationships recognised and supported. They may also be needed in an ultimate sense.

My cousins could come down and stay the night with my grandmother. We had so many sleep over parties … So that was really good, but when I actually left kinship care, it [stopped].
(Amelia, 17)

 

When I was five or six, growing up with my grandmother I had a really good relationship with my uncle. Then I couldn’t have any relationship whatsoever because of the care sector saying no … well I was happy to have supervised access with him. My uncle wasn’t a threat or whatsoever to me … Now, he’s passed away … How much do I miss out on, especially when I hear other cousins talking about that uncle. (Tina, 19)

 

If other kids like me want to see their families, you should actually let them ‘cause it might help them in life, and yeah, ’cause if … Nan dies, or has a heart attack again, I won’t be able to live with her and I don’t want to go to foster care. So I would like to just live with my cousins … Because once I forget about them – you need them there for you … you need someone in your life you’re related to, and you’ve always got them there to love, so yeah … (Brianna, 14)

 

However, often young people do not find it easy to assert their wishes.

… It’s really hard to work out the dynamics and maybe if I had stood stronger when I was 13 and tried to say well I want contact with this, I want this [person] and stood my ground. But at 13, how do you know how to stand your ground … They should have known through the communication that my grandmother had with them being in kinship care, that I was close with my cousins and aunties and uncles … and [needed] some support from DHS to keep contact with those family and friends. (Tina, 19)

 

Change over time – Tamara’s story

Tamara is now 17. Her story is typical of several in which children had moved from painful forced contact via a period of no contact to later developing their own arrangements to meet their relationship needs as best possible.

One morning it just got too much for me and she was with like heaps of different men; there was just men all in the house in the mornings so I went the deputy principal, like I told her about it because I was in tears … I hated [contact with her] because Mum was the sort of person who would sort of like bribe you and manipulate you into going back whenever she’d see you. There was always court cases still going on and I always refused to go into court because I hated seeing her…I was scared they were going to send me back there and then Mum would like kill me for getting DHS involved. More than anything because I was just sick of living there and everything that went on. But it was hard because DHS forced this sort of stuff on and that only stopped when my grandparents got permanent care of me. After that when I wasn’t forced to, I didn’t see her for about three years. So that’s when things started getting better because I could move on a bit more rather than be held back.

They shouldn’t really push you to see them, because that doesn’t work. Not so much listen to the parents because it’s more important for the kid to be happy than the parents. Like that’s what I think – sometimes it’s not in the kid’s best interest to go back.

My grandparents have started speaking to her again after all this time because my Grandma’s Mum recently passed away. My Mum came to the funeral and that sort of brought everyone a bit together … It was good in a way because it made them move on as well, because Grandma was really like stuck in the past … Mum actually started coming back round to our house. I started seeing her after that, just once a week or something. It’s good because I’ve got a boyfriend now and he’s been really supportive, he’ll come with me to see Mum. I could never do that with Grandma and Grandpa because they were just always judging her and stuff – and I never wanted to go by myself … We’re starting to form a relationship again. As much as you can because Mum’s sort of spaced out now because of all the drugs. It’s hard to hold a proper conversation with her. We’ll go there for dinner or we’ll just pop in there if we’ve got some free time.

 

 

So what needs to change?

 

At the end of the day, it comes down to how well you communicate with the young person. Because obviously, the young person knows who they want to have contact with and who they don’t. There’s no point forcing contact because it only makes situations worse. But to say, ‘Who do you want to see in your family?’ Just so the young person has some sense of family and who they are and identity and things like that. So, just communication. (Tina, 19)

 

Kinship care is a private domain thrust into a ‘public welfare’ space. It provides greater opportunity than other forms of care for children and young people to break the rules and get away with it, if we are insensitive to their feelings. While children may meet some of their needs for protection or nurturing this way, taking the law into their own hands is an act of desperation. It indicates a perception that adults are unable to attend both to their basic human need for connection to significant family members, and for protection from contact that is too painful. It has its own emotional cost: young people describe the depression and lack of self-esteem generated by a sense of abandonment. Their actions may or may not serve their best interests.

We still have a lot to learn about how to protect children from emotional abuse. Such abuse often runs a poor second in our thinking to physical and sexual abuse, but may equally cause huge pain and suffering.

Some clear messages emerge. Children and their families, however constituted, need to be respected as normal. We must acknowledge and support the full range of children’s significant family relationships. We should take children seriously when they indicate that some relationships are too painful. Children grow and change, and so do their circumstances and feelings. Unworkable contact arrangements (including contact visits under supervision in the offices of a government department), and unworkable ‘no-contact’ orders may incite young people to break orders. Above all, children and young people need some agency in decisions about their relationships. One size does not fit all: arrangements to support family relationships need to be individually tailored in partnership with children and families, and change as needed. Flexibility is essential.

Many family relationships will remain fraught, and children need to manage them with help from their caregivers and case managers. All risk cannot be prevented by court decisions. However, there is a better chance to mitigate risk through building relationships with children and then using counselling, mediation, influence, information and creativity – all the skills of trained human service practitioners. This is challenging work. Given the huge demands of protective response and involvement in adversarial court processes, child protection workers are not well-placed to provide such support. Kinship support program staff need to be adequately trained and resourced to take this on for all children in statutory kinship care.

Kinship care is a unique model of care, not a type of foster care. It offers great possibilities to children to stay within their families, to feel like ‘normal kids’ and to sustain networks of support for life. However, it is complex. Insufficiently supported caregivers are embedded in the same family network as the parents from whom children have been removed, with all the relationship challenges that entails. They may struggle simultaneously with age-related issues and at times, feelings of powerlessness with regard to two generations of caring. Care arrangements need careful assessment working in partnership with children, caregivers and where possible, parents. Ongoing, flexible monitoring and support as needed is essential for the duration of childhood. Anything less is to expose children to the risk of further family stress and dysfunction, which is only likely to increase as everyone in the family grows older.

Currently, the fledgling model of kinship care, with all its potential but limited resourcing, runs the risk of providing support that is too little, too late. Much more needs to be done if the real needs of kinship families are to be met and children are to thrive. There are considerable economic savings in kinship care; it will be important to reinvest these savings in shoring up the commitment of kinship carers with the needed support so that they can stay the course, and do it well. The kinship children must not become the forgotten children.

Well supported, kinship care might indeed be the best thing that has happened to child welfare for a long time – ‘care’ coming full circle and returning to the family and community. Hopefully it can teach us something about how to respect children ‘in care’ as normal, and to reduce careism. We may thus aspire to community standards such that all children in care are seen, like other children, as worth nurturing and guiding into adulthood, not sent out into ‘independence’, vulnerable and with little support, at age eighteen.

Meredith Kiraly is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne and is currently undertaking a short‑term contract at the Office of the Child Safety Commissioner, Victoria, Australia. She has a long history of practice and research in out of home care.

 

Acknowledgements

 

I thank the children and young people who were willing to give their time and views on sensitive areas of their lives to inform kinship care policy and practice for the future, so other children may have greater support.

Professor Cathy Humphreys oversaw the research and provided endless patient guidance.

The support of the Child Safety Commissioner (Victoria), Bernie Geary, and the assistance of a number of his staff is acknowledged with appreciation, as is the various community organisations who helped with access to children and young people.

This opinion piece has been adapted for reproduction with permission from the Editor of Developing Practice (Australia), where it was published in November 2011 (Issue Number 29).

 

References

 

AIHW. (2011). Child Protection Australia 2009–10. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Connolly, M. (2003). Kinship Care: A Selected Literature Review. New Zealand: Department of Child, Youth and Family.

Department of Human Services (2007). Charter for Children in Out of Home Care. Melbourne.

Lindsay, M. (1998). Discrimination against young people in care: the theory of careism. Childright, November, 11–14.

McHugh, M., & valentine, k. (2010). Financial and Non-Financial Support to Formal and Informal Out of Home Carers. Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales. Final Report for the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

O’Neill, C. (2011). Support in Kith and Kin Care – the experience of carers. Children Australia, 36(2), 88–99.

Children, Youth and Families Act (2005).

 


[1]   All names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

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