The strange thing about kinship care is that most people do not know it exists until it is thrust upon them. Yes, we may know grandparents who look after grandchildren, perhaps due to the parents being ill, working, or otherwise unavailable. I lived with my grandparents for some time while my mother was pregnant and looking after my new born twin siblings. But these arrangements always seem temporary, somehow.
What most of us do not expect is the formal arrangement that is overseen by Children’s Services. We do not anticipate the concept of being assessed as to our suitability to parent our own grandchildren, or other family members. Neither do we anticipate taking on responsibility for these children at a moment’s notice.
Fostering, Adoption, and Kinship Caring
What is the difference between fostering, adoption, and kinship care?
The main difference is in expectation. As a foster carer, or an adopter, you make a conscious decision that you want to look after children in need. You plan it. Especially when it comes to adoption, the planning is so much like giving birth that many countries even allow Adoption Leave, similar to Maternity Leave. As a foster carer, you usually have a few days’ notice before a child or children join your family. Even if you have agreed to take children in an emergency, it is still a conscious decision, and you will probably keep the spare room ready for just such an event.
As a foster carer or adopter you will also have a considerable amount of training so that you can deal with the inevitable emergencies that will arise. You will learn the psychology of a grieving child and the effects that it can have on their behaviour. And you will be taught strategies to deal with these daily crises.
Kinship care is very different. Although it can be planned, usually it is not.
There you are, going about your daily activities, happily minding your own business, when your phone rings. Suddenly, unexpectedly, your whole life is turned upside down. You have to make an instant choice, with no time to consider the consequences. Will the children come to live with you? Or will they go into local authority care, whether as foster children or in a care home? Your answer, please?
Just read that last paragraph again. In the time it takes to read the paragraph you will have to listen to a total stranger telling you some of the worst news you will ever hear and, at the same time, answer her questions while you decide the long-term future of a child or children you may barely know, but who are part of your extended family.
Yes, you will have to make that decision in the face of some of the most distressing circumstances you could ever experience. You will have to do this without any training or preparation whatsoever. Your training will be the mistakes you made in raising your own children; mistakes that will subsequently be subjected to minute scrutiny, possibly by a do-good social worker with no children, who has had all the academic training but no experience of real parenthood.
Why Does It Happen?
So why might these children need your help? Let’s consider some basic possibilities, just to get a sense of the enormity of your situation.
(From now on we will refer to grandchildren as needing your help. It could, of course, be any child or children in your extended family. But grandchildren are possibly the hardest because of your age.)
So, here you are, busy at work, daydreaming about your next holiday which is going to happen in two weeks’ time. You and your wife are finally child free and now have a little cash to spare. You no longer have to endure the rigours of camping because that’s all you can afford. You can stay in an hotel, and have all your needs and wants catered for by someone else. You’re really looking forward to this.
The phone rings. It could be the police or, more likely, Children’s Services. (Children’s Services is the new name for the child protection social work department.) Now, consider the possibilities.
Your son and daughter-in-law have been involved in an accident and are incapacitated, or even dead. That would be a shock, right? While you try to absorb that shock, the social worker asks you whether you can take the children in within the next hour.
Your single parent daughter has just been arrested for possession of a narcotic substance which caused her to become a danger to herself or others. You knew she was struggling, but you didn’t think it would come to this.
Your depressed son has just taken his own life because your daughter-in-law has left him and no one knows where she’s gone. You knew they had problems but they seemed to be working through them.
Your son-in-law’s computer equipment is being confiscated by the police. Let’s leave the rest to your imagination, because it would not be discussed over an open telephone call.
Are you getting the picture? As a foster carer or an adopter you expect to take in children in these circumstances. Yes, they are still distressing, but at least you have some warning. And you have a choice. “I’m sorry but we are just about to leave for two weeks’ holiday. If you can’t find anyone by the time we get back, please call me again.”
As a foster carer you also have a sense of professionalism in this regard. Yes, you care deeply. But you have been trained to keep a respectful distance from the issues as far as possible. Since you don’t know these children, that’s much easier to do.
This is not going to happen when the children are family members. There is no warning. And, in all honesty, there is probably no choice, either. In the middle of the most distressing situation that you are ever likely to experience, when you would like a few weeks or even months to come to terms with your grief, you will move mountains to stop those children going into care.
It’s what you do for family.