Rising numbers of children are brought up by grandparents or other relatives

A familiar shoulder to lean on, despite hardship. Grandparents via Monkey Business Images via ww.shutterstock.com

When children are unable to live with their parents, often someone in the family such as a grandparent, sibling, uncle or aunt steps in to fill the void. Our new research shows there has been a 7% increase in children in England being brought up by a relative in what’s called “kinship care” over the past ten years and that black children were more likely than white children to be living with a relative other than their parents.

There is no formula or fixed pattern that leads to a situation where a child grows up in kinship care, but previous research has found that circumstances such as the death of a parent, mothers being given a custodial prison sentence, long-term parental sickness, or drug misuse were all reasons that kinship care became necessary. Some children are also unable to live with their parents due to abuse or neglect.

A relative home

In our study we analysed anonymised research data from the latest 2011 census and found that 152,910 children were growing up in the care of relatives in England. Putting that number in context, the number of children in kinship care has grown by 7% over the past decade, far exceeding the 2% overall increase of the number of children in the population.

Our ongoing study found that in households without a parent present, it was grandparents who most often stepped in to care for a child – 51% of these children were looked after by grandparents in 2011, compared to 44% in 2001. Older siblings were the next most common carers, looking after 23% of children, although this decreased from 38% in 2001. The remaining children were being brought up by another relative such as an aunt, an uncle or a cousin.

Of the children growing up in kinship care, 32% were of minority ethnic origin, compared to 21% of all children growing up with parents across the population. Looking at the minority ethnic group more in detail, it was apparent that one in every 37 black children in the whole census population (including black Caribbean, black African and other black ethnicities) were growing up in the care of relatives, compared with one in every 83 white children.

Children in kinship care were also twice as likely to have a long-term health problem or disability compared with those children living with parents. A large number, 40%, of these children were also living in the poorest areas of England and were living in households affected by some kind of deprivation – in housing, employment, education, health or disability. One in every 25 children in kinship care were living in the most deprived households in the country, compared with one in every 159 children living with their parents.

Don’t ignore these children and their carers

The change in family structures from the traditional mother-father set-up needs to be understood and properly addressed. The group of vulnerable children that grow up in kinship care are largely ignored in family policies, where the presumption is that children are brought up by parents.

Not all families are like this. Family in the house via Satellite/www.shutterstock.com

In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government did issue statutory guidance stating that all local authorities in England should publish policies on kinship carers and children. The intentions were good, but five months after the stipulated deadline, only 55% of local authorities had published a family and friends policy. Of those who published policies, only 13% had actually based their policies on the profile and needs of the local kinship children and their carers. Different settings require different measures and so a non-specific approach would inevitably fall short.

The landscape is even more blurred by the number of kinship families that are not known about by the local authorities. The largest number of kinship placements are arranged privately between families and as there is no legal obligation made on close relatives to notify the authorities of such child care arrangements. These kinship families are under the radar and may remain largely unaware of the discretionary specialist support and services that may be available to them from the local authorities.

Family set-ups are changing and the government’s policies need to address this properly. Our results indicate a pressing need for urgent support and services to be provided to these children and their kinship families.