To coincide with this year’s Kinship Care Week, our Deputy Chief Executive Donna Molloy shares more about our work to improve the evidence base around support for kinship families, and reflects on opportunities for further evaluation and policy development.
This year’s Kinship Care Week falls at an exciting time, as we all eagerly await the Department for Education’s National Kinship Care Strategy, which will lay the groundwork for improved support for children in kinship care and their carers, and set out the vision for the future of kinship care.
We are committed to building an understanding of what works to improve outcomes for children in kinship care and championing the evidence in practice. Research shows that children in non-family care settings, such as residential homes and secure accommodation, experience worse long-term outcomes than their peers. Our recent randomised controlled trial of Family Group Conferences demonstrated that empowering families and their networks to address problems they may be facing can lead to children being able to stay with their families. Strengthening family networks and supporting the vital work of kinship carers is therefore crucial, but we do not currently know what kind of support makes the biggest difference for children in care and their kinship carers.
Our survey of local authority practice maps out the services that are available for different types of kinship carers and how this varies across England. This piece of work fills an important gap in our understanding – we now have a much clearer picture of what is happening on the ground. We are also commissioning a systematic review of the evidence on what works to support kinship carers and the children in their care. In time, we hope this will inform a new Practice Guide to support local authorities to commission and deliver evidence-based services to support children in kinship care and their carers.
To coincide with Kinship Care Week, we are pleased to be taking the first steps on our journey, publishing our local authority survey findings and information about the scope of our systematic review.
Our survey found significant variation in the support offered, both across local authorities, and between different types of kinship carers within local authorities. This variation largely reflects the different legal status of different kinship carers and their corresponding entitlement to support – for example, our survey found that special guardians received less support if the child had not previously been in care, reflecting local authorities’ statutory duties.
Current guidance gives local authorities significant scope to vary the types and extent of support they offer to different types of kinship carers in their area, and this is reflected in the findings of our survey. Local authorities reported wanting to improve their support offers, but not having the resources to do so. Given the budgetary pressures local authorities report facing, it is not surprising that they are prioritising meeting their statutory duties (which vary according to type of kinship care arrangement), and struggle to offer more holistic support.
Our work to pull together the existing evidence, both from England and internationally, enables us to compare existing local practice with what the evidence says is most promising, and to explore where local authorities are already delivering good practice and where there is the most scope to improve outcomes.
It is positive to see that local authorities are already offering support that has a promising evidence base, such as group-based and peer support. Evaluating the impact of these types of support in an English context would be a valuable next step. From our study looking at the feasibility of evaluating Kinship Connected, we know that this kind of evaluation is possible.
Also of interest are interventions shown to be promising in other countries that align with the kinds of support that kinship carers report wanting, but which are not currently being offered in England. Piloting and evaluating Kinship Navigator Programmes and parenting interventions tailored to kinship carers in England could provide crucial learning to inform long-term policy development.
Many forms of support that local authorities reported offering in our survey and that kinship carers frequently report wanting, for example financial support therapeutic support, and training, do not have a strong evidence base. This is largely because so few impact evaluations have been carried out in relation to support for kinship carers. Given their popularity with kinship carers, evaluating these types of interventions should be a priority in the upcoming Kinship strategy.
We have also identified opportunities for policy change. In interviews carried out alongside the survey, local authorities reported struggling with the ambiguity of the current guidance and wanting to improve their support offer for kinship families. This area would benefit from greater clarity and guidance from government to ensure that children and kinship carers across the country receive the support that they need. The National Kinship Care Strategy can be a vehicle to clarify the role of kinship care in the wider care system, and set out the approach that local authorities should be taking to supporting kinship carers and children in kinship care.
If we want to keep as many children as possible within their family networks, then the support available should not disadvantage families where a kinship carer acts quickly to prevent the child entering care. Currently, children who go directly into a Special Guardianship or Care Arrangement Order, and do not enter care first, are entitled to less support in law than children who leave care to the same arrangement. Similarly, improving support for carers of children in Special Guardianship or Child Arrangement Orders who are at risk of entering care is likely to make kinship care a more effective method of keeping children out of the care system. It is also essential that kinship carers are able to make informed decisions about the kind of legal order that they have, and are aware of the implications in terms of the support that they will be able to access.
We look forward to the publication of the National Kinship Care Strategy later this year and we are excited by the growing movement to acknowledge and support the work of kinship carers. The growing policy focus on this area provides real opportunity to meaningfully improve outcomes for these children and their families. By building the evidence around what works, we can be more confident that the support being offered is improving the lives of children and families in kinship care.