Our nephew Elliott came into our care aged 6 months in 2019, and we were granted a Special Guardianship Order in 2020, a year to the day he was dropped off in our house, looking quite nonplussed in his car seat. Before him we had never heard of special guardianship. Well, we are experts now!
To be honest, I had never even thought about the fact that there were official structures in place for children to be cared for within their family network, known broadly as kinship care. Very rarely do we come across people familiar with the term “special guardian”. Elliott is permanently placed with us until 18, like adoption, but the birth parents retain contact with him throughout. For us, this is 90 minutes twice a month, but it varies wildly amongst kinship carers depending on what the local authority expects, what the children and guardians can manage, and what the birth parents can sustain. Some kinship carers don’t get a Special Guardianship Order, as they prefer to remain foster carers and retain more support from the local authority, and others have private arrangements, but the challenges are often the same.
When I was thinking about what to write in this blog entry, I started off by explaining our personal story, but it didn’t quite fit. We have told the story so many times, to friends and family, to various social workers, to colleagues, to the nursery, and so on. Long story short, the journey to kinship care is by nature never a happy one.
So, instead, what do I wish people knew about kinship care? Well, the thing that I learnt first and am reminded of most often is that our experiences vary so wildly. There is a shared point, of course, in that kinship carers take on children from their family network because of problems in the home environment. But that is often where paths diverge. Kinship carers can be any age, but often they are grandparents. As a couple in our early 30s, we’re unusual. And it doesn’t stop there: the number and age of children taken on, the familial relationship between the carer and the children, the reason for removal, the children’s relationship with the birth parents, the trauma suffered by the children, whether they were in foster care beforehand, how many siblings are together, if the carers already have children, the carers’ relationship with the birth parents, the emotional and physical wellbeing and capability of the birth parents, the support given by the local authority, the financial entitlement from the local authority, the likelihood of reconciliation with the birth parents… I have not yet met another kinship carer with a remotely similar story to ours.
The most challenging aspect, by far, is contact with birth parents. A relationship without some form of tension is gold dust, and guidance on it is very thin on the ground. We are early in our journey and my biggest worry is what happens once Elliott is old enough to understand his family structure. At the moment we are lucky because his parents are well, he is not even two, and we generally have a good relationship with his parents (his mother is my husband’s only and much-loved sibling). But I do wonder how it will be for him once he starts school. I have taught French for many years, and describing your family is usually one of the first topics when you learn a new language. The traditional textbooks and learning materials are not set up for his kind of family structure, which is just one of the myriad small ways that idea of the “typical” family is subtly reinforced.
Another significant challenge that, because children have stayed within a family network, the carer has most likely shared in the trauma before the children arrived. My husband had directly lived the family trauma for seven years (and, in a way, his whole life), and I had lived it indirectly for four. By the time Elliott came to us, we were exhausted and traumatised in our own way. A new story had begun, but we were wrung out from finishing the old one. We also had very little notice, because his parents had appeared to be doing well, but it went wrong very quickly. Children’s services asked us on the Tuesday if we could take him. He arrived on the Thursday and the poor lamb was in nursery by Monday; there is no adoption leave for kinship carers.
In most cases, kinship carers are not looking to have (more) children. For the majority who are grandparents, they had thought their days of 5am wake up calls, potty training and school runs were long gone, and then have to re-start that journey when they are just about to retire. It was certainly a shock for us to lose our childless status almost overnight and there have been periods of intense resentment and sadness.
Elliott’s other option apart from us was adoption, which is usually the case, and usually why kinship carers make the decision to keep the children. Nevertheless, we often feel guilty for secret feelings of resentment and frustration, and for those times we silently wish we hadn’t agreed to become a kinship carer. It’s hard, for the reasons I’ve mentioned above. And I wish I had a story that ended up in more positivity, as I suspect many other blog posts will, but that would be dishonest, and doing a disservice to kinship carers.
All I can hope is that, in the long run, it will benefit Elliott to have remained in his family network, and that we can be good carers for him, that his parents stay well, that he understands and accepts his life story, and that he can go on to be a secure person who is able to do well in the world and consider having his own family in the future, however that may look.
*pseudonyms used throughout