Going back to our roots? By Sam Smethers

Sam Smethers photoGoing back to our roots?

By Sam Smethers,
Chief Executive of Grandparents Plus

Where you come from matters. You would expect a charity like ours to believe that wouldn’t you? Heritage, identity, connections, relationships – all fostered for children by strong connections with grandparents and the wider family. And so it is with our organisational history. Located in London’s East End we were founded by social entrepreneur Michael Young, co-author of Family and Kinship in East London – that seminal sociological text about the role of kinship networks in raising children in the impoverished streets of 1950s Bethnal Green. So although we are a national charity we want to strengthen our relationships and profile in our locality. Because it’s relevant for who we are and where we come from.

But there is an arguably more significant reason to do this. We provide advice, information and peer support to grandparents and family members (kinship carers) who are raising children who can no longer live with their parents. Evaluations show that the services we provide are highly effective in reducing isolation, providing practical or financial assistance. 7 in 10 Support Network members say they feel less isolated, over 9 in 10 of our advice service users say they would recommend us to someone else and 8 in 10 say they would act on the advice given. Those who need benefits advice are on average £4,600 per year better off. But most of our beneficiaries are not from our immediate locality. We aren’t reaching, in anything like the numbers we should be reaching, those who need the support and who are on our doorstep. Yet we know that Tower Hamlets is one of the most impoverished boroughs in the country. 2001 Census data suggests that rate of kinship care in the borough is particularly high, second only in London to Newham.

So it’s time to do something about it. With some targeted outreach work we are contacting local community groups and organisations to promote our work and what we do and to identify those grandparents and family carers who might need our help. We also want to use this as an opportunity to raise awareness amongst the voluntary sector and other service providers in the area about the issue of kinship care and the many challenges that children and kinship families face. Kinship carers will be battling the negative effects of issues such as parental drug and alcohol misuse, abuse or neglect, domestic violence, mental ill health, bereavement, imprisonment, disability or a range of issues. So if you are based in Tower Hamlets and in contact with families affected by any of these issues you are almost certainly going to be meeting family members who may be faced with the choice of taking on the care of a child or those who may already be in that role. If so, we can offer them some practical advice and support. Contact our advice and information service on 0300 123 7015 or email us at advice@grandparentsplus.org.uk

 

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Leave it to grandparents by Sam Smethers

Sam Smethers photo

So the Institute of Fiscal Studies has found that those born in the 1960s and 1970s may be no better off than their parents’ generation unless they inherit.  This comes on the day the TUC publishes a survey showing that 7 million grandparents are providing childcare – and they call for the introduction of unpaid grandparental leave – something Grandparents Plus has been calling for for some time.  Last year with Age UK we also published new data to show that grandparental childcare had increased by 35% in just one year.  So what is going on?  It appears that families are in fact becoming increasingly inter-dependent. Those with informal sources of time, care and money are at a clear advantage and this is set to play a growing part as one of the drivers of inequality in our society.  Or perhaps they are just more likely to be expected to step in, whether they want to or not?  And as the state pension age is pushed back to 68 or later, the stretched generation of grandparents is only going to grow in number – caring both up and down the generations.

The extension of the right to request flexible working to all – expected next year – will be a significant step forward and working grandparents will be one of the main beneficiaries.  But that won’t be enoough to give grandparents the kind of flexibility that a period of leave would provide.  At the moment grandparents can only get a few days emergency leave at most.  But sometiems they need more than the odd day off to provide the kind of support needed in a family crisis or in an emergency.  You can imagine the situations that arise. Mum and dad have just had a new baby and need a bit of day to day support for the first few weeks; or maybe mum has had to have an operation and can’t look after the kids for six weeks but dad can’t get the time off; or perhaps dad is struggling because he’s just split up from his partner and he has become the main carer for the children so asks his mum to help out; or perhaps mum and dad both have a drug and alcohol problem and gran and granddad get a call from children’s services at short notice to ask them to take the children or they will have to go in to care.

There’s an amendment being debated in the House of Lords this week which would address all of these situations.  It would create a period of adjustment leave for grandparents and family carers who need to step in to care for children in times of family crisis.  This makes perfect sense and would give families the breathing space they need.

So what’s grandparental care worth? Billions.  The childcare contribution that grandparents provide is worth £7.3 billion alone.  Those who step in to raise children who cannot live with their parents provide care that would cost the state £12 billion each year in foster care costs.  They then save the taxpayer millions more in averting some of the adverse outcomes that children might otherwise experience (school exclusion, unemployment, prison and so on).  It makes economic sense to support and facilitate that care, but it’s also best for children and families too.  If we don’t we risk a childcare gap emerging and it may well be parents who pay the ultimate price.

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Policy progress for kinship carers by Sam Smethers

Sometimes things happen which restore your faith in human nature. Take lib dem conference for example. No, not the Teather/Clegg/Cable headline-grabbing stuff but the policy debate that happened on Saturday afternoon. Lib dems voted overwhelmingly to back leave entitlements for kinship carers. They also called for children in kinship care to have the same access to services and support as foster carers and adoptive parents. So, thanks to former Age Concern CEO Gordon Lishman and Burnley Lib Dems this is now official party policy. What does this mean? Well, if it were to be implemented we would see kinship carers having a job to go back to if they step in to raise a child. Grandparents Plus research has found that 47% give up work when they take on the care of a child. That’s about 60,000 or so dropping out of the labour market or 9,000 each year.

We’d also see children living in kinship care having access to the same services and support as children in unrelated foster care. This is important because research shows that the needs of these two groups of children are similar, yet fostered children are far more likely to have access to services such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and also to financial support. Statutory guidance states that support should follow the needs of the child but the truth is it doesn’t.

Evidence shows that kinship carers have extensive needs themselves with 7 in 10 stressed, depressed or isolated. In our most recent survey 80% said they found raising kinship children more challenging than raising their own but just 8% had had any help with parenting or counselling.

Despite all of this however, outcomes for the majority of children in kinship care tend to be good, and certainly better than those for children in the care system. Significantly, recent research has found that it is not the type of placement that is the main factor here but the longevity of it. In other words, it’s about stability and continuity of care. So there isn’t one type of placement that is better than all others but rather it’s about finding the right permanency option for children. This would suggest that the more we can do to support those placements, perhaps offer parenting or managing parental contact workshops to kinship carers or access to counselling for bereaved children, or financial support for those who need it, we might be giving them a better chance of success. That’s got to be in the best interests of children. But also of society and the tax payer too. So a victory for common sense and a further step on the road to recognition for kinship carers at lib dem conference. And who said politicians were all the same?

Update – proposals from Labour’s Older Women’s Commission would see kinship carers entitled to unpaid adjustment leave which they could take when a child first moves in.  This would give them time to have some breathing space while they worked out what was going on and what they needed to do next.  The Commission haven’t gone as far as recommending paid leave though, we will keep working on them!

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Austerity hitting grandparents hard too – a view from the Women’s Budget Group

Austerity hitting grandparents hard too – a view from the Women’s Budget Group

By Sue Cohen

The Women’s Budget Group

The Women’s Budget Group have asked me to write this blog as I’m on their committee and they’ve just heard I have a new grandson. I’m excited as I’m off to visit my daughter and baby grandson in London. Coincidentally they live in the same road as Grandparents Plus and coincidentally as I am writing this on the train my brother, a documentary-maker phones wanting a conversation about grandparents. He’s met quite a few in the course of his latest film and he’s bowled over. Family values are as strong as ever he tells me.

I know this having been CEO for the Single Parent Action Network for over 20 years www.spanuk.org.uk – lucky to meet grandparents from all backgrounds and cultures, who are there for their families through the good and the tough times. And these are tough times of course, with government policies not matching political rhetoric on family values.  Austerity and welfare reform are creating a domino effect, impacting badly on low income family members including grandparents.

Single parent families are hardest hit by austerity measures, losing on average a twelfth of their income. To keep the bailiffs at bay, many grandparents end up supplementing the family income, as well as feeding their grandchildren when money runs out at the end of the week.

Grandparents are also being called on to provide the childcare for many of the 400,000 single parents now required to find work or face sanctions. Given most available jobs extend outside of school hours, grandparents provide the wrap-around childcare needed to cover shift work including night shifts. When grandparents should be enjoying a life with more choices they can end up with less choice than when their children were young – leading more pressurised lives with their health also under pressure, looking after grandchildren, whilst often balancing their own jobs.

It’s more manageable if grandparents live near their grandchildren. But the new bedroom tax also has an unequal effect on single parents and will make this more difficult. Many will have to pay more for spare rooms and some families face forced displacement having to move far away from grandparents in order to find cheap accommodation. Everyone in the family loses out.

In the UK the shrinking state is impacting disproportionately on women including grandmothers, who because they love their families so, will try and fill the economic, social/childcare gaps. The increasingly received wisdom is that it has to be this way, but some other EU countries have not gone down this path. Sweden has much greater investment in the social infrastructure and is performing much better than the UK economically, with all families including single parent families benefiting in the process. Germany has policies that recompense grandparents for looking after their sick grandchildren. We need to pressurise our MPs and tell them that that in some cases the EU can be a guiding light with regard to family values and that words need to be matched by policies in this country.

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You are never too old to change the world! By Nigel Priestley, Ridley & Hall Solicitors

You are never too old to change the world!

By Nigel Priestley
Senior Partner, Ridley & Hall Solicitors

I recently represented a 67 year old grandmother who had been asked to care for her two grand children in 2000. For years she had asked her local council for help caring for two very damaged children. In the end Care Proceedings were brought to take her grandchildren into care and we had a fight on our hands. The council was blind to the tremendous work she had done with the children. Her grand daughter had to be accommodated by the County Council but she knew that her grandson was best with her.

In the end the council failed and her grandson is thriving in her care. But in the course of the proceedings we discovered that the Residence Allowance she was being paid was chronically low. We challenged the council by Judicial Review and have negotiated a successful settlement.

Her challenge will potentially lead to a change in the payments for over 200 recipients of Residence Allowances in that County. Many Carers will benefit. Their world will be changed!

The story encapsulates why grandparents often need to take legal advice. They may be caring for a grand child who is the subject of care proceedings. They may have put themselves forward to care for a child in foster care and have a negative assessment that they wish to challenge. They may have had a child placed with them and either are not being paid an allowance or they are receiving only a token amount. They may have sought help and got nowhere.

For many grand parents care proceedings are a nightmare. They may find themselves forced to take a Residence Order or Special Guardianship Order – and not even be in court to argue about the type of order or the package of support.

But where they already have their grand children, they may find the Local Authority simply walks away claiming that there is a “private arrangement”.

Whatever the circumstances it’s vital that grandparents who have taken on their grandchildren need specialist legal advice. Don’t be fobbed off with solicitors on the Council’s approved list. Find a specialist!

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Relative Experience Project takes off! by Sam Smethers

Relative Experience Project takes off!

by Sam Smethers
Chief Executive, Grandparents Plus

If you need help, who do you turn to?  I don’t mean help with the little day to day things but the big problems that can happen, the things that really cause you to worry.  Most of us turn to family, maybe our own parents if we need support or we may have good friends we can rely on.

But if you are having to pick up the pieces of family breakdown, or stepping in to raise a child who has been neglected because his mum and dad are misusing drugs it’s a bit harder to find people who will really understand what that’s like.  Unless they have been there too.  At Grandparents Plus we’ve found that the peer support network we provide for kinship carers is really valuable.  When we hold regional or national events the feedback we get is always the same – it’s so good to meet others in the same situation. They understand.  Six out of 10 of our Network members feel less isolated just by being in the Network.

Our research has found that an overwhelming 93% of kinship carers who completed our parenting survey feel it is harder to raise their kinship children than it was raising their own children. There are many reasons for this – for older kinship carers it can just be harder meeting the needs of children, whatever their age.  But it is also often because the children have significant needs. We found the children have an average of five to six behavioural challenges.  They have usually been through a traumatic experience. Often parental drug or alcohol misuse, neglect in some cases, possibly bereavement. They need significantly more support than other children may need.  This takes it toll on the carers who do a magnificent job but tell us they experience feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.  One of the things kinship carers find most challenging is managing their own emotions with 78% of our parenting survey respondents saying this was an issue for them. We want to do something about that.

So we’ve got together with leading family charities Family Lives and the Family and Parenting Institute to develop a new way of working to provide peer support for kinship carers to help them meet the challenges of raising a child in kinship care.  With the support of the Big Lottery Fund Silver Dreams Fund and the Daily Mail we are launching the Relative Experience project in Newcastle on 14th February.

We know that those who have lived through similar experiences can also bring more than understanding and empathy. They can provide real inspiration, useful insights, tips on who to contact and where to go, pointers on what to do, what worked for them and what didn’t.  The project will recruit at least 20 older volunteers from Newcastle and North Tyneside, many of them kinship carers too. It will provide training and will then match them to 40 kinship families who need their help.  It will be evaluated and, if things go well, we may be able to scale the project up and provide this same model across the country.  We are keeping our (Lottery) fingers crossed for that!

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Spotlight on the experiences of a sibling carer by Melanie Burgess

Melanie at the Cosmo awardsSpotlight on the experiences of a sibling carer

By Melanie Burgess

Melanie Burgess, 24, became a kinship carer six years ago after her mother Janet died from cancer. She has just received an award from Cosmopolitan magazine.

When I became a Kinship Carer I was at the other end of the spectrum to a Grandparent Kinship Carer. I was just 18 years old when I took on the responsibility for my younger sisters who were 12 and 15 years old at the time. I chose to do this out of love for my sisters, and this is the obvious reason why every family member or family friend decides to take it on without a hesitation, to keep their family together and to avoid them going into care.

You would think that by doing the right thing and what was necessary in such a difficult situation, in return I would  naturally obtain the support and backing I needed. However this is not the case. If I were to explain the difficulties and challenges that we faced, the list would be very long!

I had to grow up fast; I was responsible for things like our finances and some of my friends fell away because my life was so different. My confidence suffered badly but my boyfriend James and the girls supported me throughout and after counselling I began to pull myself back up.

A real difficulty was the lack of emotional support not only for my sisters, but for me too. We were three young girls grieving the loss of our mother, yet everything was such a fight to get sorted out, causing even more of a strain, at an already stressful and emotional time. Fortunately for us, our school were incredibly supportive. In fact they were the biggest support network outside of the family.

I understand that the work of social services is to look after and protect the welfare of children who are at risk, but personally we needed a different kind of help instead of the practicalities that they proceed with. I strongly believe there needs to be something put in place specifically for Kinship Carers which doesn’t place them in the same box as irresponsible parents. We need something where Kinship Care is actually recognised.

Kinship Care needs to be recognised, especially by politicians and decision makers in order for more rights to be obtained. Furthermore, as I have personally experienced, there is a lack of support when Kinship Care comes to an end.  I have given my sisters the support to succeed but what happens to me? I was unable to go to university, I have gaps in my employment and I am struggling to find a job now, not because of an inability, but because of the circumstances of the last six years. I am in no way regretful for what I have done in being a Kinship Carer, I would simply like for it not to be something that stops me succeeding in the future.

Young people should not be forced to choose between caring for the family members they love and having a bright future. We need to ensure there is the support in place to make sure they can achieve both.

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And for those without a grandparent the option is…? By Sam Smethers, Grandparents Plus

And for those without a grandparent the option is…?

By Sam Smethers,
Chief Executive, Grandparents Plus

Last week we saw a number of cases highlighted by the Guardian’s Breadline Britain series where families have moved to live with grandparents. For one family it was because they simply cannot get a mortgage or a housing association property. For another it was irregular work and job insecurity which meant they moved back home with their parents.

Another case I heard of recently was where a grandparent had her family move in to live with her for a few weeks to find that one year on they are still there.  So surely that’s good isn’t it? Families helping each other out, grandparents supporting their children and grandchildren.  Of course, that is what family are for, to fall back on in hard times.  But the simple and obvious fact is that they safety net of mum and dad won’t be there for everyone.

We’ve already had the announcement that the state won’t support under 25s to live independently. Instead they are expected to stay living at home for longer.  But we know that those who are living independently and claiming housing benefit at a young age are either care leavers or have been through difficult home lives, or lack space at home and had to leave.  They can’t go back.

The government appears to be designing a welfare system that assumes everyone will have the option of relying on their parents for support.  Incidentally, they are also designing the system to penalise older people with larger houses to force them to downsize.  Where their offspring then stay when they visit/turn up for a rather longer stay doesn’t seem to be part of the picture.

Grandparents make a huge contribution and are likely to do more as welfare reform bites.  Housing benefit changes mean families are facing the awful choice of leaving a community where they and their children are settled, to find somewhere affordable enough for housing benefit to meet the costs of their rent; or somehow making up the shortfall (which most won’t be able to do); or moving in with family or friends to try to keep their lives going.

The welfare state was created because we couldn’t rely on family and voluntary help to support the poor and vulnerable.  Too many people were left behind.  Now we seem to be at risk of trying to turn the clock back.   Many grandparents will step in to help their families. But for those who cannot, or (just imagine?!)  don’t want to, or for those whose parents are no longer around this simply isn’t an option.   So what then?  Breadline Britain beckons.

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The Power of We – An Interns point of view, by Alana Genge

The Power of We – An Interns point of view
By Alana Genge
Grandparents Plus

I have been interning at Grandparents Plus since July and have learned a lot and met some wonderful people. This blog is my opportunity to raise the profile of kinship care on Blog Action Day 2012.

I will go back to the basics as some of the readers will not be familiar with the term kinship care. The best place to start is by telling you a little about Grandparents Plus, the charity which ‘champions the vital role of grandparents and the wider family in children’s lives – especially when they take on the caring role in difficult family circumstances’. In many situations this involves grandparents taking on the care of grandchildren because the child’s birth parents can no longer care for them, for example due to death or neglect from a birth parent. Grandparents Plus provides support for kinship carers through an advice and information service, and providing a free peer support network for family and friends carers. They also successfully campaign, produce research and policy briefings to ensure that kinship carers are better recognised by the government.

This autumn sees Grandparents Plus ‘Kinship Care Reality Cheque Campaign’. Working on the process has opened my eyes to the hard work that is involved in developing a successful campaign. The key idea behind this campaign is that everyone (kinship carer or not) will send their council’s Lead Member for Children’s Services a pretend “cheque” from the ‘Bank of Grandparents Plus’ to the value of £40,000. This figure represents the annual amount it would cost a taxpayer to keep a child in independent foster care for a year.

There are 200,000 kinship carers in England and Wales keeping children out of care but their role is rarely recognised by local authorities and many struggle without financial or practical support. This campaign hopes to put the issue of kinship care onto councillors’ agendas and act as a reminder that there are a group of carers in their local authority that need to be recognised and supported. There are four times as many children in kinship care as in foster care, and the children often have similar difficulties, yet foster carers usually receive much more support.

I have spoken to a number of kinship carers whose stories have touched my heart. These are carers like Laura, who took on the responsibility of her grandchildren as her daughter was misusing alcohol and drugs. She had two teenage daughters still at home but knew that her grandchildren would have been taken into care if she did not step in.  Laura and her husband work, but soon fell into debt and struggle with limited space at home. They receive no extra support or money from the government. Many would think that she would have her hands full but Laura still finds time to campaign by raising awareness of the lack of support for kinship carers in the press and by meeting with MPs.

It amazes me that people can have so much going on in their lives and still have the time and energy to campaign, not just for themselves but on behalf of others. During the last couple of weeks I have been speaking to kinship carers to see if they are willing to share their story. The resounding answer was yes, they were willing to do anything to raise the profile of kinship care: not for their own benefit, for the benefit for all kinship carers who are struggling and feel disadvantaged.

In my time at Grandparents Plus I hope I have helped raise the profile of kinship care, be it in a small way and will continue to share my experience with people I meet so that they understand the important contribution of kinship carers.

Can you ask the next person you meet whether they have heard of the term kinship care?  If they haven’t point them in the direction of Grandparents Plus’s website to learn a little more.

#ThePowerOfWe

 

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Grandparents and the Grey Pride Campaign, By Simon Peyton, Anchor Trust

Grandparents and the Grey Pride Campaign

By Simon Peyton
Deputy Head of Public Affairs at Anchor Trust and Grey Pride Co-ordinator

We all know how important a role grandparents play in supporting families but it often seems this role is not fully recognised by government. Older people now make up more than a fifth of Britain’s population, with more people aged over 65 than under 16.

Yet even though there has been a Minister for Children for many years, there still isn’t a Minister for Older People. The recent government reshuffle was a missed opportunity to make such an appointment but once again Mr Cameron sidestepped the issue.

Anchor, England’s largest not-for-profit provider of care and housing for older people, launched its Grey Pride campaign calling for a Minister for Older People last year and its efforts culminated in a petition signed by more than 137,000 people being handed into 10 Downing Street. More than 90 MPs from all major parties signed the petition and/or an Early Day Motion recognising the huge impact older people have made to society with a further 20 celebrities and organisations, including Grandparents Plus, endorsing the campaign.

It’s not only a question of getting political equality, so that older people are represented at ministerial level, it’s also about ensuring that older people are not penalised after a lifetime of hard work (paid and unpaid) and being net contributors to society.

Research carried out by economic analysts SQW for the national volunteering charity, WRVS, estimates that older people benefit the economy by a total of £175.9billion, including delivering social care worth £34billion and volunteering worth at least £10billion, compared to welfare costs of £136.3 billion. By 2030, the study suggests, the estimated benefit will be £291.1billion, compared to projected welfare costs of £216.2 billion.

Further research has found these older people are increasingly part of four-generation families and the grandparent generation is the oil which is keeping the family machine running. University College London has revealed that 19% of people are in a family with four generations or more which equates to approximately 3.3 million families. This figure will increase to 4.2 million families by 2030.

Anchor’s own research shows the so-called sandwich generation of grandparents in these families are facing a double whammy of providing care for their elderly parents while also contributing to the educational costs of their grandchildren.

Anchor found 7% of grandparents in a four-generation family currently contribute to the education of grandchildren and 16% expect to in future with 7% of grandparents in a four-generation family currently contributing to their parent’s care and 20% expecting to in the future.

Meanwhile some grandparents are struggling to survive on the basic weekly pension of £107.45. Irrespective of financial status, grandparents are soaring in number and they continue to play a key role within their family and society at large.

Why haven’t successive governments of different hues recognised this by appointing a Minister for Older People? Labour has taken the lead by appointing Liz Kendall as Shadow Minister for Older People. We are still waiting to see how seriously the Prime Minister sees this as an issue. He should think carefully before rejecting this proposal – grandparents and other older people make up 40 per cent of those who vote!

The Grey Pride campaign is calling for the remit of an existing Cabinet Minister to be expanded to include the role of Minister for Older People. [PH1] This Minister would be able to join up the various departments responsible for older people’s services, ensuring smarter and more cost-effective working.

The rhetoric around the “ageing society” all too often paints older people as a drain on society rather than recognising their vital contribution to families, especially as grandparents. By appointing a Minister for Older People the government could start to redress this balance and develop a policy environment in which this contribution is genuinely valued and supported for the benefit of every generation.

For more information on Grey Pride campaign and to take part in the Grey Pride debate, you can visit www.greypride.org.uk

 

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