When children cannot live with their parents, for whatever reason, it can often be family members or friends that step in to offer care. It is usually in the child’s best interests to be brought up by family or friends rather than being placed with an unrelated foster carer. Children are more likely to stay in the same school and have less disruption in their lives and the outcome is generally better. Of course, there are times when being accommodated by a local authority best meets the child’s welfare needs.

A carer who is related to a child or already had a connection with the child’s family is known as a kinship carer. Kinship carers play an extremely important role across the length and breadth of the UK in providing a loving, nurturing and safe home for children; with the largest group of kinship carers being grandparents.

Arrangements can usually be made privately and informally between parents and kinship carers unless there are concerns about a child’s welfare when Children’s Services may be involved. This could be because of parental alcohol or drug use, domestic violence, mental illness or other factors. In those circumstances, decisions often have to been made quickly and it is important to obtain legal advice as different arrangements bring different rights, responsibilities and support.

An informal arrangement leaves parental responsibility [the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent has in relation to the child and his property] with the parents. Any decisions in relation to the child, such as where they are to be educated, medical treatment (unless an emergency) and travelling abroad can only be taken by the parents. There is no special entitlement to support and any financial assistance from a local authority is discretionary.

If the local authority wants to place a child with a family member or friend, the question is whether the child is “looked after” by the local authority. If so, the carer must be assessed and approved as a foster carer although in an emergency temporary, time limited approval can be given.

Foster carers don’t have parental responsibility but they are entitled to a fostering allowance and other support. They are not entitled to Child Benefit or Child Tax Credit. Just 5% of children in kinship care are “looked after children”.

Kinship carers can apply to Court for a Child Arrangements Order stating that the child lives with them [this used to be called a Residence Order]. The order would give shared parental responsibility between the carer and the parent. There is no special entitlement to support from the local authority and as with an informal arrangement, financial assistance from a local authority is discretionary.

Alternatively, a Special Guardianship Order (SGO) could be sought. An SGO provides a framework of permanency for a child. It cements the relationship between the carer and the child to a greater degree than a Child Arrangements Order and provides enhanced parental responsibility for the carer. This means that the Special Guardian can exercise parental responsibility without agreement from the other holders.

A local authority can be asked to provide a Support Services Plan. This will assess entitlement to financial support (including legal costs) and help with contact arrangements. Therapy and respite care can also be provided.  85% of children have difficulties at the point of placement with 29% categorised as, “challenging throughout placement” and it is therefore imperative that carers receive any help available. A child may also need help with understanding why they live with a carer and to cope with any parental rejection.

Kinship carers often struggle financially, feel isolated and are not aware of support available. They often have to give up work, as it can be too challenging to juggle childcare with holding down a job.  There is no doubt that becoming a kinship carer is a life changing event but the majority of kinship carers say that, given the choice again, they would still take on the caring role in spite of it’s challenges.

Grandparents Plus provides advice and information to all kinship carers. If you need support, information or advice or you just want someone to talk to then take the first step and give them a call on 0300 123 7015.

This has been a quick canter through the legal minefield of options that are often available but sometimes overlooked. Lack of information or understanding is an all too common theme. There can be no substitute for solid legal advice and this is so important to ensure that carers can make informed decisions. Remember, it’s not what you know but what you don’t know that might catch you out.

Simon Dakers is a Partner at Gordon Brown Law Firm LLP which has a dedicated family and matrimonial Team with offices in Newcastle and Chester le Street. He is a member of the Law Society Family Law Panel and Children Panel and an Accredited Specialist with Resolution.