Family carers who agree to give up work to become full-time “parents” to the children of relatives, in order to prevent them being taken into care, are being left penniless and homeless by welfare changes, campaigners say.
Kinship carers, hailed by ministers as “unsung heroes”, are typically grandparents, aunts or older siblings who step in voluntarily to bring up child relatives after the birth parent dies or is unable to continue because of illness or neglect.
A new survey of their experiences, seen by the Guardian, shows that many are frustrated at their lack of reward for “doing the right thing”.
Several report giving up secure jobs after being warned by social services that if they did not become a full-time carer, the child would be put up for adoption. Having complied, they were often left reliant on a benefit system that punished them for not working.
One in 10 respondents had their benefit capped, losing in some cases more than £100 a month, or were forced to move home. Others were sanctioned, having their benefits stopped for at least four weeks, for failing to search for jobs.
A similar proportion were forced to pay the so-called bedroom tax after moving to a bigger rented home on the advice of social services. In one case, a council’s housing officers advised a carer to move to a smaller property to avoid the bedroom tax, while its social workers insisted she keep the extra room.
A handful of kinship carers have lost thousands of pounds because of the two-child benefit limit, introduced in April, which restricts child tax credits to the first two children in a household. This affects younger carers who voluntarily parent two or more siblings, who are denied social security entitlements when they have a child of their own.
One woman, who was 18 when she became carer to her two teenage siblings 10 years ago, said: “It just seems that when you do the right thing by becoming a kinship carer, you will end up being stuck and penalised for doing something purely out of love.”
The survey of 517 kinship carers, carried out by the charities Family Rights Group and Grandparents Plus, found that nearly half had given up work and a quarter had reduced their hours, while nine out of 10 had endured financial hardship. Many had spent all their savings, or been forced into debt or rent arrears. Several said they had been evicted.
Campaigners have called for kinship carers to receive the same rights and allowances as foster carers and adoptive parents, including paid employment leave while the child is settling in. They also want kinship carers to be exempt from the benefit cap, the bedroom tax and the two-child benefits limit.
Ministers promised to exempt kinship carers from the two-child policy after a humiliating defeat over the issue in the House of Lords two years ago, following concern that it would deter potential carers from coming forward. However, it has emerged that the exemption only applies to carers who have birth children first and then become guardian to a third child – not the other way around.
The majority of the surveyed carers were bringing up children who had suffered neglect or abuse by birth parents who were often mentally ill or substance misusers. One in 20 had taken in child relatives whose parents had died. A quarter of the carers, mostly women, were already raising their own children.
In many cases the children had high support needs, including physical disabilities, mental illness, attachment disorder and emotional or behavioural difficulties. Several respondents said they were ill-prepared for the demands of caring, struggled with the extra costs and were denied support by local authorities.
An estimated 200,000 children in the UK are raised by kinship carers, saving the taxpayer billions that might otherwise be spent on foster care or children’s home fees.
Cathy Ashley, chief executive of Family Rights Group, said: “Kinship carers are doing all that could be asked of them by society and more. But instead of getting the support they and the children need, many kinship carers are left in poverty, isolated and having to battle to just make ends meet, while often also caring for very traumatised children.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Every child deserves the best start in life, and that includes having a stable, nurturing home environment. Kinship carers help many children who are unable to live with their parents.
“To help with those responsibilities, they are eligible for the same benefits as birth parents, including child benefit and child tax credits. We also require local authorities to publish information on how they support children living in these circumstances.
“Anyone experiencing difficulties should contact their local authority for advice and support.”
‘I went from a very good job to living on benefits’
Jay Godfrey was a well-off professional in her 30s with no children of her own when she became a kinship carer in 2005. Her elder sister had died from cancer, leaving three teenage daughters. Without hesitation, and practically overnight, Jay stepped in.
Becoming a carer wasn’t really a choice, Godfrey says: family love and loyalty trumped all other considerations. But she was unprepared for the pressure and disruption that turned her life upside down, or for the indifference of the authorities that had encouraged her to become legal guardian to her grieving nieces.
“My partner ended up giving me an ultimatum: it’s me or the girls. I chose the children. It was difficult; I was very isolated,” says Godfrey. “I went from a very good job, earning lots of money, having three holidays a year, to living on benefits.”
Her kinship carer experience was difficult, at times traumatic, but nine years later she did it all over again, when the daughters of her youngest niece, who had suffered episodically from serious mental illness and was in a chaotic relationship, were taken into care by social services.
Social workers encouraged Godfrey to apply for special guardianship for the children. If she didn’t, they said, the girls would probably be separated and adopted and she would never see them again. “They knew family was everything for me,” Godfrey says. “They put it forward as a choice, but they knew they would get the answer they wanted.”
The girls, now aged seven and eight, have attachment disorder and separation anxiety, yet the therapeutic support offered to them has been limited, Godfrey says. She survives on housing benefit and £310 a week in special guardianship allowance. “It puts food on the table and nothing else. My parents provided every bit of clothing the girls wear.”
It is unfair, she says, that foster carers get much more support for doing the same role, and that having eagerly facilitated the guardianship, the council now seems intent on doing the bare minimum to assist her. “I feel like I am the only one who is invested in these children to ensure they have as good a life as I can offer them.”
She would never have ducked the challenge of kinship care, she says, but she wishes the situation didn’t feel so fraught and exploitative.
But amid the stress there is hope and beauty: “The two children come in from school and put their arms around me and tell me they love me, and they make my heart sing.”
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