When I stepped up to raise my little nephew, who was aged just 18 months at the time and had been taken into temporary foster care, I didn’t know much about what was in store.
Pregnant, and with a three-year-old of my own, I realised that raising three young kids was going to be chaotic, but even as the long and rigorous assessments by social work teams and courts were taking place, no one prepared me for the huge changes on their way for me and my family. I hadn’t even heard the term kinship carer before. I didn’t know I was one.
Fast forward 11 years, and I am the proud ‘mum’ of a wonderful, teenage nephew, as well as my two, incredible daughters. I have also spent the past four years supporting and campaigning alongside other kinship families, through various roles at national kinship care charity, Kinship.
So what do I know now, that I wish I had known at the start?
Understanding the needs of your children
When I took on caring for my nephew, I knew nothing about early life trauma or attachment disorders. Children in kinship care have often encountered abuse, addiction, bereavement, or neglect. Early life trauma, even for babies too young to talk, can have enormous effects on a child’s physical and mental development, mental health, and behaviour.
It was clear from the start that my nephew had significant additional needs, but without any support or training from my local authority, it was really left up to my partner and I to figure out what the root of his behavioural and developmental challenges was, and how best to support him.
In the early days, we made lots of mistakes. We followed one social worker’s advice, for example, to send our nephew to nursery full-time, but this seemed to just sweep his problems under the carpet, and we soon realised it wasn’t giving him the time he needed to bond with us.
All the trial and error involved made me carry a lot of guilt in those first few years. On the one hand, I often felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough for my nephew, but on the other, I felt guilt that the time and energy I was devoting to helping him settle in was depriving my own children of the attention they needed.
After about five years of caring for my nephew, I discovered that my local authority had just formed a kinship care team and commissioned support for kinship carers, through national charity Kinship. I reached out to them.
They helped me find training in caring for a child who has experienced early life trauma. The training was so empowering and transformational for our family. Once we could understand the reasons behind the different behaviours we were seeing from our nephew, it made it so much easier for us to understand and support him. The local authority’s kinship team also helped us access the Adoption Support Fund to get our nephew the therapeutic support he needed, such as life story work, play therapy and sensory therapy.
I realise now that it should never have been so hard at the start. I was doing everything I could with the time and information I had, but this is why I have spent recent years fighting for kinship carers to be better supported and equipped, so others don’t have to carry the guilt and stress.
Don’t go it alone
No kinship carer should go it alone. Through Kinship’s website, any kinship carer in England and Wales can join a whole community of other kinship carers as well as access free advice, training and information on everything from financial issues to managing contact between a child and their birth parents.
One of the most transformational moments for me was finding other kinship carers, who understood my experience. Since working for Kinship, I have heard that again and again from other kinship carers – that they felt they were almost at breaking point, and then they found others in similar situations, and together, they found their strength. Kinship has peer support groups all over the country, as well as online groups, that bring kinship carers together to share their experiences, provide emotional support and exchange practical tips.
Growing up, I had no awareness of kinship care. In fact, I was a kinship carer for five years before I encountered the term. I’m not the only one. At a visit to one of our peer support groups, Professor Green recently told The Princess of Wales that when he asked his grandmother, who raised him, whether she knew she was a kinship carer, “she was like, 'What? No!'”
That matters, and I’ll tell you why. When we took on the care of our nephew, my oldest daughter was three years old. She had no idea why he had come to live with us, and it was difficult for us to explain it all to her in a way that she could understand at her stage of development. Books and TV shows all showed her examples of nuclear families with mothers and fathers and siblings, but nowhere was there a character whose cousin lived with them.
As my nephew grew older, we faced a similar issue with him. How best to explain why he was the only kid in the playground whose auntie picked him up from school? How were we supposed to make him feel like he was normal, loved, and secure when his family set-up was not reflected or spoken about anywhere in the culture around him?
I am thrilled to see an entire page devoted to kinship care in the new Ladybird book, My Family, Your Family, written by Laura Henry-Allain MBE (who created the wonderful JoJo and Gran Gran characters in the CBeebies programme and is the series' associate producer). This is exactly the kind of representation we need to see more of. It will help the hundreds of thousands of children growing up in kinship care across the UK understand their family circumstances and feel like they belong.
I wouldn’t change it for the world
Despite the challenges of raising a child in kinship care, here is the most common phrase that you hear when speaking to kinship carers: “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
One of the things we have in common, right across the community, is that when we got the call, we didn’t hesitate to step up. Why? Because there was a child we loved, and they needed a loving home. The longer you care for a child, the deeper and wider and taller that love grows, and the greater the rewards for the whole family.
Watching my nephew meet various milestones, celebrate successes, grow, and develop, has been one of the great privileges and joys of my life. Seeing the close relationship he has with his cousins, who are like siblings to him, and the love they all have for one another, is proof that we made the right decision all those years ago – for him, for my daughters and for us.
My hope is that a greater awareness of kinship care in our society, through things like Kinship’s #ValueOurLove campaign, will ensure that every kinship family in the future gets the support they need, and every child growing up in kinship care feels safe, secure and seen.