Almost overnight, Laura Thornton became the sole carer of her two young half-siblings at the age of 27.
Just weeks earlier the restaurant team leader, who was only a couple of months pregnant, had been planning her own family’s future with her partner. But then her life changed when her father’s partner tragically passed away and he was unable to look after their children, aged five and eight.
Laura made the decision to step up and become their carer.
She wasn’t to know that such a sudden change in circumstances would soon push her own relationship to the limit, and within months Laura went from being in a stable relationship with her first baby on the way, to a single pregnant mum of two kids under ten.
‘Before then I was free, working, and socialising – then suddenly I was moving into a family home,’ remembers Laura, now 33. ‘It wasn’t the path I wanted to take.’
However, she adds, there wasn’t much choice.
Either she looked after her half-siblings or they went into care. ‘That didn’t sit right with me,’ admits Laura. ‘I loved them. I didn’t want them to feel neglected or unwanted, so I agreed.’
Laura recalls how in a matter of months her life became something beyond all recognition. ‘I was told by social services I would have to give up my job to cater to the children’s emotional needs, appointments, and meetings with the school,’ she remembers. ‘It changed everything. But at the time, all I was thinking about was the children. I wouldn’t have done it any other way because I didn’t want them going into care.’
There are currently around 180,000 children in the UK cared for by people like Laura. Known as ‘kinship carers’ they take in youngsters related to them in some way to keep them out of the care system.
However, it’s a system on the edge, with many fearful they may have to give their charges up as living costs continue to rise and the UK teeters on the brink of recession.
In a survey published just last month, the charity Kinship found that nine in ten kinship carers can no longer afford household essentials like heating, food, and clothes for their children, as they don’t get the same financial support as foster carers, who receive a minimum of £137 per week.
Of the carers surveyed, 44% admitted they couldn’t afford to pay bills, while more than a quarter worried they wouldn’t be able to get food on the table. 18% said they were struggling to cover their rent or mortgage.
Such lack of financial support combined with the cost-of-living crisis is said to be crippling kinship carers, who are often forced to give up secure jobs and spend life savings and pensions to keep vulnerable children within the family.
‘Unlike foster carers, kinship carers are not entitled in law to a financial allowance to help them cover the costs of raising someone else’s child,’ explains Dr Lucy Peake, Kinship’s CEO.
‘Some get access to an allowance if the local authority approves this, but it is often lower than that given to foster carers, and it’s limited only to a couple of years after the legal order is made, and/or subject to annual review and means-testing.’
Kinship carers are almost nearly asked to take a relative’s children in a moment of crisis. As well as receiving little financial support, they are often left feeling isolated from those who can’t relate, struggling to know how to help the traumatised children placed in their care.
Laura, now 33, remembers that in those first few months of taking in the children, she felt like she desperately needed to distract them from all that they’d been through. She did it through endless days out, anything that would keep their young minds occupied.
However, as time went on, the financial side of things took a huge toll. While the family once enjoyed regular trips to the shops and cinema, or days out in the park with ice creams, Laura eventually became reliant on food and clothes banks, asking family to help.
‘I felt sad and angry about the lack of support I had,’ she admits. ‘It was only six months after I had the children, I found out I was entitled to Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits.’ Up until then, Laura had depended on a £50 card social services topped up each week and £75 per week from income support.
In June 2017, Laura gave birth to her own baby, making her a single mother to three children at the age of 28. When she tried to ask for help from social services, she was told: ‘this is all we can do for you.’
Finally, after a year of fighting for paperwork and feeling dismissed by the authorities, Laura was given legal guardianship of her siblings in 2017 and could start to officially settle into life as a family of four.
However, now time has passed and the children are getting older, Laura says the bills are getting bigger.
‘Their clothes are more expensive. Their feet grow weekly,’ she explains. ‘I’m worried about money. When it comes to my benefits, they didn’t rise with the cost of living. My income support has just stopped because my youngest has turned five, so I need to go back to work, which I’m really anxious about.
I can’t afford childcare, so will need to find a job with hours suited to the kids,’ she adds. ‘I get upset when I think about it all. Sometimes, I still can’t believe it has actually all happened.’
While foster carers receive training, practical support, and financial assistance, kinship carers don’t. They are suddenly given a child and expected to provide for all their needs without any help.
‘Kinship carers are not getting the financial, practical and emotional support they need,’ says Peake. ‘For too long, they have been undervalued and ignored despite their efforts keeping children safe and loved in their family network and preventing them from going into the care system.’
Even though Peake acknowledges the tenacity of kinship carers to provide for the children handed to them, she is concerned that without support, families will find the stress too much to manage, and warns: ‘They may have to ask the local authority to take the child into care as a result.’
Wendy had only just arrived at the office near Eastbourne to start her day working as a bookkeeper in August 2008 when she received a phone call from social services.
‘They said my daughter was having problems – that she was very poorly – and asked if I could come and collect my grandson immediately,’ the now 69-year-old grandmother recalls. ‘Otherwise, they said, he would get put into foster care.’
Although Wendy’s daughter loved her son, she was struggling with depression and her mental health, triggered by a previous trauma, and was not able to care for him at the time. So, by 10am that day, Wendy had collected the 17-month-old baby from her daughter’s home.
‘I thought I would just be having him until my daughter got better,’ she admits. ‘Perhaps for just a couple of weeks. But that isn’t how it turned out. After a few weeks, social services asked if I could take on the long-term care of my grandson or he would be adopted out.’
Wendy knew without a shadow of a doubt she would take on her grandson’s care, but simultaneously, felt sadness that the life she had been living would be turned upside down.
‘I was told straight away by social services that I couldn’t go back to work if I wanted to care for him,’ she remembers. ‘I’d been looking forward to retirement, to cruises, and driving to France. But when you’ve suddenly got a little infant depending on you for everything, you can’t think of doing those things any more. I had become a full-time mum again. It was like going backwards.’
Wendy and her husband slowly started to adapt to their new life with their new addition, obtaining what was then called a residence order, establishing that he would live with them until he turned eighteen.
‘In 2012, our grandson was going to nursery and was getting ready to go to school in September, when I found out that my daughter was expecting again,’ Wendy says, recalling her feelings of dismay when she got the phone call. ‘I had just arranged to start a part-time job but knew that would go out the window. I knew there would be no way my daughter could keep the baby.’
Once her daughter gave birth, Wendy immediately became the carer for her granddaughter as well.
‘It was devastating to start with,’ she remembers. ‘I was so tired with night feeds and nappies. But we got through it. I also felt a little bit sad that I couldn’t treat them like any other grandchildren. I was their mum.’
After splitting with her husband two years ago, Wendy has found it incredibly lonely and financially tolling to be a kinship carer. ‘It is very isolating – I didn’t know anyone else in my position,’ she says.
‘I’m now relying on my state pension and pension credits, which means my Child Tax Credits have since stopped so we have lost out massively. It seems very unfair.’
Wendy has said that as with many households up and down the UK, her finances have got even worse recently. ‘I am worried where it’s all going to end,’ she admits.
‘Nearly all the food in my kitchen has yellow reduced-priced stickers. I am fortunate to get most of our fresh fruit, bread and vegetables from the local community fridge which has collected food that has just reached sell-by date. I am reliant on those because food prices are becoming so expensive. I also rely on school food vouchers during the holidays. That’s how we survive.’
The rising prices of gas and electricity also scare Wendy as her bills have gone up exponentially in the last year. ‘Treats used to be a regular occurrence,’ she says. ‘But not anymore. Now I have to budget for every penny.’
‘It wasn’t their duty to raise us, but they did it anyway’
Liam Kartwright, 23, was taken in by his grandparents along with his twin sister when they were just six months old.
‘My parents struggled with alcoholism and could no longer care for us. As a young child, I had no clue our family was ‘different’ or ‘untraditional’. All I knew was a safe, loving home.
I remember spending a lot of time outside growing up in Newcastle. My grandparents loved the outdoors and wanted to get us in the fresh air as much as possible. When we weren’t in school, my grandpa would take us on long walks. My grandma introduced us to horseback riding – a hobby we carried on doing together for years.
At some point in primary school, a friend asked me why I had to ask my grandma for permission to do something, rather then my mum or dad. I had never thought about it before. When I asked my grandma about it, she told me I could call her whatever I wanted, but reminded me that technically, she was my grandma. Even though I occasionally saw my parents growing up, it was my grandparents who I regarded as my mum and dad.
Throughout high school, I was pushed out of my comfort zone to try new things. When I hesitated about joining the Youth Parliament, my grandparents encouraged me to give it go. I have now just finished studying politics at Manchester Met University. In part, I owe my love of politics and my subsequent graduation to them.
If my grandparents had not chosen to take me in, I don’t know where I would be today. I definitely would not have been here, graduating from university with a first. They made sacrifices to take two young babies in, especially my grandma. She gave up work to take care of us. It wasn’t their duty to raise us, but they did it anyway, and I will forever be grateful.
According to the charity Kinship, investing better in carers like Wendy ‘makes sense’.
‘It keeps children in their family networks which is better for their wellbeing and relationships,’ explains Peake. ‘The evidence shows kinship care helps maintain better connections between kids and their siblings and family members, often keeps them closer to home and their friends and school and provides greater stability and security. We need to shift the focus towards earlier funding, rather than the later costlier interventions of foster care, children’s homes and adoption.’
Following the birth of their grandson, John and his wife were asked by social services to support the baby due to the chaotic lifestyle of his parents. Then, following a series of concerning events, the couple were asked by social services in 2019 if they would take the child into their home full time.
‘All we wanted was to provide a safe place for him to develop, we wanted the best for the little man,’ John remembers. ‘There were three options, staying with his parents which wasn’t possible, foster care which would have meant we never saw him again and he’d feel abandoned, or caring for him ourselves. We chose the third because we love him.’
For three years, John and his wife have been fighting to give their grandson the best life they can. ‘When he first came to us, he was two years behind in school and emotionally up and down,’ he explains.
John had already taken early redundancy from work years prior to their grandson coming to live with them to care for his wife who has a disability. They were managing on benefits, but finances have become problematic now, as they factor in the extra cost of raising a child.
“We’ve had some financial support but it’s a postcode lottery,’ he explains. ‘From the beginning we could have done with more help, it was a 20-mile round trip to school twice a day which is a lot of petrol money. We’re already struggling to pay our household bills, even though we’re on a fixed tariff until next year. We’re saving up for the increases but it’s a real worry.
‘Food bills are going up each week. My wife and I have sandwiches most days to save on energy and our grandson has a meal, and once a week we go down to the chippie. I used to do meals in the slow cooker but we’re not doing that so much now as we don’t want to use the electricity.’
While John considers it a total joy to raise his grandson, he doesn’t deny it is also tiring. ‘Some days, I feel absolutely flat,’ he admits. ‘It has been a rollercoaster. Raising children is hard work, especially at my age, but it’s a pleasure to see him develop and grow. We just want him to be secure, to do well.’
Wendy says she would love to see all kinship carers get £137 per week – ‘which is the basic foster allowance,’ she says.
‘It will make a massive difference. We have been pushed to the bottom of the pile because we haven’t gotten the recognition that foster and adopted children have.
But it’s so important that we be able to continue to look after these children – they’re our blood. It’s why we do it.’
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