May 16, 2010

UK: Grandma has a right to be paid

LONDON, England / The Guardian / Comment is Free / May 16, 2010

Grandma has a right to be paid

Local authorities too often treat grandparents as free foster care, but a landmark ruling has highlighted this injustice

By Sam Smethers

A local authority is about to take a child into care because their parents can no longer care for them. It could place this child with a foster carer, paying them a fostering allowance of at least £146 a week. Or – mindful of the statutory requirements of the Children Act 1989 – it could find a grandparent or other relative who could do this instead. It is probably better for the child to stay within their extended family. After all, that's what most children want. So at the 11th hour (literally) it calls the grandparent and says:  "Will you take this child because otherwise they will have to go into care?" With a proverbial gun to the head, the grandparent agrees. Then what?

What follows is a long, protracted dispute about whether or not the child was a "looked after" child. Did he/she ever become the responsibility of the local authority, or did it just "facilitate" the transfer? The reason for the dispute is that if the local authority can claim it was a "private arrangement", it doesn't have to pay the grandparent a penny unless it chooses to, and this is usually at a much lower rate than fostering allowances.

Oh, and by the way, no one really takes the time to explain any of this to Gran or Grandad, who are then left to work out the crazy logic of our care system at a time when they and their family are in crisis. It may be parental drug misuse, or imprisonment. It could be serious illness or bereavement, domestic violence, neglect or abuse.

 Illustrative photo by courtesy of  © Maszas |

Add to that the fact that the grandparent is saving the state £40,000 a year. For the 300,000 children living with grandparents and other family carers, that's £12bn. Eight out of 10 grandparents in this situation will be of working age. Six out of 10 will either give up work or reduce their paid hours to care for the child. Many will develop health problems or depression. Half of the children in this situation will have serious emotional or behavioural problems. Four out of 10 will have special educational needs.

But a landmark legal judgement could change all this. Ridley and Hall solicitors has fought and won a case on behalf of a grandparent carer against Kent county council, arguing that she should be paid the same rate as a foster carer. The local authority is challenging the decision, not least because they face huge claims from all the other family and friends carers if they don't. Every other local authority is watching in trepidation.

But this case goes to the heart of what we mean by "family". Is it the grandparent's duty to care, no matter what? No, it isn't. Has she any right to expect support? Yes, she does. We rely on the fact that most grandparents quietly get on with it and ask for nothing at all. It's time that we changed this cruel and invidious system. We need a national allowance for family and friends carers, recognising that this is foster care by another name. Grandparents faced with the prospect of their grandchild going into care will usually step in, regardless of whether or not they get any help. And the truth is, most receive nothing. The system relies on it.

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