Kinship carers fear loss of support over cutbacks

WHEN the alarm goes off Suzanne Young has two young boys to get up, feed with breakfast, and send off to school before she heads to work.
Circle Scotland chief executive, Liz Dahl says the council cuts will have a devastating impact on the families her organisation supports. Picture: Phil WilkinsonCircle Scotland chief executive, Liz Dahl says the council cuts will have a devastating impact on the families her organisation supports. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Circle Scotland chief executive, Liz Dahl says the council cuts will have a devastating impact on the families her organisation supports. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The morning routine in her home in The Wisp is identikit to any parent of school-age kids – with one big difference: 54-year-old Suzanne is their “nan”.

Over in Newhaven 50-year-old Cathy Owens is doing the same – her boy is out of bed and dressed for school. Yet to him, a seven-year-old with ADHD, speech difficulties and a learning disability, she is his “gaddy”.

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The parents of these young boys weren’t up to the job. They were neglectful because of their own learning difficulties, they were drug-addicted, they were criminal. Their children are now in the care of their grandparents and they have a multitude of their own issues as a result of their very early years.

And yet Suzanne, Cathy and 38 other kinship care families in Edinburgh are now facing a future without the support of the organisation which they say has made taking in their grandchildren possible.

Budget cuts will see Circle Scotland, based in Pilton, lose the £126,000 grant it receives from Edinburgh City Council to run its Kinship Care programme.

Now grandparents such as Cathy and Suzanne – as well as staff at the not-for-profit organisation – are hoping that councillors will not back the cut when the council debates the budget on February 12.

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Suzanne, who runs a coffee shop and has an eight and seven-year-old to look after, says: “My daughter had a chaotic lifestyle, she was drug-dependent. I’ve had the oldest boy since he was a baby and the younger one from the age of four. It’s been like starting over again but at an age when you’re expecting to be a grandparent, to do all the fun things, to spoil them without having all the hard work. Instead that’s what my husband and I have got.

“Of course you want to take in your grandkids, it’s the obvious thing to do in a family, but it doesn’t mean it’s an easy decision. There are a lot of legal issues, the boys need extra support, and we had to deal with it all ourselves until I found out about Circle – they’ve been the best thing to happen to us. I feel like social work have let my boys down, Circle is the only place which has helped.”

She adds: “The staff at Circle listen to what we’re saying. They don’t try and tell us what to do, they work with us. If I have a problem they are the first place I would phone. I genuinely don’t know what I would do without them.

“One of my boys has ADHD and gets support from CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and someone from Circle comes with me to appointments. They are great advocates for what we do as carers and they also make sure we know about respite and other facilities and support available to us.

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“My husband had a heart attack and they were the only people to support us through that with the boys – they would take them out to give us space at home to help with his recovery. They’ve got my youngest a Buddy – a befriender – through Children 1st, a membership for The Yard . . .

“As a kinship carer you don’t know about these things. It’s not like foster care where you’re paid to take the children and have masses of support. You’re just expected to get on with it, which is why if I don’t have Circle I don’t have anything. I’ll be devastated. The council is very wrong to cut this money. If we could afford it we’d employ them directly ourselves.”

Cathy Owens used to work for Remploy, but she says when she was asked by social work to take in her grandson as he was being neglected by his mother, they made it clear that she couldn’t continue to work.

She says: “I had only just got the job after years of not working and I was loving it, but I was made to choose, so now I have to raise him on benefits,” she says. “Circle has been my lifeline. I can pick up the phone to speak to anyone about whatever is bothering me – if it’s something legal, or to do with money, or his education.

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“I’m quite a young grandmother but there are others who are in their late 60s and 70s on pensions looking after their grandchildren. They need support and without Circle there will really be nothing. I see the social worker about once a month but there’s not the same relationship there between us and them as there is with Circle staff.

“My grandson was taken away from his mum but he’s also lost his granny. I don’t have time to take him to the park and make chocolate crispy cakes because I’m making his tea and doing his homework. He’s got a global developmental delay and a learning disability because of the neglect and needs a lot of support, so it is difficult.”

She adds: “I’ve also still got my 18-year-old-son living at home. He was 12 when we took him in so he’s had to adapt to that too because I had to give my grandson so much attention because of his needs. Circle have helped us more than you could ever imagine. They’ve got to be allowed to keep giving that service.”

While they’re in similar situations Suzanne and Cathy only met because Circle launched – with the help of Sing in the City – a kinship choir for people in their position. “It’s been great,” says Suzanne. “It just takes you out of yourself for a while. Stops you thinking about the problems. I’d hate to think that might end too.”

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It is estimated that at least 173,000 children in the UK are brought up by grandparents or other relatives. However, just a fraction of that figure is officially recognised by social workers as being “looked after children” as many relatives take full guardianship, which takes the children out of the care system altogether, and others are cared for as an informal arrangement.

Often that can mean elderly people looking after very young children without any financial or additional support. The kinship service Circle Scotland tries to bridge a small part of the gap.

Chief executive Liz Dahl says: “We’ve been running our kinship care programme for two years and it has had a massive effect on the families we help, families which for one reason or another haven’t had a good experience with council services and who are more willing to engage with a voluntary organisation.

“This cut means we won’t be able to offer that support and we know what a devastating impact that will have on these families. The major concern is family breakdown. These are people who’ve given up a lot to look after these kids, many of whom have problems. They’re much older, they’ve had to learn parenting all over again and in a different world to when they were parents originally. It’s a big thing to ask of people, many of whom are pensioners.

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“We were first told of the cut in November and we challenged it but we were informed again in January. Our hope is that councillors will be brave enough to reverse this decision made by officials at the budget meeting. If not the cost to the council will be much greater.”

A council spokesperson says: “The contract for these services comes to an end next month and the challenging budget pressures facing the council mean we must take difficult decisions about the services we continue to commission. The council’s in-house Kinship Support Team and other services will continue to provide high quality support for kinship carers requiring assistance.”