Liz and Frank set up Charwood Kinship Carers Group as a direct result of their own experiences of becoming kinship carers, six and a half years ago, with the desire to support other kinship carers across Teesside. They have participated in a question and answer session with us to highlight some of the challenges they have faced, the positive aspects of kinship care, and how the pandemic has affected them.
When you were first asked to be a kinship carer what was your initial reaction?
Our first reaction was, of course, we will do anything to avoid our grandson Jensen going into the care system. At the time Jensen was only three and a half and we were both in our early sixties.
What has been the most challenging experience/ moment you have encountered?
Taking on a young child when you are a senior citizen means you are faced with a range of challenges. Fitness is the first that springs to mind, playing games and sports and generally trying to keep up with an active child is a challenge. Finance is a challenge when your earning capabilities have come to an end. But our biggest challenge is now, with Covid-19. Jensen must attend school and rightly so, these are the times when Jensen is with other kids his own age and he enjoys that very much and he is very popular. Our big worry is while in school he mixes with teachers and lots of other people too and then returns home to us, Liz is shielding with COPD so we all need to be careful. What a dilemma! We want Jensen to have the best possible start in life, we want him to thrive and socialise but now all of this is a risk to Liz's health. Ultimately, if anything happens to us Jensen would be in the care system, the very thing we did not want for him. When you become a kinship carer your life changes completely, your own plans and expectations for the future are lost and you inevitably lose social connections as your lives dramatically change in ways many do not understand unless you have been through the process yourselves. But we know Jensen is here for the rest of our natural lives, he is safe, he is thriving and that outweighs the negatives and is the choice we made when we took Jensen on.
What is the most rewarding thing about being a Kinship Carer?
The most rewarding thing isn't a specific day, action, or thing. It is something that happens over a period of time. When Jensen first came to us, he would scream and shake uncontrollably when there was a knock on the door, his mind was very absorbed with what he had been through and seen. Kinship children have often experienced difficult and traumatic experiences which have led to them needing kinship care in the first place. If you meet Jensen now, the little boy we brought home six and a half years ago is unrecognisable. Of course, he has grown, he is now ten years old and a very confident, popular young man. He is always first on sports teams at school, he has achieved a black belt in kickboxing in six and a half years of training. He has even fought for a British title at the young age of ten. Nothing short of amazing. So, the overall change is what is most rewarding to see. We are very proud of the young man he is and feel content in the knowledge we have given him the best opportunities to thrive and do well as we could and will continue to do so.
What support has helped you as Middlesbrough kinship carers?
Unfortunately, we haven't received any support either as kinship carers or as a kinship family. There are no groups that we are aware of specifically aimed at supporting whole families in Teesside. Some organisations support adult carers or young carers and some services support looked after children but there is no local offer that supports kinship families as a whole. This is why we set up Charwood Kinship Carers Group. We were left to get on with it and that felt unacceptable to us and we were not happy to let others have the same experience.
How did Charwood Kinship Carers start and how has this developed?
The group has been running for six and a half years. We started as soon as we recognised the gap in support through experience. The group began with a message on the internet asking others if they had been treated in the same way as us by social services and if would they like to meet to discuss and share experiences. The group quickly picked up momentum and has supported many kinship families over the years. Our greatest achievement was obtaining our very own Centre, courtesy of Thirteen Group, which enabled us to support kinship carers from every corner of Teesside as we developed a welcoming, safe hub full of life, love, and laughter. From a social media message to a well-established group, we have been able to offer help and support to kinship carers who are just starting out on their journey and support kinship families across Teesside with practical and emotional support. We try to put on a five-day week of engaging activities during the school summer holidays which includes breakfast club and day trips with transport. Trips include Flamingo Land, treasure hunts at the seaside, museum visits, and picnics in the park. We organise conferences, we provide space for children to socialise and play games. We provide parties for all occasions- Halloween, birthdays, Easter, Christmas including Santa sleigh visit. Being a kinship carer can be isolating so we look to bring whole families together, allowing the children to be kids and the kinship carers the opportunity to get support if they need it and socialise. As well as a range of activities we offer information, solicitor support, court appearance support, and starter packs up to £250.
What kind of support has been the most valuable for local Kinship Carers?
In our opinion, the most valued support we provide is a four-day holiday to Butlins for kinship families, which we raise funds for throughout the year. All the kinship families have something positive to look forward to which is needed to focus away from the daily grind and challenging situations many kinship families are dealing with. This holiday really excites us. We choose Butlins because we don’t have passports, insurance is a lot cheaper, the food and fairground are included in the price and the entertainment is very varied and appeals to both adults and children. On top of this, we feel safe at Butlins which is obviously a priority when traveling with groups of children. This holiday always invigorates us all and is marvellous for our wellbeing. We have managed to provide this for five consecutive years and if we have enough funds we provide each child with £15 per day spending money and we try to give the adults £50 per family to have one night out with a meal and a bottle of wine, while the other families look after their children and then alternate this until all families have had a night to themselves. Butlins is the highlight of the year for most of the kinship families we support. This is all dependent on the money we raise throughout the year. In 2017 we didn’t raise enough money for our annual Butlins trip to which Middlesbrough Mayor, Andy Preston, stepped in and donated £2000 of his own money to make the trip possible.
How has Covid-19 affected the support available for Kinship Carers locally?
Kinship care has been devastated by this pandemic, in ordinary times kinship families are left to get on with it with no support from organisations. This is made much worse as social distancing and ensuring the safety of all our families has meant we have been unable to open our centre which provides practical and emotional support at a time when local kinship carers need it most. We have tried to maintain some level of contact with carers over the phone as we know the isolation and concern many are experiencing is huge. We have also worked with Tees Active to provide and deliver parcels to local families in need. It is extremely concerning as we worry about the impact this is having on local families but there is unfortunately not a lot more we can do at the present time.
What do you hope for the future of Charwood Kinship Carers?
We would hope for the central government to recognise the fantastic work that kinship carers do for the whole of the UK. Financial support is desperately needed, kinship carers take on the responsibility of a child out of love with their heart ruling over their head and soon realise the lack of financial support which is essential when raising a child particularly for those of us who are retired. Respite support is also desperately needed, as we have said we are just left to get on with it and WE NEED HELP! We would hope for the whole caring fund to be put back into the pot and shared out more evenly rather than kinship carers being at the back of the queue with foster carers at the front.
What advice do you have to anybody newly coming into the role of a kinship carer?
We would advise that kinship caring is not like fostering, you need to understand that this isn’t temporary, you are taking on a child right through into adulthood which is a massive step to take so really think it through because it is a life-changing commitment.
As the years pass there are far more pros than cons to becoming a kinship carer and it is very rewarding to see the difference you make to a child’s life.
Contact Charwood Kinship Carers if you want to know more or are seeking peer support advice.
Give Frank a call:
Tel: 01642 913953