The 24th November is Carers’ Rights Day and we asked Heather McVeigh, from Mentor UK, to reflect on how Scotland is responding to the needs of carers.

Health McVeigh, Director, Edinburgh, Mentor UKKinship care, in which members of an extended family look after a child instead of the birth parents, has been around for centuries and is not new to Home-Start. But perhaps because it usually starts as an informal arrangement, kinship carers face a number of problems which require specialist support.

I am seven and I love living with my gran, my mum is sick. She takes things that make her sick and she has gone away to get better so I don’t see mum. My house is different now, I have a bed and a warm floor but I have to wash, I never had to do that before. I also get nice food to eat but sometimes it is icky like broccoli. I love my gran she makes me happy and she doesn’t shout at me.

This child’s experience shows both the value of kinship care and the difficulty of trying to get things right for every child. But what this account does not reveal are the many challenges kinship carers face. While progress is slowly being made families continually face financial constraints, housing concerns, stigma, guilt and isolation as well as the challenge of meeting the emotional and physical needs of children often affected by trauma, stress, neglect and abuse.

Finding support, information and advice can be difficult; never mind trying to locate a new bed, clothing, and everything else to meet a child’s daily needs. Local authorities across Scotland provide varied support but the situation is something of a postcode lottery despite strong agreement that providing children with the right kind of early experience is the single most important factor influencing a child’s development.

Working in kinship care for over nine years, I have witnessed first-hand the many challenges kinship carer families face. Carers wish to give the best care and support to these children however through lack of support and understanding of the children’s needs relationships can falter and breakdowns can occur.

Through our research and involvement with kinship families we have recognised the value of promoting and sharing information about the role of kinship care, highlighting what has often remained hidden and speaking openly about how the statutory and third sector plus communities can make a positive difference to these families. Our National Kinship Care Resource Guides and National Kinship Website has helped to share the varied and often confusing journeys kinship families make and to provide access to resources and support but it is our dedicated family support service, Families Together, that has made the biggest difference.

Family support is not rocket science. At its best, it is a wraparound support package that works with the family as a whole, helping to address the many areas of concern of carers, the children and extended family. Unlike Home-Start, we work with families with children of any age. We provide advocacy, training, financial reviews, access to support group groups, one to one and group support as well as links in to appropriate community support services.

For the children, we provide weekly activities that build confidence and self-esteem as well as friendships. We then undertake family outings, bringing the family together to communicate and have fun.

Working alongside local authorities has been a vital component in helping to shape practice and provide better links for the carers. This has involved regional forums and conferences, bringing local authorities together to share practice and review their procedures and protocols, encouraging them to think outside the box. This has also resulted in a training programme for new social workers and youth workers to upskill them in the role of kinship and how specifically to work with children in kinship care.

The wider community also has a key role in supporting kinship families. Other services need to be aware how they can help, for example, simply by changing their messages to include parents and carers. Other local organisations, such as football clubs, can play their part. For example, Big Hearts, the Hearts of Midlothian community programme, worked with us to use the power of football to bring together the community of all ages, genders and beliefs. We also currently train kinship carers to be peer mentors to help other kinship families in their area.

Scotland has come such a long way in the last five years with new legislation and local authorities trying to enhance their provisions. Mentor is a small cog in a very big wheel and we look forward to working with as many people and services across Scotland to make a difference to the lives of these wonderful families.

Heather McVeigh
Director, Edinburgh, Mentor UK

A qualified lawyer, Heather has strong experience in the voluntary sector working within the community and prison environments. Since 2008, Heather has developed Mentor UK’s Edinburgh office which has a critical role in consultations on drug policy and practice and offering special expertise in kinship care.