The government is facing calls to boost the chances of children in the care system being reuniting with their families.
New research commissioned by The Promise Scotland and conducted by One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) reveals the financial and emotional impact of poverty on a family when a child enters care and if they return from care, as well as a gap in policy responses and service delivery.
The study , ‘Poverty-proofing for families in or on the edges of care,’ is based on extensive research into the link between poverty and care, online surveys and focus groups with parents with experience of the care system and interviews with professionals across the voluntary and statutory sectors over an 18-month period.
The new research shows that parents already living in poverty and reliant on social security support face even further financial hardship when their child is taken into care, due to a sudden, significant, and often unexpected reduction in income, resulting from an almost immediate withdrawal of family-related benefits.
This not only pushes parents into debt and in some cases causes them to become homeless, but crucially, reduces their ability to offer their children a safe and nurturing home to return to.
Evidence from The Care Review shows that families living in poverty are at increased risk of coming into contact with the care system in the first place.
One Parent Families has called for greater support and commitment from Scottish Government and local authorities to increase the chances of children in the care system being reunited with their families in line with the ambitions of The Promise.
Satwat Rehman, OPFS Chief Executive said: “The overarching ambition of The Scottish Government in its commitment to Keep the Promise for care experienced children, young people and their families is to keep families together where it is safe to do so and to provide the support that is required to make this happen.
“Providing young people with the opportunity to return to a safe and economically stable family environment is therefore central to achieving this ambition.
“The experiences of parents who took part in our research illustrate that policies and practices that were intended to protect and improve the lives of children can actually lead to increased financial hardship for their parents, reducing the likelihood of reunification between parent and child or prolonging the child’s stay in care.
“It is counter intuitive to withdraw financial support from families when there is emerging evidence pointing to the fact that financial assistance can actually increase the rate of reunification of a child with their family.
“Now is the time to invest in actions to mitigate the worst effects of corrosive policies which stand in the way of delivering on the aspirations of The Promise: that children in Scotland ‘will grow up loved, safe and respected’.”
Consultations with parents involved with the research reveal a lack of appropriate practical and emotional support to help parents navigate the sudden change in circumstances, during a time when they are simultaneously engaging with child protection and planning processes connected with their children.
The research highlights the barriers that prevent parents from being reunited with their children, with some parents being allocated a one-bedroom property as they were now classed as ‘single occupant’ and other parents living on an income intended only for themselves whilst waiting for several weeks after being reunited with their children for their full benefit entitlement to be reinstated.
Many parents reported experiences of shock, stigma and shame.
One parent who took part in the research said: “My money was stopped suddenly, which was a shock – can’t remember when but it was soon after she was taken. I didn’t know that would happen as no one told me.
“One week ‘x’ amount, next week nearly nothing. That was really shocking as I still had stuff to pay, including contact [visiting costs].”
Parents who took part in the research also reported that, even on a reduced income, they were expected to have enough credit on their phone to attend contact visits and to attend those visits with the appropriate snacks and toys for their children.
One parent said: “I felt overwhelming pressure to buy things for my baby to show I was a good mother..I couldn’t.
“I remember buying her a toy from the pound shop. They took it off her as they didn’t think it was good or right for her age. That hurt a lot.”
Interviews with practitioners supporting families whose children have been removed or are returning from care further reveal a lack of training and education around the care system and poverty in general.
It indicated a low awareness about the drop in finances and a reluctance and fear of talking to families about this.
One practitioner said: “When you are looking at the removal of children, the focus is very much on the child. The welfare of the children must be paramount. But, on reflection, the impact of poverty doesn’t detract from that principle.”
Another practitioner stated: “How do we create to moral message for addressing this as there are some people who will say it’s right that the money is removed – they don’t have the kids, they don’t need the money.
“These parents are still providing a family home – built a home for a family and providing a home for a family yet we have a system that take away the means to provide that.”
The findings from the research and proposals made by both parents and practitioners have been used to produce a series of short-term and long-term recommendations to mitigate against the negative consequences for families when a child is taken into care and set out what measures can be taken to help families stay together.
Recommendations for families when a child is taken into care
- The inclusion of financial awareness and money management support within family support.
- Awareness and understanding on the part of children’s hearings panels, social work and other professionals of the link between family poverty and a child’s sustained reunification with their family.
- Use of public sector discretionary funding when a child returns home to bridge payments until benefit payments restart.
- Support with housing, housing benefit and rent arrears.
- Addressing stigma shame and perception.
Fraser McKinlay, CEO of The Promise Scotland said: “I am pleased that The Promise Scotland has been able support this important research carried out by OPFS. It addresses a blind spot in the system about what happens to family finances when a child or children are unable to live at home and are taken into care.
“The research highlights the negative impact that this can have, and families that are pushed further into poverty are less likely to be reunited. This runs contrary to the core message of the promise, which asks Scotland to better support families to keep children at home wherever it is safe to do so.
“The promise will not be kept unless more is done to address the pervasive impact of poverty upon Scotland’s children and families. The Promise Scotland stands ready to work with all stakeholders, at Scotland and UK level, to support the work required to implement the recommendations.
“All families experience difficult times and need help to navigate troubled waters. I expect this research, and most importantly its recommendations, to be absorbed and acted upon so that effective scaffolding is built up to support families, allowing all of Scotland’s children to thrive.”