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BLOG: How human rights based approaches can benefit kinship care families

26 Jul 2021

In a new blogpost for the UCC School of Law, Dr Aoife Daly, Lecturer at the School and Honorary Research Fellow, European Children’s Rights Unit, University of Liverpool, shares insights from her research- recently published in the Journal of Human Rights Practice - into into how and whether human rights can be used in the area of kinship care. 

“I became a kin kid because when my sister and I were babies, my mum … wasn’t well enough to look after us at the time, so my nan and grandad look after us now” (As told by kin child to Kinship Carers Liverpool, 2021).

Kinship care is the full-time parenting of children by family or close family friends when their parents are no longer able to look after them. In recent research published July 2021 in the Journal of Human Rights Practice I gathered the views of professionals such as social workers in Liverpool on how and whether human rights can be used in the area of kinship care.

Kinship carers take on the care of children of others in their family or friend group, usually at a time of great crisis. Yet they are frequently left by the state without financial or other support, despite the fact that they are usually older and financially deprived (Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, 2019). Most kinship care is informal, in that the state has had no involvement. Kinship Care Ireland estimates that there are 10,000 children in the care of relatives in the Republic of Ireland. In the UK the 2011 census showed that over three quarters (76%) of UK kinship children were living in a deprived household.

Research suggests that outcomes for children in kinship care are generally positive. As indicated by this child, the love and continuity of a child’s extended family can be invaluable when their birth parents cannot care for them: “I love living with my nan! She cooks my favourite tea, a curry! She gives me the best hugs and makes me feel safe and that I belong” (As told by kin child to Kinship Carers Liverpool, 2021). However, without adequate financial assistance, this comes at a high cost in terms of both finances and health for many kinship carers.

It is often assumed that care is a private matter. Yet ‘the economy’ would not function without the (often unrecognised) work provided by the ‘care economy’. In my research, interviewees emphasised the fact that kinship carers are saving extraordinary amounts of money for the public purse, by preventing children being taken into the care of the state. Yet they can struggle greatly with the expense of suddenly having a child/children to look after. They receive so little help that some kinship families are described as needing to access food banks due to financial pressures. The lack of support probably leads to some children ending-up in state ‘stranger’ care, I was told.

These difficulties in turn of course influence the rights of the children themselves. Children will inevitably suffer the knock-on effects of financial difficulty. Kinship care children are much more likely than the general population to require services such as counselling and special education. This is because, in advance of entering kinship care, they frequently have suffered trauma due to abuse, neglect and/or the loss of their primary carer (see e.g. Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, 2019). If they are not legally considered to be in the care of the state, however (referred to as ‘looked-after’ status in the UK), they will not be able to have the same access to these kinds of services as children who are.

There are clear human rights issues relevant to kinship care. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child emphasises that decisions should be taken in the best interests of the child, that it is usually best for children to be raised in their families, and that states must provide appropriate financial assistance to families. The European Convention on Human Rights enshrines the right to private and family life, and fair trial rights include access to justice. Kinship care families often cannot obtain ‘custody’ of children because they cannot afford to go to court, and they live in legal limbo.

It is difficult to realise the potential of human rights where the framework is not immediately understood or seen as relevant for those on the ground. I emphasise in my research that the rights framework can help hidden groups like kinship carers. It can: 1) point to which laws will help; 2) show where rules need to change; 3) support their arguments for better help by using international standards; and 4) showing governments that it is better to have common goals than to be in conflict with families about what help should be given. In Scotland for example, the government was convinced by human rights arguments in 2014 that looked-after children in kinship care should attract the same support as looked-after children in ‘stranger’ care (Equality and Human Rights Commission, Scotland, 2015). This is currently not the situation in Ireland, where kinship care is still not formally regarded as a form of alternative care.

Educating those on the ground on the relevance of human rights to kinship care will be one important step. However another vital area of work will be to feed into human rights frameworks the experiences and needs of hidden groups such as kinship care families. This is why in June 2021 in consultation with Kinship Care Ireland, Kinship (UK) and Kinship Carers Liverpool I made a submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasising the children’s rights dimension of kinship care, recommending that a specific section on kinship care be included in the Committee’s forthcoming General Comment on the rights of children in alternative care. It is hoped that this will assist in better reliance on the human rights framework for kinship care families, and that human rights may develop in a way that better takes account of rights holders’ own input at local level.

Aoife Daly is a lecturer at the School of Law, University College Cork specialising in human rights law. She is also an honorary research fellow at the European Children’s Rights Unit, University of Liverpool, where she taught for five years. She is author of Children, Autonomy and the Courts: Beyond the Right to be Heard (Brill, 2018) and is currently researching youth climate activism and human rights law.


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