First published in the Wigan Observer on August 12th 2013
Q: I have been looking after my granddaughter for the past three years as her parents can no longer care for her. I have recently heard that I could be entitled to financial support. How do I know if I can receive it?
A: Grandparents are quite often called upon to look after children when their parents can no longer care for them. If the local authority has been involved in some way in arranging such care, for example by asking a Grandparent or other relative because a parent was unable to, then the child is known as a ‘looked after’ child, which means that the local authority then take on a number of responsibilities which may include financial provision to a family, to support placement of a child with them.
For example, a social service department may be involved out of concern of a parent’s care for a child, and simply “advise” a different family member to seek a Residence Order, to allow the child to live with them. This might be sufficient for a local authority to liable to make payments if requested to do so.
A recent Appeal case involving Liverpool City Council’s social services department has highlighted this issue.
Within the last couple of weeks an Ombudsman’s report was published after an investigation into Liverpool City Council and their social services department. It found that in 340 cases, the council had not paid the family carers of young children the appropriate allowance. This happened because Liverpool City Council had considered that the children were not ‘looked after’ when family members agreed to look after grandchildren and other young relatives when their own parents could no longer care for them.
In these cases, rather than accepting that responsibility and making the arrangements for their care, the Council encouraged families to take out Special Guardianship Orders or Residence Orders which – they believed – made the arrangement for caring for the children a private arrangement, rather than the Council arranging it.
The Council had taken the view that they would not have to pay the guardians, or at least not have to pay them the going rate in fostering allowances, because they were not classed as ‘looked after’ by the Council and according to the Children Act definition.
But the Ombudsman disagreed and recommended that guardians or “kinship” family carers of children should be given financial redress as recruited local authority Foster Carers and will now be paid the difference in rates of allowances to that which they should have received. In addition, the Ombudsman suggests in the published report that many other councils may have made similar errors of judgement in dealing with these kinds of cases, which accords with our own experience.
The other consequences of the decision are not so widely reported, however the children are potentially owed many other duties by a local authority in terms of their future care and support if they are deemed ‘looked after children’ but not so if they are not classified as such.
Our family law team regularly represents individual family members in these types of cases. Our experience has highlighted that it is crucial for those feeling pressurised into agreeing to care for a child or obtain a Special Guardianship Order to obtain advice on these issues before a Final Order is made.
By Chris Fairhurst, associate solicitor in the family law team