One night earlier this year Stephen Merchant, 55, was contacted by his local council’s children’s services department. Twelve hours later, he was the full-time carer for his grandson, Charlie, who will be three years old on Wednesday. “Life changes in a phone call,” says Merchant, who comes from Northampton.
He had to give up his job as a driver. “My employers offered a baby seat in the lorry,” he jokes, “but Charlie comes first.” Charlie was taken from Merchant’s son and girlfriend when it was found that the baby had fractures. “I was the only one in the family who could change lifestyles at the time,” he says. The two now live on around £250 a week, or £12,000 a year. “I’m not flush, but I can survive. The family help. I’ve got bags of clothes for Charlie that will keep him in trousers until he’s five. He’s happy at nursery. Charlie’s great. He’s part and parcel of my life now.”
Merchant’s income fell considerably when he became a full-time carer. Once he becomes a pensioner and Charlie is a teenager, the financial squeeze will become even tighter. Merchant, like most grandparents and relatives in his position, receives almost no practical or financial support.
It is estimated that 250,000 children are in kinship care and are twice as likely to live in poverty as children living with their parents. A YouGov poll published last week by the charities Grandparents Plus, the Family and Parenting Institute and Family Lives, and funded by the Big Lottery, starkly illustrates that, while the public’s attitude is hardening on benefits, there is overwhelming support for more practical and financial help for grandparents and other relatives bringing up children. More than two-thirds (67%) of adults agree or strongly agree that grandparents and other family members rearing a related child should receive practical help and a financial allowance. Even more (78%) agree with that, if the grandparents are on a low income. Strong support (60%) also exists for grandparents to have paid leave.
“Grandparents provide children with love, a sense of identity and belonging, and crucially they maintain a child’s relationships with the wider family,” says Sam Smethers, chief executive of Grandparents Plus. “But they need support.” In care, a child could cost more than £50,000 a year. If fostered – and therefore still the responsibility of the local authority – a carer could receive up to £40,000 a year. However, only 4% of grandparents foster their grandchild; the rest rely on the discretion of local authorities to provide an allowance. “I don’t want my daughter’s child to grow up thinking they are ‘in care’ under my roof,” one grandmother explained.
“The system ought to reflect the needs of the child and carer,” says Cathy Ashley, chief executive of the charity Family Rights Group. “Instead, often the only way to get help is for grandparents to push children into the care system. That can’t be right.” A study this year said 72% of carers rated support from children’s services as “poor” or “very poor”.
Rosemary and Gordon Rawlings live in Plymouth. Rosemary, 64, was a school cleaner, Gordon, 67, is a retired postman. They raised five children and for the past six years have cared for their daughter’s child, Heidi, aged 12.
“She’s a Rawlings and she’s going to stay a blooming Rawlings, no matter how hard it is,” Gordon says. The family live on just over £200 a week. “We don’t smoke, we don’t drink, we don’t go out,” Gordon says. “But it’s worth it when Heidi gives us a hug. When she first came to us, we had to feed her in small portions because her stomach was so small – she had never been fed proper meals. Now she’s doing really well at school.” He adds: “A hundred pounds a week would make all the difference. But we’re not alone in receiving nothing. It’s happening across the country.”
Kathryn Bennett, 62, is a retired teacher with acute arthritis. Her husband Roger, 65, was in the fire service, then worked part-time and retires shortly. Their income will go down to around £20,000 a year “We never claimed benefits, we saved for all the things we were going to do when we retired,” Kathryn says.
In May 2011 her daughter, who had mental health problems, died aged 35. Her three children, now 12, seven and four, with a range of challenging behaviours, came to the Bennetts, who used their life savings to extend their home. “For 18 months I cried and wept and begged for extra help,” says Kathryn. “I was close to a breakdown and we said the two boys would have to go into foster care. Why does it have to reach a crisis before something happens?”
The Family Rights Group and five other charities this month launched an inquiry into the care system, reporting in 2013. Grandparents Plus also hopes that Edward Timpson, the recently appointed education minister, whose own parents fostered more than 80 children, will become a champion of kinship care, end the postcode lottery and establish a national support system.
The Bennetts now have 24 hours of respite care and receive £720 a month. That pays for Miguel, 23, a Spanish male au pair. “It’s made such a difference,” Kathryn says. “But we were made to feel awful for asking. The social worker said, ‘Do you know how many mums I have asking for help?’ I had to say, ‘But I’m not a mum, I’m a grandmother’.”
Pam Purvis, 47, and her husband Tommy, 50, from Tyne and Wear, married six years ago. “Our wedding was full of other people’s kids,” says Pam with a smile. “We said, ‘Thank God, we’re too old to have any more.’ Then Connor arrived.”
Connor, now in school, was eight months old. He had been taken away from Pam’s daughter, one of Pam’s five grown-up children. A second child, Jayden, nearly 18 months, arrived more recently from a different local authority (LA).
“The first LA told me I had to give up work and they’ve given us a great package for Connor until he’s 18,” Pam says.
But then she adds: “The second has said I have to find a job when Jayden is three and its financial help stops.
“My husband is retired on a disability allowance and I obviously don’t earn anything, so I’m worried about the future. The boys are brilliant, but why does everything have to be such a battle?”