A review of kinship carer surveys

The "Cinderella" of the care system?
CFCA Paper No. 31 – March 2015


We have found it very hard and lots of hard work. The second-time around and financially draining, great kids and at the end of it, it will be worth it. Just love them so much.

P.S. Would not blame anyone for not wanting to do it. (Kinship carer, as quoted in Links Vic., 2012, p. 25)

The number of children in protective kinship care in Australia has grown dramatically over the last decade (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2004; 2014). A growing body of research has identified the many advantages of kinship care over alternatives, including improvements to child wellbeing and stability of care (Winokur, Holtan, & Valentine, 2009). Kinship care also provides many children with a web of intimate support for life. However these benefits to children often come at the cost of significant stress for their carers. Kinship carers, particularly grandparents, experience more vulnerability than foster carers, including older age and greater poverty, health issues and greater likelihood of being sole carers (Boetto, 2010). The close relationship between kinship carers and the children's parents - often itself a parent-child relationship - adds another level of complexity, given the impact on family relationships of parental substance abuse, concomitant mental illness, and family violence (Boetto, 2010).

Many studies have focused on statutory or formal kinship care, that is, care arranged through child protection services. However, many more such arrangements occur informally. UK and USA population studies suggest that 95% of kinship care is provided informally in those countries (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2012; Selwyn & Nandy, 2014). The incidence of informal kinship care in Australia has not yet been clearly established. These international figures suggest, however, that an Australian estimate of around three times as many children in informal kinship care (Smyth & Eardley, 2007) as in formal kinship care is likely to be an underestimate.

Growing awareness of the use of kinship care has led to increasing research in the area and some large studies, including those by Brennan et al. (2013); Farmer and Moyers (2008); Hunt, Waterhouse, and Lutman (2008); and Winokur et al., (2009). Several literature reviews have identified a range of issues for kinship care policy and practice (Boetto, 2010; Connolly, 2003; Cuddeback, 2004). A number of organisations devoted to the support of kinship carers, particularly grandparents, have also emerged in recent years. These include UK organisations Grandparents Plus (England and Wales), Children 1st (Scotland), Kinship Care Northern Ireland, and a kinship care program within the Family Rights Group; the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust in New Zealand; and in Australia, the Mirabel Foundation (Victoria and New South Wales), and Kinship Care Victoria. Despite the increasing knowledge of issues for kinship care families, public policy and support services are underdeveloped both in Australia and elsewhere.

Surveys provide an opportunity to better understand social issues through the views of large numbers of respondents. Population studies consist of representative samples of the general population. Both, however, have their own limitations (see Box 2). This paper reviews 13 recent kinship carer surveys and three population studies. To maximise relevance, the scope of the review is limited to research published between 2009 and 2013. The review addresses the question:

What are the messages for policy-makers and practitioners in Australia from surveys and population studies of kinship carers published in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom in the years 2009-13?

Countries vary in their economic circumstances over time, and in the legal and administrative systems governing social services, all of which affect family wellbeing. Nevertheless, the review identifies considerable commonality in the circumstances and support needs of kinship carers in the three countries.

Box 1: Terminology

Child: For ease of reading, the term "child" is used to refer to children and young people under the age of 18 years.

Kinship care: The care of children within their family or friendship network. Also known as "kith and kin care", "kinship foster care", "relative care", "family and friends care".

Statutory or formal kinship care: Protective kinship care arranged by a child protection service and/or Children's Court.

Informal kinship care: Kinship care arrangements made voluntarily between the parties or, in Australia, by rulings of the Family Court. In the UK, "informal care" includes kinship care arrangements governed under a Residence Order (RO) or Special Guardianship Order (SGO), where carers have considerable autonomy.

Non-familial kinship care: Kinship care provided by people who are not formally related to the children, but have pre-existing relationships with them. Also known as "kith care" or "friends care".

Survey:A study based upon data collected through structured questionnaires completed by the respondents and addressing respondent characteristics, experiences and views.

Population study: A study of a group of individuals who share a common characteristic, randomly selected from the general population.

United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Britain: The three countries of Great Britain - England, Scotland and Wales.


Box 2: Biases and limitations of studies reviewed

Limitations of surveys

Surveys are rarely representative of their populations; they have inherent biases that may limit their findings. While they can generate a better understanding of an issue, they also have the potential to promote false beliefs. Sources of bias include:

  • The survey frame: selection of the survey population. Many survey populations are drawn from known constituent groups, such as members of an organisation. Kinship care organisations frequently focus predominantly on grandparents; other relatives and non-familial kinship carers may be under-represented. Carers with limited language skills, Indigenous carers and recent immigrants may also be under-represented among constituent groups. Also under-represented may be carers who are socially isolated, together with those who experience less need for support from such organisations, such as carers who are more financially secure. Surveys run by research bodies may also focus on a restricted group of kinship carers such as statutory carers, grandparent carers or carers within a limited geographic area.
  • Self-selection of survey respondents: people who become aware of a survey choose whether or not to respond. More disadvantaged carers may not respond due to lower literacy or more pressing priorities.
  • Size of survey sample: while there is no definitive wisdom about how large a survey sample should be, in general, increasing sample size will increase the reliability of survey estimates (Fowler, 2009).
  • Scope: while surveys may cover similar areas, questions may be framed differently, and response categories may vary. Comparisons may thus have some limitations. Nevertheless, with appropriate qualification, the large numbers available across these 13 surveys have the potential to offer greater reliability of conclusions than single surveys.

Limitations of population studies

Population studies have the advantage of drawing on large data sets (such as a census). However, population data have often been collected for a different purpose. This may lead to the following limitations:

  • Definition of the population of interest: some measures may be proxies for the items under consideration. For example, it would not be possible to determine from census data who is actually the primary carer of children unless the census included a specific question to this effect. In these studies, the "Household Reference Person" is used as a proxy for the carer.
  • Reason for kinship care arrangements: population studies provide details of family circumstances, but not the reasons for these. Extractions of data may therefore include cohorts that are not the primary target of investigation. An example in relation to kinship care would be families where children reside temporarily with relatives for reasons such as schooling and/or parents' extended absence overseas.
  • The nature of the data collected: there may be limited data of interest to the topic under study. For example, census data may not include questions about children's educational progress or kinship carers' support needs.

Population studies nevertheless provide another perspective on a social group of interest that may provide some balance to survey findings.