On 9 November 2017, I received a phone call. It was a call that I can't say I was surprised to receive, but was I prepared for it? No. It was a social worker from Glasgow City Council. Two days later, the world for two young children was turned completely on its head. I didn't have them for long before they started asking me: 'How long are we here for, Uncle Liam?' 'When are we going home?'
I didn't know how to tell them that they weren't. In December last year, I formally became kinship carer for my young niece and nephew. Many of you may find yourself unsure of what kinship care is. Well, when parents, for whatever reason, can't look after their child, alternative care must be found. Kinship care is when a relative or family friend steps in to look after a child who would otherwise end up in the care system. Without a shadow of a doubt, kinship care leads to much better outcomes for children who are unable to remain with their parents. However, it is not without its challenges.
There is a significant lack of support available for kinship carers in comparison to other care arrangements. Take fostering, for example. Foster parents are provided with training to help them deal with the day-to-day issues they face whist looking after children. This training can be in areas such as building resilience, mental health or managing difficult behaviour. I want to make it very clear that I love my niece and nephew, but my God, there are days when I wish I was much better at managing difficult behaviour.
The truth is, however, kinship carers face an even greater challenge than just dealing with the odd bit of difficult behaviour. Research has shown that around half of children in kinship care ended up there because of parental drug or alcohol misuse. These kids have had a very difficult start in life, and they are far more likely to suffer from things like emotional and developmental trauma.
How exactly do you help a child like this? What is it you should say to them? Should you be honest about why they can't be with their parents? These are the sort of complex issues that kinship carers need support in, and it's not nearly as accessible as it should be.
The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 governs how kinship care is managed within Scotland. The responsibility for implementation, however, falls to our 32 local authorities – each with their own individual approach. Because of this, kinship carers face a postcode lottery as support across the country is fragmented and inconsistent.
Take, for example, the kinship care payment. This is a payment that all kinship carers are entitled to by law, but the amount they receive varies significantly depending on which part of the country they live. A study found that the payment for children aged between five and 10 ranged from £96 per week in Highland, to £200 in North Ayrshire. That's a difference of nearly £5,500 each year for carers who could be in the exact same set of circumstances, just with different postcodes.
Five-and-a-half-thousand pounds. That's enough to buy my niece a lifetime supply of slime, and cover the cost of replacing everything she ruins with it. If you asked my nephew what he would spend it on, well, he wouldn't be able to tell you because he's been forbidden from talking about his Xbox.
On a serious note, however, it has been found that nine in 10 kinship carers have endured some form of financial hardship. How can this be right? Yes, we live in a country where public finances are strained, but the fact of the matter is, kinship carers save the taxpayer an absolute fortune. In the UK, it is estimated that 200,000 children are looked after by kinship carers saving the government billions of pounds that would otherwise be spent on foster care or residential care. Some ministers have hailed kinship carers as the 'unsung heroes' of our society – and quite rightly so. I don't think that money should ever be used to encourage people to become kinship carers. But it certainly shouldn't discourage them.
In recent years, legislation has been introduced which does improve the support available for kinship carers. For me, this is a step in the right direction – but it is just a step. There is still much to be done. And whilst there is a choice as to whether to become a kinship carer, all I can say is that for me, and I think for many others, it won't be a choice. The love a grandparent feels for their grandchild, or that an uncle feels for his niece or nephew, will outweigh all other considerations.
No matter what's ahead, I will never give up on my niece and nephew. And I sincerely hope that the wider society and our government stands with me, and every other kinship carer, so that each child receives the care they deserve.
This was the winning paper at the winter Young Scotland Programme, which was held last month in Troon. Liam works for North Lanarkshire Council