Carrie never imagined that, in her fifties, she would be bringing up her grandson Tyler as his carer and trying to survive on a food budget of just £2.33 a day. But 12 years ago, when Tyler was one, his parents were deemed unfit and Tyler was taken into care. At the time Carrie had a decent office job, £25,000 in the bank and did not worry about bills. So, when social services said Tyler would be given up for adoption, Carrie stepped in and said: “Nobody is taking my grandson off me.”
The grandmother, who lives in a council house in south-west London, was handed a child arrangements order giving her full custody of Tyler. She would sacrifice her career to look after the toddler, but had no inkling of the financial hardship and isolation that lay ahead.
This year, with her savings completely depleted and her monthly universal credit of £1,100 barely meeting her rent and utility bills, she has just £70 a month left for food.
Carrie said: “I have never felt as much stress as I do now. Since the cost of living crisis, my gas and electricity has risen by £150 to £250 a month, food prices have doubled and we have no money to do anything. Even a £5 meal at McDonald’s is beyond us. I live off coffee but Tyler is overweight and his GP said he should do activities, but I cannot afford it. I used to be a calm person but this year I am totally terrified and it’s affected my mental health really badly.”
Tyler is one of around 160,000 children in kinship care, more than double the amount in foster care, but unlike foster carers, who receive an allowance of around £1,800 a month, most kinship carers like Carrie are “invisible” to the state and get no additional financial support. A quarter, like Carrie, face “severe challenges” or are “at crisis point”, while over 10 per cent regularly run out of food and cannot afford to buy more.
The only back-up Carrie gets is from Kinship, a charity that provides practical and emotional ballast to around 10,000 kinship carers a year (including 5,000 in London).
Kinship is one of the groups being funded with a £50,000 grant from our Winter Survival Appeal in partnership with Comic Relief. They deliver support groups, workshops, an advice line, activities and one-to-one intensive support to help these unsung heroes, without whom thousands of children would be put into care. The grant will be used for their national advice service, who help kinship carers assess the benefits they are entitled to as well as hardship grants for essential items like beds to meet the child’s basic needs.
Lucy Peake, Kinship’s CEO, said new data shows 19,000 children are at risk of being taken out of kinship care and put into the care system because one in eight kinship carers are at financial breaking point. “These figures are shocking,” she said. “Thousands of grandparents are struggling to buy food and clothing for the child in their care and considering the unthinkable — putting a member of their family, who they love deeply, back into the care system, just to ensure that child is properly provided for.” She urged the Government to equalise support for kinship and foster families and roll this out urgently.
For Carrie, the Kinship support group she joined in September means she no longer has to put on a brave face and hide from the world. She said: “I adore my grandson, he’s funny and smart, but also, I used to be a social person who went out once a week. I couldn’t tell you the last time I went out with friends — maybe four years ago — because I can’t justify spending £20 on me when that money needs to go on Tyler. When I meet people, I try to smile. They don’t see you coming home crying yourself to sleep because of worry about bills. But with my Kinship group, there are 10 of us, we’re all in the same boat and just speaking with them makes me feel lighter.”
Maggie, another kinship carer who has been “on her knees” trying to bring up her three grandchildren on her own, said that Kinship had transformed the life of her 18-year-old granddaughter.
She said: “My granddaughter was self-harming and wouldn’t leave the house or meet friends. It wasn’t until we started going on trips with Kinship that she realised, hang on, it’s not just me in this situation. The other Kinship children brought her out of herself and now she’s gone on to university which we never thought would happen.”
She added: “Recently Kinship offered to take some of us carers to see Mama Mia in the West End. I wanted to pull out because I had not been out in an awful long time and I felt anxious and guilty about not being home for the kids, but I pushed myself and it was the best night I’ve had in years.”
Her grandchildren call her “ma-nan-dad” because she’s their everything — mother, granny and father all rolled into one. She gave up her bedroom to them and sleeps on the sofa. Lunch for her is buttered toast and biscuits and for dinner she eats leftovers to take pressure off the food budget.
Last month Maggie, who lives in a flat in north London, bought £40 football boots for the 11-year-old, but with no wiggle room on her benefits of £950 a month, it meant £40 less for food — so she turned to the food bank. She said: “The amount they gave me was for one person, so I tried to explain there were four of us because my grandchildren live with me, but the look I got was like I was lying. I felt so humiliated.”
Their situation is compounded by soaring utilities costs. “At my age I should not be getting stressed over water bills but the cost has doubled. I don’t understand how that is but it’s keeping me up at night. One of my grandchildren has obsessive compulsive disorder and constantly washes and showers. I shout at him, ‘turn that tap off’. I feel bad — it’s just water.”
Maggie has cut back on every luxury. “The little one used to love toasted waffles for breakfast, but they’ve gone up from 97p to £1.65 and I can’t afford it.”
Like many kinship carers, Maggie has put her own life plans aside. “I do it to keep the grandchildren together because, without me, they’d be split up and in care all over the place.”
She added: “Once the local authority signs over the child, you’re on your own. Thank God for Kinship. Whenever I need support, they are there advocating for me. They helped me with our housing, got my youngest a laptop and my oldest into Uni. It would never have happened without them. Kinship has been our rock. Most people don’t know about them but they should.”
* Names of kinship carers and their grandchildren have been changed
How you can help
£10 could provide a nourishing meal for a Londoner every day for a month
£20 could provide a duvet and pillow to a young person helping them sleep at night
£50 could contribute to a new school uniform for a child fleeing with a parent from an abusive relationship
£100 could provide 400 meals for families at a local community centre
£300 could pay for all that’s needed by a family expecting a baby, including new cot, mattress and pram
£1,750 could get a truck packed with enough food for 7,000 meals
In a nutshell
We have partnered with Comic Relief to launch our Winter Survival Appeal Christmas Campaign, with Comic Relief pledging £500,000 to kick off our fund. The money we raise will help fund charities in London and across the country helping people who are struggling with the cost of living crisis
To make a donation, visit comicrelief.com/wintersurvival