When children can’t live with their parents, someone in the extended family or a family friend might become their primary carer. This arrangement is called kinship care, and these important people are called kinship carers.

Becoming a kinship carer

Becoming a kinship carer can be a big change, and it isn’t always easy. Some kinship carers say it’s as if their whole world has been turned upside down.

When a child comes to live with you, it could be a short-term thing or it could be permanent. Sometimes you might not know how long you’ll be caring for the child.

You might have had no idea that there was a problem in the child’s family until you got a call from the police or child protection authority to let you know the child was in need of care. This can be a big shock.

However it happens, becoming a kinship carer can be a big change. But you’re not alone – it happens to thousands of aunts, uncles, grandparents, sisters, brothers, neighbours and friends in Australia.

Your feelings about kinship care

When you become a kinship carer, it can be a time of very mixed feelings.

You might find it hard to go from being the ‘fun’ person in the child’s life to being the person who has to set rules and boundaries. Accepting this change can take time, and you might like talk to family, friends or a counsellor about it.

As an aunt, uncle, grandparent, sister, brother, friend or neighbour, you might also be feeling:

  • grief at the death or disappearance of the child’s parent
  • ‘loss’ of your family member or friend to an addiction
  • anger at being placed in this situation
  • shame at the current situation
  • guilt that you’re somehow to blame
  • anxiety and uncertainty about the future.

As well as having to cope with your own feelings of grief and loss, you might also be helping the child with her feelings.

Benefits of being a kinship carer

Kinship carers agree that there are many benefits and joys to raising children, including the chance to:

  • parent a child, or parent a second time – ‘On the good side of it, we have learned a lot; they have enhanced our life’
  • be close to the child as he grows
  • enjoy the child’s achievements and celebrate them together
  • enjoy helping the child develop by spending time with him and teaching him – ‘I find the joy of raising them has been in teaching them things. In sport, schooling, things they weren’t learning where they were living’
  • feel reassured and confident that the child is emotionally and physically, safe, happy and cared for
  • teach the child about his culture and family.

Kinship care is more stable for children than other types of foster care. It’s also good for children’s sense of belonging to be cared for by someone who knows them.

As long as that kid doesn’t lose their identity and way, they’re fine, no matter whose care they’re in. Because at the end of the day they’re going to come looking for their mob. But at least you know they’ve got reconnection and know people loved them and they weren’t given away.
– Rose, Aboriginal kinship carer

Challenges of being a kinship carer

Being a full-time kinship carer has its challenges.

Raising children can leave you feeling stressed. If you haven’t raised a child before, there’s a lot to learn. If you have other children in your family, it can be a big change for all of you. And if you’re a grandparent, you might wonder if you can do it all again.

The formal or informal arrangements for the care of the child can sometimes cause you stress too. For example, you might have the care of the child but no authority to make important decisions, or the child’s parent might want the child back. This can make everyday life difficult. You might feel isolated and unsure of what to do.

Traumatic event
If a traumatic event has led to the child coming to live with you, it can cause other problems too. For example, the child might have been abused or neglected by her parents. Or seeing a parent or parents in distress can set off a crisis for a child.

In a crisis, children have similar feelings to grown-ups, but children often show their feelings in actions rather than words. So you might need to deal with some difficult or unexpected feelings and behaviour from the child.

Law and money
Legal and financial issues can be a challenge. For example, you might find that you’re spending your savings on raising the child. Costs can be high, especially if the child has special needs.

Some kinship carers also face complex legal issues relating to the care of the children. For example, you might need to go to the Child Protection Court or Family Court if other family members want to raise the child or have access visits.

Looking after yourself
Some kinship carers have high levels of depression and anxiety and also physical and emotional health problems.

It’s a good idea to  take care of yourself with regular exercise, good food, enough rest and medical check-ups, so you’ll be in better shape to care for the child.