February 14th was a day to remember in Newcastle. Along with the flowers, cards and chocolates in circulation for Valentine’s Day, the love and commitment shown by kinship carers was celebrated at the launch of the Relative Experience Project.
Almost 70 people gathered together at the Assembly Rooms in the city centre. Some were grandparents. Some were aunts and uncles. And some were from organisations that help support these exceptional folk. But all had one thing in common – the desire to see recognition and support for members of the wider family who have stepped in to take on the care of a relative’s child.
Chair of the event Lyn Boyd, Chief Executive of Mental Health North East, began by introducing Sam Smethers from Grandparents Plus. Sam spoke about the project and what we hope to achieve with the support of the Big Lottery Fund Silver Dreams Fund. Then Project Officer Jenny Mckenna took to the stage where she was joined by Stella and Pam, two devoted grandmothers who are both raising young grandchildren.
The audience was visibly moved as they heard Pam and Stella’s stories while Jenny fired the questions at them. They told how one grandson is allowed to see his parents but the other, placed by a different local authority, isn’t. How Pam’s grandson made Christmas cards for his mum and dad at school, so the little lad thought he was going to be able to see them. And how they have struggled over the years to give their grandchildren the very best start in life with little support.
Pam, Stella and Jenny were a hard act to follow, but fellow kinship carer Sue Robson rose to the challenge and gave a thought provoking presentation on influencing local authority policies and improving service responses to their needs. Finally, Cath McEvoy, Safeguarding Operations Manager at North Tyneside Council, spoke of their policies and practices to support kinship carers.
Comments from the kinship carers showed how much the event, and the support of a dedicated project based in Newcastle, meant to them. “After feeling invisible for years, recognition of kinship caring is a very promising prospect,” said one. “We need someone to talk to when we have low times,” said another. And for many, the opportunity to meet and share experiences with others who were in the same situation was the highlight. The best thing was “Knowing how many others have gone through the same experiences as I have,” said one kinship carer, while another said: “Knowing you’re not the only one out there”.
The morning event ended with a question and answer session with all of the event’s speakers joining the panel.
Lunch was followed by a focus group with 18 kinship carers – their comments have helped the project team in Newcastle develop and plan the training course for volunteer befrienders, which is now underway with 11 keen individuals signing up to help other kinship carers in the area. We’ll be getting them to write about their experiences in the weeks to come.
But for now, the last word on the launch has to go to kinship carers. “I found this the most interesting thing I have done in a long time. I am so glad I took time off work to attend.” While another hoped that: “Sticking together can change things for carers in the future.”
Posted by Alison Blaxland