A Wearside charity offering essential support to grandparents and families who take on the role of parents to keep vulnerable children out of the fostering or adoption system, is making fresh plans to provide more help after gaining vital new financial backing.

Sunderland’s ‘More than Grandparents’ helps over 300 families, many including single people who have become parents to young children impacted by challenging and sudden upheaval in their lives. This could include bereavement, lack of parental role models, neglect and physical and substance abuse.

This help ensures the children remain within the safety and security of their immediate family unit – known as kinship families – rather than go into the care system.

The charity, which has received £5,000 from The Bernicia Foundation, a charitable Trust set up by North East housing association, Bernicia, is now looking to deliver more essential services to families at its Atheneaum Street HQ as well as in the Durham area.

Having seen their reach spread further afield during the pandemic due to a general lack of community resources and support services available, they are now hoping to take their expertise to families, instead of families having to make the journey to Sunderland for 1-2-1 support, counselling-based sessions or use of the facilities.

More Than Grandparents’ CEO and founder Melanie Nichols, said, “We’re seeing more and more people coming to us, a lot through word of mouth, so we’re looking to put the money towards a new 26-week wellbeing support project. This will help those suffering from or in isolation, requiring trauma attachment therapy, living in poverty and needing our close intervention or general counselling services.

“It will also help us to maintain our much valued peer chat groups, 1-2-1 advice sessions, after-school recreation and craft clubs, creche facilities, therapy and counselling, and an in-demand food bank to many more kinship families across Wearside and Durham. However, this all comes with ongoing costs.

“Many of the children come here with emotional trauma, as well as attachment or behavioural issues brought on by their experiences. It requires a much higher level of support and parenting for all involved.

“We’re very grateful of the funding from The Bernicia Foundation as without external donations like this, we simply could not do the job we do for the hundreds of families like, for instance, Maureen and her granddaughter.

Grandparent Maureen Harrison, is one of many kinship families in the North East. As primary carer to her ten-year-old granddaughter, she has relied on the charity’s services for almost eight years and has formed a close bond with staff and fellow carers. She explained, “They just get it, they’re tremendous and are there for us, by our side whenever it’s needed. By having a place to meet, where people will listen and you can chat things through without judgement relieves a lot of pressure. They help with everything and I can’t praise them enough.

“I remember within a few weeks at the start, our lives had turned upside down and had changed forever. From one day to the next, it felt like we were being bombarded, and when you’re trying to do what’s right for the child and your family, go with your heart and do what you have to do, you have no time to take in what’s happening, slow things down or think straight, and that’s hard.

“The reality is that families are just not given the right support, financially or otherwise from the beginning when it’s needed. We need to go searching for it and charities like MTG and Mel become a daily lifeline to so many.

“It’s only when I look back do I wonder how we coped. You’re not thinking about the financial aspect but it’s there. There’s another mouth to feed, clothe, look after, and for families less fortunate or ill-equipped, it can be so, so difficult. But you do what’s right regardless as first and foremost, the children need a stable, secure and loving home.

“Circumstances made the decision for me, but I wouldn’t change it for the world neither. Knowing that my granddaughter is loved and here with her family is all that matters, but the support available definitely needs to change as kinship carers just aren’t being recognised.”

More Than Grandparents is now calling on the UK Government to urgently put in place recommendations from a recent report due to the lack of financial assistance available to carers who are now being further impacted by the cost of living crisis.

The organisation, which currently supports over 350 children from birth up to age 18, is calling for ministers to urgently action recommendations from the long-awaited ‘Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’[1] which examined whether services available to young people and their carers provided the right and necessary support.

The report found that dysfunction of the current system meant that many kinship families and relatives were ‘forced to become foster carers’ and change their status in order to access or receive any financial support for themselves and the child, often a lengthy process taking time and money when it is needed fast.

It recommended, amongst wider system changes, that kinship carers with a Special Guardianship Order or Child Arrangement Order should now receive ‘a new statutory financial allowance, legal aid and statutory kinship leave’, whilst a wider set of informal kinship carers should receive a ‘comprehensive support package’.

Melanie added, “This is recognition at a very high level that the system just isn’t working for kinship carers, and as a charity working closely with hundreds of North East families, we see this first hand. The lack of immediate financial support is obstructive, more so now with the cost of living crisis, and it is putting extreme strain and unnecessary worry onto families when they have stepped up, with unconditional love, often unplanned and in a time of emotional crisis, to raise and parent a child as their own for years to come.

“We have, for a very long time, helped and enabled these families to access what they need when they need it the most; at the very beginning, but the system takes far too long and they often go

[1] Final Report – The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care (childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk)