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The ‘twilight zone’ of caring for a child without any legal status

Grandparents take on the role out of love for their grandchildren, but they need recognition and resources too

When Mary and her husband stepped in to take care of their daughter’s five-day-old baby they never envisaged it would become a permanent arrangement.

At the time of the birth, their daughter was living in an addiction treatment centre that accommodates mothers and babies. But social workers in Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, objected to her daughter taking the baby back there, saying they wanted somebody to watch her 24 hours a day.

“It became very obvious that they were going to take the baby off her,” says Mary, who offered to take her. She was instructed by Tusla to bring the baby girl to see her mother every day after she returned to the treatment programme. Their daughter had been at home with them during some of the pregnancy, “but her mental health was really bad. She was thinking an evil spirit was coming to get both her and the baby.”

After the birth, “my daughter went downhill rapidly”, says Mary. “She struggled and struggled; her mental health got worse and worse.”


Living in hostels and involved with a man who was violent and controlling, she refused medical help, although she was hospitalised for involuntary care on a number of occasions.

The couple are angry that the hospital, despite their concerns, shared by their daughter’s doctor, that she was suicidal, revoked her last involuntary care order after just three days, without follow-up services in place. Mary believes her daughter’s addiction problem was seen in isolation rather than as entwined in a psychiatric illness, ie dual diagnosis. So she was discharged from hospital to a hostel, where staff, so concerned about her mental health, put her on suicide watch.

Soon after moving to another hostel, their daughter took her own life one year ago.

All this time, Mary and her husband have been doing their best for their granddaughter, now aged four, who has foetal alcohol syndrome and also a diagnosis of autism. “We are just fighting for services for her.”

Tusla, she says, never supported them “financially or any other way”. Their granddaughter, fully verbal with the help of private speech and language therapy they funded, is in a very good preschool for autism, but they are struggling to find a school place for her in September. Having applied to 12 schools, they have had nine refusals so far.

As a couple in their 60s, who have already raised four children to adulthood, it’s a lot to deal with. “I gave up work and my husband had to give up work to support me because I have had a lot of arthritis,” says Mary.

Their daughter had never wanted the father of her child involved, which Mary says was a good thing because he was violent. “She wouldn’t put his name on the birth certificate and he never came looking.”

Mary and her husband are what’s known as informal kinship carers or, in social services speak, “private family arrangements”. It’s a grey area between State care and the family home.

Having selflessly agreed to the placement, they are charged with the care of children who may have significant needs but are given neither the legal responsibility nor the supports they need to properly perform this task

—  UCC study

When a child can no longer live with a birth parent, moving in with a member of the extended family, where possible and suitable, is regarded as the best option. If this is done formally, with the State taking the child into care and then placing them with an approved relative foster carer, payments and supports will be forthcoming. Just over a quarter of all formal care placements are into kinship care.

However, for family members who take a child not in State care – whether off their own volition, out of love and concern, or strongly encouraged to do so by a social worker – the situation is very different. A UCC study published in 2021 warned of the “potentially precarious” nature of informal kinship care.

The child is placed in a “legal twilight zone”, where the person with the legal responsibility is not caring for them and the people who are caring for the child have no legal responsibility. The research, led by UCC lecturer Kenneth Burns and Prof Conor O’Mahony, the former special rapporteur on child protection, acknowledged carers too are placed “in an unenviable position: having selflessly agreed to the placement, they are charged with the care of children who may have significant needs but are given neither the legal responsibility nor the supports they need to properly perform this task”.

By facilitating such arrangements, the study added, “the State, intentionally or unintentionally, is shifting the financial, emotional and care burden from the State to families. Given what we know about the gendered nature of care labour, such arrangements are likely to increase the existing care load on female kinships carers, especially grandmothers.”

The stories of such grandmothers interviewed for this article illustrate that “care load” and the layers of legal, practical and emotional complexities that come with it. They take on the role out of love for their grandchildren, almost invariably in traumatic circumstances, but they need recognition and resources too.

Award-winning actor Barry Keoghan has been able to publicly thank his granny, along with his auntie, for taking over the care of him after his mother became addicted to drugs in inner city Dublin and died when he was 12. But most of these resolutely protective grandmothers, as portrayed by Sarah Lancashire’s character in the BBC series Happy Valley, labour away under the radar.

In February the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that the Government develop a policy for children in informal kinship care. It is a move welcomed by Kinship Care Ireland, a support and advocacy organisation set up by Caitríona Nic Mhuiris in 2019.

She and her husband Séamus became kinship carers in 2012 after the sudden death of her widowed sister, leaving four orphaned daughters aged eight to 14. The Galway couple, who had two children of their own, took over the care of the four nieces, turning their family of four into a family of eight overnight.

If you compare the support for a child whose kinship carer doesn’t become a relative foster carer, the difference is quite staggering

—  Damien Peelo, chief executive of Treoir

She believes investment is needed in informal kinship care, which “is not valued for the significant role it plays in keeping children out of the care system”. There needs to be recognition that it can be the best outcome for the child “but not at the expense of railroading all these carers into formal arrangements”.

A new category of alternative care is needed, says Damien Peelo, chief executive of Treoir, a specialist information service for unmarried parents, which hosts Kinship Care Ireland within its organisation. If you compare the support for a child whose kinship carer doesn’t become a relative foster carer, he says, “the difference is quite staggering”.

He understands there are challenges for Tusla. Once they are satisfied there is no child protection issue, continued involvement would require social services checks and balances. A new system could be devised, perhaps involving community workers instead of social workers, he suggests, to provide support and guidance to grandparents and other informal carers. He believes Tusla’s recent renewal of three-year funding for a full-time co-ordinator at Kinship Care Ireland is recognition of the need to move on this.

Anna and her husband used to have her grandson overnight once a week, so they had developed a close bond before he came into their home full-time in 2016 at the age of five. “My daughter came to me and said she knew she was in a bad way and it wasn’t fair on her son, would we take him until she was able to sort herself out.

“We said yes. It was meant to be very short term, but it didn’t work out that way,” says Anna, who is in her early 50s but has been out of work due to a chronic illness. That was 2016 and her grandson is almost 12 now. Once her daughter knew her son was safe, her drug habit spiralled into the use of heroin.

Any support I got for my grandson, I had to go looking for myself

—  Anna, grandmother

Anna did not want her grandson being involved with social services, but she was in contact with Tusla early on after her daughter’s addiction counsellor explained she was duty bound to report safeguarding concerns for the boy. A day after Anna was visited at home by Tusla, she got a letter saying the case was no longer on their books, with the gist of it being, “you’re doing a great job and we don’t need – or don’t want – to help you”, she says.

“They were not supportive in any way. I rang them once or twice over issues – the worst one being when my grandson put a knife to his throat when he was six, saying he wanted to die.”

As well as contacting her GP, she says she rang social services and left messages but nobody got back to her. “I just thought he could be dead and buried and nobody would care. So I never went near them again. Any support I got for my grandson, I had to go looking for myself.”

The boy has been in counselling, on and off, for the past four years. A charity provided a block of low-cost sessions, but the couple have also paid the full cost for him to continue when needed.

“We wanted him to get help before he got to the teens when everything goes haywire. He was quite angry for a while. Obviously he did not know what was going on.” For the first year he continued to have contact with his mother but, as her drug addiction deepened and she showed little interest in her son, Anna stopped the visits.

We’re no longer the grandparents who are spoiling him. We both miss that a lot; we are parents now

—  Anna, grandmother

“It wasn’t fair on him and she just spiralled more. She went to the UK with another partner and got involved with crack.” The pair returned to Dublin and ended up living on the streets. “Horrible, horrible, horrible,” says Anna, who could do nothing else for her.

Fortunately, when her daughter was given the opportunity to live in temporary accommodation outside the city, she used that as a chance to get away from everything. “She has been clean ever since – that’s over two years.”

But Anna’s grandson still doesn’t want to see her.

“I have a brilliant relationship with her now and she understands it’s her son’s wishes and she is not pushing. She messages him every week. Hopefully, he will in time want to see her. He loves her a lot but there are probably trust issues.”

Anna and her husband, who had no children of his own, got married 13 years ago and this was supposed to be “their time”. But he adores her grandson and she never had any worries that he would object to them taking him on. However, she adds, “we’re no longer the grandparents who are spoiling him. We both miss that a lot; we are parents now.”

Another grandmother, Sarah, expresses a similar sentiment about her 10-year-old granddaughter Chloe, her son’s child. “I love her to bits but I don’t want to be her parent.”

Chloe has been living with her grandparents full-time for the past four years. Their son is an alcoholic but won’t admit it, Sarah says, and continues to hold down a job, while Chloe’s mother has a drug addiction. There was fighting when the couple lived together and the child was caught in the middle.

“She was traumatised when she came to us and she is in a great routine now.” Although their son moved home for a time with Chloe, Sarah and her husband had to ask him to leave the house two years ago due to his behaviour and refusal to contribute financially. He was able to get accommodation through work but Sarah despairs at his erratic visiting of Chloe, who hasn’t seen her mother since the middle of last year.

The reality is informal kinship carers don’t get financial support and, most importantly, they don’t get emotional support either

—  Joe Slattery, co-ordinator with the North Star family support project

Having taken out a credit union loan to cover their overdraft, Sarah is now in the process of applying for a guardian’s payment. But she wonders how she will be able to prove Chloe’s parents are not providing for her and have left her to their care.

To be eligible for the guardian’s payment of up to €203 a week, the child must be orphaned or “abandoned”. So while relative foster carers are required to maintain the child’s contact with birth parents where possible, such contact is liable to disqualify informal kinship carers from this possible source of financial assistance. The payment is also considerably lower than the weekly benefit for relative foster carers, which is €325 or €352 depending on the age of the child.

Guardian payments were made for 2,151 children in 2021, representing a 30 per cent increase over the past five years, notes Caitríona. She wonders if this is due to more children being diverted into these arrangements by social work teams under pressure, or possibly due to more awareness of this payment through the work of Kinship Care Ireland. Nearly one in three recipients are over 60 years and probably grandparents.

Joe Slattery, co-ordinator with the North Star family support project in Limerick for relatives of those caught up in drug addiction, sees informal kinship from two perspectives. On the one hand, grandparents take on the role out of fear that otherwise those children will end up in the State care system and fostered on to another family. But they can also be pressurised to take them by social workers, he observes, as the only alternative, particularly for older children, is a private residential centre.

There will be promises of help but the reality is informal kinship carers “don’t get financial support and, most importantly, they don’t get emotional support either”, he says. “I don’t blame the individuals working in Tusla as they are under resourced and under pressure to get these placements achieved and they will tell you what you want to hear.”

Paula, who took small grandchildren into her home out of concern for their safety, contacted Tusla straight away and says she was promised there would be a lot of help available. “Then I couldn’t get an answer to my phone calls for six weeks. I was told not to ask for the same person as that is not how the system works.”

So she ended up retelling the details of the situation time and time again.

“There is no crisis intervention. Six weeks later is not crisis intervention. I was trying to mind two traumatised children and a very sick adult,” says Paula, who raised her daughter’s children to adulthood. Throughout those difficult years, she says she was held responsible for the children but had no authority or support. “I took out loans to meet whatever needed to be paid.”

Now, as a member of a Kinship Care Ireland online group for grandparents, Paula hopes to support others facing some of the same issues.

“I went into it with the best of intentions,” she adds, “not realising that you get old very quickly.”

Regulation and practice

Tusla would welcome new legislation to strengthen regulation and practice in the area of private family arrangements, says a spokeswoman. These arrangements are made by families and may or may not be known to Tusla, she explains. Families may not want or need Tusla involvement in their family life.

“It is acknowledged, though, that some families do require a range of supports, both practical and family or therapeutic support, due to the issues that may have led to the private family arrangement being put in place. Tusla aims to provide these supports, where a need is identified.

“We would hope to see a development where these arrangements could be better supported,” she adds. “Where families could be entitled to supports that would enable children to stay close to their family and still avail of appropriate state supports, such as ‘aftercare’ or ongoing financial supports.”

* Some names have been changed to protect the families’ privacy.

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting