From England to Jamaica: fresh insights into family support for Black kinship carers

Sharon Mcpherson is a passionate campaigner for racial equity in policy and practice and investment in race related kinship care research. A mother and grandmother, British born, of Jamaican parentage. Sharon is also a kinship carer who currently has two grandsons growing up in her care. A kinship carer is anyone who is looking after another person's child on a full-time basis. Here she reflects on her Churchill Fellowship research trip to Jamaica. 

photo of two women posing and smiling with the backdrop of mountains in Jamaica. The women are middle aged and black wearing summer dresses. One wears a hat

I co-founded Families In Harmony with Johanna Bernard as an organisation rooted in the ‘Ubuntu’ principle ‘humanity to others’. For years, Johanna and I listened to the lived experiences of African and Caribbean kinship carers who felt let down by a system that didn’t recognise their cultural practices, or need for support services that valued their families cultural identity and heritage. My own curiosity as to why I could see the potential steps to redress such disparities but others struggled, is what led me on the journey I find myself on now.

In 2023 I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship, a grant to gain international learning to lead the change we wish to see across every area of UK life. I sought to close the gap in knowledge research to understand the engagement behaviours of Black kinship carers. This took me to Jamaica.

Many reading this may not know of my love for reggae music; especially, the real conscientious artists who use music to spotlight injustices, amplify the plight of the people, and the authentic heart of the nation. One of my go to favourites is the globally renowned, Jamaican reggae band, Morgan Heritage, and whilst in Jamaica, Johanna and I, and our various hosts, spent many a day where we punctuated our schedule with music playing loud, singing along and dancing to the reggae vibes.

How I felt

As I write this blog, intentionally wanting to share the emotional impact of my Churchill Fellowship field research visits, the aligning soundtrack is ‘Tell Me How Comes’. This song tells the story of a White Norwegian visitor in Jamaica, questioning why so much poverty exists and what the government is doing to address it. My heart and head are not yet aligned when I reflect back on what I saw and heard. The legacy impact of the collision of economic migration and ‘barrel children’ remittance (financial and practical resources send back to Jamaica to cover the costs of caring for children left behind); coupled with the contrast of Jamaica – a sweet paradise for tourism and the abject poverty of certain communities: it boggles my mind!

As a ‘Windrush’ baby, I am the first generation of ‘British’ born in my family. Maybe, that deep down feeling of knowing I was considered an immigrant child growing up, and being called a foreigner when I visited Jamaica for the first time in my teens, fuels my thirst for knowledge. I want to learn how reunification of my identity is possible whilst contributing towards addressing the issues of racial equity in kinship care in England, and socio-economic equity in kinship care in Jamaica. I find my heart conflicted; how can this good intentioned ‘English Lady’ be heard at policy changing and political engagement level in Jamaica, but yet, many of those I interviewed believed my silo ‘foreigners’ voice would carry greater weight than theirs collectively?

Potential for change

Many of the kinship carers and professionals I spoke with were hopeful for change. The life-changing potential of changes to economic systems, education and living standards of kinship families in Jamaica was endless. Could changing the narrative of support systems in Jamaica being ‘inaccessible’, with ‘unrealistic thresholds’, provide the key to improving the quality of life of informal kinship carers in England? 

Caribbean families are more likely to use informal kinship care arrangements (where you look after a child but you do not have legal parental responsibility) to keep children out of the care system and this is aligned to embedded cultural practices. The model of a ‘child shifting’ approach is readily evident in Jamaica, and some would argue that it is an accepted practice of parenting, present long before ‘barrel children’, coming with its own set of rules, risks and advantages. Regardless of what people think or feel about the practice, my initial thoughts are this is a parenting style that has migrated to England as a post ‘Windrush’ legacy, so it is important children’s social care, health care and education practitioners are aware of its existence.

Whilst in Jamaica, I experienced a humbling mix of emotions relating to how I thought we would be received and what we would gain. I hadn’t really thought about what we would impart by way of knowledge and skills. From the kinship families, family courts, child protection services, social work collectives to public sector representatives, all were interested in the step change system Families In Harmony is advocating for in the UK.

Curiosity was evident in how two seemingly ordinary ladies could or would challenge the government to rethink how historical structures and systems in children’s social care were adding to the marginalisation of Black African and Caribbean families seeking support in a crisis. This made me eager to share knowledge on lived experience driven change, co-production working and community organising principles.

My interactions in Jamaica helped me reflect on my own childhood, which to all intents and purposes was very different from what would have been had I been born in Jamaica. One of the obvious differences was the lack of family network support, which would have left us isolated had my mum not forged friendships with a few families within the tenement style house that I spent my early childhood in. As they were predominantly occupied by other Windrush migrants, the comradery was easier to forge. My recent visit to Jamaica brought back memories of this time, as tenements are still a feature of the community living there. Again, coming with its safeguarding children and parenting practice concerns and social advantages. 

What’s next?

I now feel ready to start the report writing aspect of my Churchill Fellowship; sharing an authentic narrative that respectfully amplifies some of the realities of safeguarding children, cost of living hardships, legacy of ‘Windrush’ era on skilled migration and the hidden price paid by children, families and communities left-behind or choosing to stay in ‘Jamaica Land We Love’. I’m pleased to say that post my Churchill Fellowship visit I remain positive that both England and Jamaica will benefit from new insights into the ongoing family support and children’s social welfare resource of kinship care, and the potential of valuing the cultural context of informal arrangement through formalised access to resources and support. I’m looking forward to sharing more.

About the author 

Sharon McPherson co-founder of Families In Harmony CIC with Johanna Bernard, calling for the development of racial and cultural trauma-informed practice alongside African and Caribbean-centred parenting programmes. Sharon campaigns for racial equity in policy and practice plus investment in race related kinship care research. She is currently undertaking a Churchill Fellowship research project focused on improving access to support for African, Caribbean and Black Mixed Heritage Kinship Care Families through cultural curiosity and raised consciousness in Jamaican family support systems. 

Sharon sits on a number of national charities lived experience advisory forums, including CoramBAAF, Family Rights Group, Foundations and Kinship. She is also a member of the Kinship Care Alliance (KCA) led by Family Rights Group (FRG) and co-chair of the KCA racial equality subcommittee. Sharon is involved with racial equity co-production work with various member organisations. 

Sharon is part of the Sounddelivery Media Spokesperson Network

Twitter: @Sharon_Kinship

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