Expert's Corner: Interview with Sylvia McKenzie

ISW Sylvia McKenzie talks to Clare Jerrom about the in-depth process of Special Guardianship Order assessments and why they must always remain child-centred.

Special Guardianship Order assessments (SGO) must be completely child-focused and address the needs of the child first and foremost, an expert in SGO's has warned.

Independent Social Worker Sylvia McKenzie, who has more than 30 years post-qualifying children's social work experience, says that assessments for Special Guardianship Orders are long, complicated and need to be very comprehensive.

"An SGO assessment is not a tick box exercise. It is a sensitive and intrusive assessment, often with people who have not had any previous involvement with social care," explains Sylvia.

Sylvia worked in a variety of settings including a 10-year term at Derbyshire Council before she retired from local authority social work in 2010 and set up her independent practice. In this arena, she specialises in assessments for SGOs, Form F’s and civil and public law cases.

As an independent, Sylvia has the luxury of taking on single pieces of work at a time, however, the in-depth process required of an SGO assessment within a six week turnaround period still proves challenging.

SGO v Adoption

A Special Guardianship Order is an order of the court under The Children Act 1989 which provides the holder with the parental responsibility of a child until they reach 18. "The SGO gives the guardian the right to make day-day-decisions for a child including around their health, education and holidays. However, a guardian cannot take the child to live abroad without consent, they cannot change their name without consent and they must inform the birth parent if the child dies," said Sylvia. "Apart from these three exceptions, the guardian has parental responsibility for all other decisions."

An SGO is typically used with younger children and where adoption is not a suitable option for a child. For example, Sylvia has worked on a case where a little girl aged 6 had been adopted following care proceedings. Sadly, her adoptive mother died suddenly and the child's aunt and uncle came to pick her up and expressed a wish to adopt her. However, on advice from the family solicitors, it was advised that the child should be placed under an SGO rather than being adopted again as she had already had two identities both with her birth mother and adoptive mother and a third identity may have confused the child further. The aunt and uncle were completely understanding which proved they had a real insight into the child's needs and as a result, an SGO was granted rather than going through adoption proceedings.

'The pendulum has swung in favour of SGOs' - Andrew Christie, Adoption and Leadership Board Chair

While in this instance the aunt and uncle were related to the child, it does not have to be a relative who applies for an SGO. "An application for an SGO can be made by grandparents, aunts and uncles, an older sibling or similarly it can be made by family friends or a foster carer who wants a more permanent arrangement with a child in their care," said Sylvia.

"In care proceedings under Section 20 of The Children Act regarding voluntary accommodation, it is the local authority's responsibility to find out if there are any family members or friends who would care for the child. Social workers may approach that person and as part of care proceedings, the court may say that it would like an assessment carried out for an SGO. Alternatively, a family member or friend may put themselves forward and say they wish to care for the child formally and the social worker would discuss adoption or whether an SGO would be more appropriate," added Sylvia.

Special Guardianship Orders were introduced under The Adoption and Children Act 2002 and have increased in popularity. In 2011, there were 2,975 SGOs made whereas this leapt to more than 5,000 in 2015.

However, in an exclusive interview with Children First, the chair of the Adoption and Leadership Board Andrew Christie said he felt "the pendulum has swung too far in favour of placing vulnerable children in care with extended family as opposed to considering adoption" with the connected person identified as a long-term parent not being that connected to the child and not necessarily having the parenting capacity to meet the child’s needs as they grow up.

Intensive assessment

Yet the process described by Sylvia is thorough, to say the least. "It is very complex and demands extreme co-operation from the applicants," said Sylvia.

The format, devised by CoramBAAF, requires the social worker carrying out the assessment to write a description of the applicant (or applicants) talking about their personality, their interests, how they relate to other adults etc and this is accompanied by a photograph. The next section concentrates on identity and requires the social worker to explain the ethnicity and cultural background of the applicant including their religious beliefs, immigration status and willingness to promote the children's beliefs and religion within the home.

Sylvia would then create a Genogram and chronology for the section on family history and relationships outlining the applicants' relationships with their families and siblings as well as their experience of being a parent. Education and employment both need to be investigated and how it would impact on the child's needs. Furthermore, significant previous relationships need to be delved into and outlined within the form.

"It is an intensive assessment and at the end of each section, I add three more areas, firstly analysing the information within the section and then identifying strengths and vulnerabilities," said Sylvia. While one person can apply for an SGO, if it is a couple then Sylvia needs to look at the
couple's relationship and provide analysis on that too.

Protection from birth parents

Sylvia is then required to look at the applicant's home and analyse how suitable it is a for a child and how willing the applicant would be to make changes to the house in order to accommodate the child, for example, make available space for play. The applicant's support network including siblings and friends will also be interviewed to support the application. Sylvia is also required to carry out an assessment of the applicant's abilities to meet the needs set out within the Every Child Matters outcome that are most important to children and young people:

- Being healthy
- Staying safe
- Enjoying and achieving
- Making a positive contribution
- Achieving economic wellbeing

"I also need to investigate the applicant's ability to protect the child from their birth parents if the children have been subject to care proceedings," she added.

'I had to assess 50 chickens and four turkeys'

The assessment does not end there as Sylvia is required to verify a huge range of documents as part of the assessment. This includes birth certificates, national Insurance numbers, passports, marriage licences, divorce documents, enhanced DBS checks to name a few.

"A criminal conviction for a crime involving children would rule someone out for an SGO," said Sylvia. "Convictions of ABH or GBH may also rule someone out as would firearms offences such as armed robbery. Someone who is a persistent petty offender would also be seriously questioned."
Sylvia is then required to check three references from each applicant who also need to provide a reference from their home local authority which would highlight any disputes or bad tenancies. Applicants also need to provide medical assessments which Sylvia would need to verify.

"We then look at home safety and I need to check everything, every lock, every window, whether the applicant has double glazing or if they have single glazing whether it could pose a risk and whether there is a suitable fire escape - no stone is left unturned," said Sylvia.

Pet and animal assessments are then carried out of each animal in the family home. "An assessment I carried out recently was on a farm so in the house there were five dogs, two cats, a terrapin and a tortoise. On top of that, there were 40 caged lambs that needed feeding during the night and the child living there raised hens from eggs as a hobby and so 50 chickens and four turkeys needed assessing too!" said Sylvia.

'I'm being unbelievably intrusive'

"You also need to check if there have been any care proceedings involving the applicant in the family court or whether they have had a child removed from their care previously. You then need references from ex-partners as to whether, in their opinion, the applicant is/would make a good parent," explained Sylvia. "You need to ascertain and verify an employment reference and if the person has been in a job for less than five years you need to delve into their employment history further."

"You then need to carry out checks with nurseries, schools and colleges to ensure that any children the applicant has have attended school regularly. Finally, you carry out social media and internet checks of the applicant (s) and any young people living in the applicants' home," she explains.

The assessment requires six days of face-to-face interviewing with the applicant (s) in their home, observations with the applicant and the child and one-to-one sessions with the child as "you need to know what the child wants". If it is a joint application, at least two joint interviews are carried out. Sylvia also visits referees in their own home.

"I am basically composing an analysis of their parenting capacity including information about their past relationship with the child. I often suggest they write this part themselves. I'm being unbelievably intrusive and the questions are intrusive so I want them to be confident in me and try and make them feel comfortable," she added. "I am looking at their experience of caring for a child and their abilities to meet the child's needs now and in the future. I'm interested in their understanding of the child's emotional development that is age-appropriate. Further, if a child has lost a family member, I need to know how they are going to support that child to deal with their loss."

People drop out of the process

Sylvia explains that for the six-year-old child who had lost her mother and adoptive mother, prior to the ashes being scattered, it was felt that some ashes should be put to one side in a heart-shaped trinket box for the child when she grew older for her to decide what she wanted to do with them, demonstrating that not only did the special guardians need to think about the child's emotional development now but in the future too.

"At the end of the assessment, I also need to identify support services within the local authority that may help the family as the local authority has a responsibility for three years after the SGO is made," said Sylvia. She then pulls all the information together and concludes whether she thinks a special guardianship order is in the child's best interests and for what reasons. The report is sent back to the local authority that commissioned it and it then goes before the courts.

Once an SGO is made, the special guardians can apply for a special guardianship allowance to help with the costs of taking on a child. Whether the child continues to have contact with relatives or birth parents is down to each individual situation. If a Section 34 Order has been made, it would not be in the child's best interests to have contact with their birth parents. Alternatively, it is down to the special guardians and the relatives to work out with the child how they will ensure contact is maintained.

Naturally, some relatives including grandparents who put themselves forward may not be suitable which can be a difficult situation to manage. "Age alone would not prevent someone from obtaining an SGO but health reasons and an understanding of the child's needs may come into force. There is no reason why a grandparent couldn't make an application," said Sylvia. "Equally, I have had people drop out of the process."

However, she says it is pleasing when an SGO is granted when it is in a child's best interests. "In a recent case, the applicants called me as soon as the SGO was granted telling me how fantastic the news was and what had been said in court which makes the complex application process so worthwhile," Sylvia concludes.

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