New regulations come into force this month
New regulations to strengthen Special Guardianship Orders are set to come into force next week following the government’s pledge in December to review the framework underpinning SGOs.
The government came good on its earlier promise as children and families minister Edward Timpson laid before Parliament ‘The Special Guardianship (Amendment) Regulations 2016’ earlier this month which will come into force at the end of February.
Under the regulations, social workers will need to include in their report any harm which the child has suffered and any risk of future harm to the child posed by their parents, relatives or any other person considered relevant, for example a partner of the parent. It also amends the provision relating to the child’s needs to ensure that both the child’s current needs and their likely future needs are dealt with in the report.
Special guardians will be assessed in their understanding of, and ability to meet the child’s current and likely future needs, particularly, any needs the child may have arising from harm that the child has suffered.
The assessment will also consider whether a prospective special guardian has understanding of, and the ability to protect the child from any current or future risk of harm posed by the child’s parents, relatives or any other person the local authority consider relevant, particularly in relation to contact between any such person and the child.
In a bid to ensure the child can be adequately cared for under SGO arrangements until adulthood, special guardians will also be assessed to consider their ability and suitability to bring up the child until the child reaches the age of eighteen.
Timpson said: “The evidence provides a clear rationale for creating a stronger, more robust assessment framework for potential special guardians. I want this to be implemented quickly and this document gives details of the regulatory changes we intend to make.”
There is no statutory guidance on kinship care
Kinship care means that relatives or friends look after children who cannot live with their parents. Special Guardianship Orders are a formal court order introduced in legislation on 30 December 2005 for children who are unable to live with their parents. SGOs allows parental control over a child by individuals other than the parent and this could be a grandparent, close relative or even a family friend.
Kinship care and Special Guardianship can offer a child;
- A form of stability without legally separating the child from their parents.
- The chance to build a firm foundation for a lifelong permanent relationship.
- The opportunity to remain within their extended family network.
Special Guardianship means that the child lives with carers who have parental responsibility for them until they are 18 and the child is no longer the responsibility of the local authority.
Last month, at a Commons backbench debate on children in care, the former health secretary Alan Johnson warned that the care system “neither encourages nor sufficiently supports kinship care as an alternative to care arrangements”.
While there is helpful guidance on kinship care, there is no statutory duty that requires local authorities to explore the kinship care option. In addition, there is no statutory duty for authorities to have the “all-important” family group conference, a process which involved the wider family from an early stage.
“In the vast majority of cases, that does not take place until after the child goes into care. It should be held before that decision is made,” Mr Johnson told the debate. “One of the important aspects of the family group conference is the voice of the young person, which is crucial. It is vital to the process and central to the success of family group conferences. However, not only are they almost always held after a child has been designated as “looked after”, but their number is diminishing as budget cuts force local authorities to retrench.”
Kinship care had “real and substantial” benefits for children, Mr Johnson added. Ninety-five per cent of the children in kinship care are not declared “looked-after” children by the local authority and so by keeping children out of the care system, those carers save the taxpayer billions of pounds each year in care costs alone.
In addition, the benefits for the children include them feeling more secure, and experiencing fewer emotional problems and behavioural difficulties, said Johnson adding that recent research published in November also suggests that children in kinship care also do better educationally than those in residential care.
Johnson urged the government to place a new statutory duty on local authorities so that when it is decided that a child may need to be placed in care, other than in emergencies, they must first identify and consider the willingness and suitability of any relative or other person connected to the child to care for them.
Following the debate, in the first edition of Children First, WillisPalmer director Mark Willis added that kinship care is in danger of being overlooked as a viable resource for such children. “Improved identification of kinship carers at a much earlier stage, better assessment, which focuses upon parenting capacity above all else, and comprehensive support of carers, especially at the start of a placement, are the key ingredients to better long term outcomes for children in kinship care,” added Willis.
However, the amendments to strengthen SGOs were much needed after the government review of SGOs 10 years after their inception found problems with the system including poor quality assessments of prospective special guardians and children being placed in potentially risky placements.
The review found that the majority of SGOs are made to carers who have an existing relationship with the child and who, with some appropriate support, intend to and will be able to care for the child until 18. However, there is a “significant minority of cases” where protective factors are not in place.
The review identified:
- Rushed or poor quality assessments of prospective special guardians, for example, where family members come forward late in care proceedings; where there has been inadequate consideration early on of who might be assessed; when assessments have been carried out very quickly to meet court timelines; or when the quality of an initial assessment is challenged, requiring the reassessment of a special guardian.
- Potentially risky placements being made, for example, where the SGO is awarded with a supervision order because there remains some doubt about the special guardian’s ability to care for the child long-term. Almost half of the 51 cases considered had a SO attached to the SGO which is “particularly concerning” where the child is not already living with the guardian, or where there is no or little pre-existing relationship.
- Inadequate support for special guardians, both before placements are finalised, and when needs emerge during the placement,
“The review indicates that the challenges identified with SGOs occur at different points in the care process, but an assessment that lacks quality at the start is a major contributor to the issues highlighted above,” said the government review. “It is vitally important for the local authority analysis to be robust, supported by strong and intelligent evaluation. SGOs are permanence orders, awarded on the expectation that the child will remain in that placement until he or she is an adult.”
“For this reason, a sound prediction of the child’s long-term welfare in that placement should sit at the heart of the assessment, and form the basis for the final care plan,” the review added.
It confirmed that in every case:
- There should be a robust assessment of the potential special guardian (or guardians) and their capacity to care for the child and meet his or her needs;
- Decision making by local authorities, Cafcass and the courts should be robust, consistent, and based on sound evidence about the child, potential carers, and the options available, including the benefits and risks of different placement options;
- The placement should have a strong probability of lasting permanently until the child is 18;
- Children and carers living in special guardianship arrangements should have the support they need to do well and for the placement to last permanently.
Dr Lucy Peake, Chief Executive at Grandparents Plus, welcomed Timpson’s announcement. “While some local authorities are providing good support for special guardians, many kinship carers are struggling to get the financial and practical help they need for the vulnerable children they are bringing up. Special guardians, unlike adoptive parents and foster carers, have no legal entitlement to support or to take time off work even though the children they are caring for have had very similar difficult early experiences of abuse, neglect and trauma with their birth parents. And all too often special guardians and other kinship carers are expected to manage difficult relationships with children’s parents without support.
“We want all children to have the best possible start in life and we know that children benefit from stability and strong, loving relationships with their carers. Investing in better support for special guardians and other kinship carers makes sense for children and also for the taxpayer – by enabling children to thrive and achieve better long term outcomes,” added Dr Peake.
WillisPalmer director Mark Willis concluded: “There is no doubt that a common theme amongst those special guardians caring for abused or neglected children is the need for greater support as they carry out their difficult task. Whether the new guidance addresses this critical issue is a moot point. However, better assessments should improve the identification of potential difficulties and it is imperative that local authorities, together with their partners in health and education take steps to address those issues. This will strengthen SG placements and improve outcomes for children”.