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Special guardianship orders: What needs to change?

The huge growth in the use of special guardianship orders has prompted concerns across the social care sector about the conduct of local authorities and the courts, according to responses to a government consultation which closed last week.

The responses highlighted problems with local authority support for prospective carers, hurried assessments to meet the 26-week timescale for care proceedings under the public law outline (PLO), and an excessive focus by the judiciary on special guardianship rather than adoption.

Recommendations included proposals the government introduce an approval system and more rigorous assessments for special guardians, and that the 26-week PLO timescale should be reviewed to give the courts and social workers more time to carry out full assessments.

Special guardianship orders: Are local authorities misusing them? will be a discussion topic at this year’s Community Care Live, which is free for registered social workers.

The number of special guardianship orders (SGOs) issued per year in England has risen by more than 150% since 2010, reaching 3,330 in 2013/14. It is an alternative to adoption, and is commonly used to give parental responsibility for children to kinship carers and, in some cases, foster carers. It is a secure legal placement which does not sever the legal relationship with birth parents.

Community Care has collected eight responses* to the consultation from a variety of social work, charity and representative organisations. Their key concerns and recommendations are highlighted in the tables below.

Concerns about social workers and local authorities Concerns about carers and special guardians Concerns about the courts
To comply with 26 week timescales for care proceedings, assessments for special guardianship can be hurried and potentially inadequate. Because of timescales, they don’t have time to consider the decision fully, and can be pressured to commit to an SGO without a lot of information about what it is and what support they would receive. SGOs are becoming the preferred option of the judiciary where adoption would have been previously considered, and therefore the focus on what is best for the child has been lost.
Children’s social workers do not understand the legal context to advise special guardians fully, and can sometimes give misleading advice. The support special guardians receive is not consistent with that for adopters. Support also varies across the country, with the level of a special guardianship allowance not consistent. Some judges hold an antipathy towards adoption, which leads to requests to assess family members as special guardians where there is no pre-existing relationship.
Viability assessments for special guardians are variable in both quality and rigour. These assessments have also developed in an ad hoc way with no national consistency or statutory basis. A lack of testing period for the child(ren) and special guardian before the order is made final can contribute to breakdown. Supervision orders are being attached to SGOs more frequently, which suggests the threshold for one has fallen below other permanence orders.
Since the Re BS judgement, which has been attributed as the reason for a significant drop in the number of adoption placement orders as authorities perceive the threshold for adoption has risen, local authorities are facing a spiralling cost of supporting the growing number of SGOs. Young people under an SGO do not have priority access to mental health services, like other looked-after children, or access to post-18 support.
Local authorities are advertising for foster placements where carers would be willing to move to an SGO, and make placements on the condition that an order will be a part of the care plan.
As a way of circumventing the issues caused by shrinking resources and a fall in the number of adoption orders, local authorities have turned to SGOs.
Care planning has become weighted towards SGOs due to objectives to reduce the number of looked after children, and therefore the children and family’s needs are not taken into account.

Recommendations:

Recommendations for government Recommendations for social workers and local authorities
Where an SGO assessment is to be conducted, the 26 week care proceedings should be reviewed to allow courts and social workers more time to assess potential guardians fully. Where a court asks the local authority to assess the suitability of a potential special guardian, guidance should clarify appropriate timescales of three months. Family group conferences should be held at the pre-proceedings stage for all relatives in regular contact with the children.
Children’s social workers do not understand the legal context to advise special guardians fully, and can sometimes give misleading advice. The support special guardians receive is not consistent with that for adopters. Support also varies across the country, with the level of a special guardianship allowance not consistent.
Viability assessments should have a statutory status, format and associated guidance to improve time efficiency, independence and rigour. Permanency assessment and matching should have a nationally agreed format. Each local authority should prepare information for relatives and friends in contact with children, which set out the legal framework and assessment process, the support on offer, and the key issues of its special guardian policy.
A 10 week period for ‘settling in’ between the child and special guardian should be carried out if there is not a strong pre-existing bond between child and carer. The local authority should pay the legal costs of advice and representation and the court fees of the prospective special guardians in all cases where the authority supports the application.
There should be an approval system for special guardians, with a more rigorous assessment. Full disclosure on the child’s history should be given to prospective special guardians.
Special guardians should have access to the adoption support fund. Children under special guardianship should also have access to the same entitlements as care leavers, and guidance and entitlement for leaving care provisions need strengthening. Local authorities should commit to supporting the child until they are 18.
DBS checks for special guardians should be made a legal requirement during pre-proceedings.
There should be a greater standardisation of rates payable to special guardians. Special guardians should also be exempt from the benefit cap and proposed two child tax credit cut.
A special guardianship passport should be established, like an adoption passport, which clearly states the rights of the child in a special guardianship placement.

*The above concerns and recommendations were collated from the consultation responses by the Family Rights Group (on behalf of the Kinship Care Alliance), Coram, CoramBAAF, Nagalro, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the National Association of Fostering Providers, The Fostering Network, TACT Fostering & Adoption.

Story courtesy of Community Care

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