It may be promoted as the ideal arrangement for some children in care but special guardianship is fast gaining a bad reputation.
Across the country, former foster carers who have become guardians are being literally left short-changed as a result of significantly reduced financial allowances and many are finding support melts away.
“We believe there are hundreds of cases where special guardians are saying ‘this is not working out the way I wanted. We are struggling to cope’,” says Malcolm Phillips, the manager of Fosterline, an advice service run by the Fostering Network and funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Fosterline is dealing with a significant number of calls from worried carers. “Many foster carers are keen to get the local authority out of their lives. But some end up conned, pressured and duped into going down the guardianship route,” says Phillips.
Theoretically there should be no losers in special guardianship. Introduced in December 2005 under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, it is designed as a halfway house between long-term fostering and adoption, offering children permanence and guardians more freedom to make day-to-day decisions, ending the situation whereby foster carers are forced to seek local authority permission for everyday things such as school trips.
But something has gone wrong. Under the Special Guardianship Regulations 2005, councils are only obliged to remunerate special guardians who were formerly foster carers for two years after the order is granted. Some local authorities are continuing to provide support, while others, on the basis of an assessment, are deciding not to.
“The problem is that after the judge has made the order the duty and powers to offer support packages all becomes discretionary,” says Phillips.
Special guardians have a right to written notice of changes to the support package and can then make representations. “They can say ‘if you withdraw the support we will not be doing as well as we have been doing. We will struggle.’ But guardians are not in a strong position because councils no longer has a duty to provide it,” adds Phillips.
John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at Baaf Adoption and Fostering, agrees. “Carers can go for judicial review but that is an arduous process, which is lengthy and costly.”
Fiona’s* story illustrates some of the typical problems arising with special guardianship. She and her husband, who have two birth children and foster three others, are in the process of applying for guardianship for one of the children in their care. When the order is granted there will be no party to celebrate. She is hoping, in fact, that the change will pass unnoticed. Her caution stems from her worry that another of her foster children will ask why they were not also taken out of foster care.
Her decision to become a guardian to one child and not the other is based on one thing – money. “We’ve been put in a very difficult position. At the moment we are paid about £200 a week for each child but we anticipate our fees and allowances will drop by at least two-thirds for the child we are applying for a special guardianship order (SGO) for and in two years the local authority will not pay us anything,” she explains.
Uncertainty over financial arrangements, as well as a growing number of stories about carers being abandoned after becoming guardians, is understandably deterring others from considering guardianship.
Rob* and his wife are the type of couple the government had in mind with the creation of SGOs. They have fostered Paul*, now 13, since he was four. He is settled but an SGO would take him out of the care system, giving him the added security of knowing he would remain with his carers until he was 18. In addition, he would no longer be subjected to what some children find are stigmatising annual medicals, statutory reviews and so on. But Rob and his wife are unlikely to pursue guardianship.
He says that looking after Paul is a full-time job for his wife. If the money was halved then his wife would have to go out to paid employment.
“Our fostering agency has told us we could end up worse off financially and without support. I realise it is not in the agency’s interests for us to become guardians but the fact is we get much more support from the agency than we do the council. We know we can rely on the agency because they have never let us down but I don’t trust the council.” he says.
In some areas councils have quickly recognised that the drop in financial support is deterring foster carers from applying for special guardianship. Islington pays a foster carer £337 a week looking after one child aged 0-10. In contrast, special guardians will have a financial assessment and depending on the outcome will receive a maximum of £134.80 for a child aged 0-4 if they live in London. Norma Barnes, fostering manager at Islington Council, says the rates are under review and the council is looking at matching rates for special guardians with those of foster carers. The council continues financial support until the child reaches 18.
Barnes says long-term foster carers take-up of special guardianship has been less than anticipated. Figures from the DCSF show that by March 2007, 740 orders were made, of which 490 were made to former foster carers. “It is a disincentive and we are in the process of looking at that. If someone has made a long-term commitment then they should not be disadvantaged,” she says.
She says that some may have suspicions councils are motivated to encourage special guardianship arrangements as a way of ridding the care system of children, and that there is inconsistent practice by councils. But she says that SGOs can break down, adding: “If you rush them through and it is not right you are just storing up trouble.”
Nevertheless, there is growing evidence that some councils are pressuring carers to apply for special guardianship, even when they are concerned it is not in the child’s best interests, says Kevin Williams, chief executive of fostering agency Tact.
Some social workers could themselves feel pressured to encourage foster carers to become guardians if they are working in an environment where money are stretched because even if the council continues to provide support, including financial help, they will still save money they would have spent on a social worker for the child, a supervising social worker for the carers, an independent reviewing officer and statutory reviews had the child remained in its care.
But Williams fears that where councils are looking at short-term savings by removing support – financial, training and practical – that has been essential to the placement’s success, placements may then be disrupted or break down.
Fiona says she has been put under “severe pressure” to become a guardian for the other child, so much so she has lodged a formal complaint.
“I feel as though we have to justify why we cannot take the other child and after some of the meetings you feel dirty, as if you shouldn’t be talking about money. But the reality is we have budgeted for five children so we can give them as much as we can. They have music and dance lessons and we pay for any other activities we can. I dread having another child here in case we’re put under pressure again to go for guardianship,” she says.
Pressure has been applied in the form of threats that the child may be moved, says Fiona. It is a scenario that Phillips is familiar with, having dealt with a number of calls from carers reporting similar experiences.
“To put a gun to a foster carer’s head is outrageous and to say you’re going to move a child when it’s not in their best interests has no justification whatsoever,” he argues. “Foster carers do not want a better financial deal. They simply want parity.”
* Not their real names
For more information on the issues raised in this feature see Community Care’s expert guides on
A brief history of special guardianship
Special guardianship orders were introduced under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and came into force in December 2005. They give the special guardian parental responsibility for the child, which is expected to last until they are 18.
Unlike adoption, it does not sever the ties with a birth family but it does allow the guardian more freedom to make decisions about the child’s life. In practice, this means the child is no longer the legal responsibility of the local authority.
Each council is free to make a decision about special guardianship for children in its care. Applicants are required to give three months’ notice of their intention to apply for an order and the local authority must produce a report for court that includes information about the child, his/her wishes, contact arrangements, the birth family and the prospective guardian.
Children in long-term foster care are often considered suitable for special guardianship but children outside the care system who are cared for by kinship carers, for example, may also be suitable. The court has to consider the welfare checklist in section one of the Children Act 1989 in application for an order.
This article is published in the 10 July edition of Community Care magazine under the headline “Not so special relationship”