Foster carers are facing increasing pressure to become special guardians as local authorities try to balance their budgets, Community Care has learned.
Delegates at a Community Care conference this week claimed there was growing pressure from councils to convert foster carers into special guardians as a way of cutting costs. Independent fostering providers said the pressure was particularly great for them.
Speaking at the conference, Helen Jones, professional adviser to the children in care division at the Department for Education, said: “We suspect there is a whole mix – children for whom special guardianship is the right plan, but also children where it is seen as an opportunity to reduce costs. Centrally, we wouldn’t know the difference.”
Jones said the department was commissioning further research on the issue to get an idea of how many foster carers it affected.
Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers, told Community Care today that he was “really concerned” about the issue. “We hear about this pressure regularly. I’ve even heard it described as coercion. It is undoubtedly an issue,” he said.
Gallagher said he was aware of cases where foster carers had been told that their foster children would be moved on if they did not agree to become special guardians. Foster carers are likely to want to maintain the placement, he explained, and so might agree to a special guardianship order (SGO) to avoid disruption. But they will be entitled to far less support under an SGO, he warned.
“Councils must consider permanence so in principle it’s fine that SGOs are being looked at, but the reality is that if a foster carer becomes a special guardian they are likely to lose a lot of the support they have been receiving as a foster carer. You could say that this is a lot cheaper for the commissioner, but foster carers don’t always realise there is less support.
“Foster carers who agree to become special guardians may find it difficult to negotiate appropriate packages of support from their local authorities, whereas others may be unaware that there is less support or even how SGOs work before agreeing,” he said.
He added that the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers is also researching the issue and plans to publish a protocol “to show things should be working in practice”.
Elaine Dibben, foster care development consultant at the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, said she was also aware of the problem. “Foster carers who become special guardians would be holding main parental responsibility. For foster children with therapeutic needs there is particular concern about where the back-up support would be”.
She added: “An SGO might appear right for the child, but it may not necessarily be right for the carer. Local authorities have to be realistic about this.”
Vicki Swain, campaigns manager at the Fostering Network, said foster carers should never feel pressurised into entering a special guardianship arrangement.
“They should be fully informed about what the arrangement will involve and must continue to receive the support they need to look after the child.”
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Adoption and special guardianship orders