Special guardianship orders: are local authorities misusing them?

As the government launches a review into special guardianship, Community Care investigates the growing concern around the order

In October last year, foster carers Anne* and Michael* took in three children under short-term fostering arrangements. When care proceedings concluded, it was decided all three should stay with the couple in a settled, long-term foster placement.

But although two subsequent looked-after children reviews recognised the siblings were happily settled, Anne and Michael – who fostered with an agency – experienced pressure to take on a more permanent legal arrangement, called a special guardianship order.

The couple were told they would need to become council foster carers or special guardians, even though both went against their wishes and, in their view, the children’s welfare.

Anne and Michael’s situation is not unusual, according to social workers and fostering providers. Special guardianship orders are on the rise and attracting attention.

According to the latest government figures, use of the order has risen a massive 158% since 2010, while last week ministers ordered a review of special guardianship, concerned it is being misused in some local authorities.


At Community Care Live an expert panel will discuss whether special guardianship orders are being misused and give guidance on how social workers can best use them to ensure good outcomes for children.
Find out more

Concern and unease

An alternative to adoption, which is still regarded as a draconian last resort by some family courts, special guardianship orders became law in 2005. The private law order appoints one or more individuals to be a child’s ‘special guardian’, giving them parental responsibility, and the child a legally secure placement, without severing the legal relationship with birth parents.

The orders have undoubtedly helped many children enjoy permanent placements. They are used by kinship carers wishing to take more responsibility or foster carers looking after children in settled, long-term placements.

However, against a backdrop of budget cuts and increasing complexity and pressure when trying to achieve permanence for children, concern and unease about special guardianship seems to be rising just as quickly as the orders themselves.

So, just where is this growing concern coming from and what is it based on? The charity TACT has publicly expressed doubts about the growth of special guardianship, particularly following the 2013 judgement Re B-S, which ruled that social workers should consider all alternative options before adoption. It is often cited as the reason for a more than 50% drop in the number of placement orders and some of the rise in special guardianship orders.


Questionable practice

The charity believes some authorities are pursuing special guardianship too aggressively, which is supported by claims from the National Association of Fostering Providers that councils are trying to break up foster placements by pressuring carers to take out (cheaper) special guardianship orders. One social worker likened this practice to blackmail.

Jim Wade, of York University, whose analysis of special guardianship was published in 2014, is keen to point out that special guardianship is achieving permanence very successfully for many children and families. He concedes, however, that since the study, which dealt with orders made between 2005 and 2012, the order has “clearly taken a pathway that hadn’t been fully appreciated at the time”.

Community Care has been shown letters from councils to foster carers and independent fostering providers, informing them their fostering placements will be considered for special guardianship orders. One letter, sent to foster carers from an authority in the south of England, read: “I am very pleased to hear about the progress that Child X is making in your care and thank you for your continued commitment to nurturing and care…

“We share a common interest, in that we want the very best care and outcomes for our children and are always seeking permanent options for them. As such, we would like you to consider becoming special guardianship carers for Child X.” The letter then went on to explain special guardianship and the process carers would go through.

Money matters

Statutory guidance states that the financial allowance made to special guardians must take in to account the amount given to a foster carer, while case law supports that special guardians should be entitled to the foster carer allowance.

However, the minimum fostering allowance, as set by the government, is much lower than the allowance a professional foster carer can realistically expect to receive. Meanwhile, enhanced foster carers, who have gone through training and take children with special needs, can receive two or three times more than this.

According to experts, this presents financial challenges for families. After all, children in special guardian placements have the same needs as those in foster care, but their carers receive less financial support to look after them.

Pressure from councils

It is also understood that local authorities are making sure that foster carers know a special guardianship order is on the cards, in some cases even before a placement has been made. In the more extreme examples, it has been reported that local authorities have even threatened to move children from foster carers if they did not apply to become special guardians.

Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the National Association of Fostering Providers, says some authorities have a policy that special guardianship is on the cards for, “any foster carer, any child, any situation”, while some use a ‘one model fits all’ approach and try to fit the child to the placement option, rather than the other way around. Indeed, Gallagher hears accounts of this pressure being exerted at least a couple of times a month and “all over the country”.

Cathy Ashley, chair of the Family Rights Group, called practices where carers might be pressurised for financial reasons rather than child welfare, “hugely concerning”. Even in Wade’s study, this pressure was felt ‘quite severely’ by about one in five carers.

Packages of support

As cash-strapped councils attempt to balance their books, some experts believe special guardianship is attractive because it is cheaper than long-term fostering (see box), yet lacks the finality and resource-intensive assessment process of adoption. But the cash injection of £19m to support adoptive families has highlighted the lack of support for special guardians.

“A pair of Adidas trainers don’t cost a third less because you happen to have a special guardianship order,” notes Nigel Priestley, a senior partner at Ridley and Hall solicitors. He has seen and heard tales of councils encouraging kin carers to make an application for special guardianship, sometimes even funding it and paying for their legal advice.

Gallagher says support packages will have a financial element, but only for a limited time. “It doesn’t make any sense at all,” he says. “The very reason why you think this child in this home with this carer would be good for permanence is because of all the things that have got them to that stage to make it work, so why would you take them all away?” he asks.

There is also a gulf between the support foster carers and special guardians can expect to receive. Looked-after children and foster carers are protected by statutory obligations, which rarely extend to special guardian placements. For example, both foster carers and children in care can expect to have a relationship with their own social worker.

“You have the same group of children, but their legal order has an impact on what support they are given,” adds John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at the British Association of Adoption and Fostering.

Nerves about adoption

Andy Elvin, chief executive of TACT Fostering & Adoption, said the rise in special guardianship could be due to recent adoption judgements making legal departments and social workers nervous about adoption orders, either for fear of not being granted them or being criticised for recommending adoption in court.

Case study

A London council placed a baby with an experienced independent foster carer at short notice. The carer’s experience, capabilities and location were a good match for the baby’s needs.

Within six months the baby was assessed as having a disability. In accordance with local authority policy, the plan was to seek adoptive parents. After a period, no suitable match was found so the carer was asked if she would care for her permanently as a special guardian. This was not as a result of any assessment of the carer or child, who was now two, with limited mobility, no speech and incontinence.

After considering the information on special guardianship and the implications for her family, the carer opted to stay with her independent fostering provider because of the level of support that had been on offer.
All professionals thought the carer’s standard of care was excellent. However, the authority said the child would be removed and another placement sought unless she agreed to become a special guardian.

The carer suffered considerable anguish. She felt undermined and that she had no real choice, despite caring for the child since she was a baby. She used words like ‘blackmail’ and ‘exploited’.

Eventually, with regret, she decided she could not take this step into the unknown without either an assessment or guaranteed long-term support.

“They’ve found judges are willing to grant special guardianship orders,” he says. “From a purely cynical local authority point of view you need to reach permanence for the child. If it’s a choice between special guardianship and adoption, an SGO is going to take less time, cost less and you’re more likely to get it granted. Why wouldn’t you do it?”

He adds: “They want [carers] to take special guardianship orders because they want them to be in a cheaper placement. They are under pressure to get their numbers of looked-after children down, and one of the ways of doing that is to convert foster placements to special guardianship.”

Assessment doubts

Concern about the way special guardianship is being pursued has drawn attention to the way special guardians are assessed. The apparent ease with which an order can be placed makes sector leaders nervous about the implications for children and families.

Elvin draws comparisons with the process for becoming an approved adopter or foster care, saying the assessments are thorough and like a “very intrusive ‘This Is Your Life’”. This process does not exist for special guardianship. Elvin warns: “If you’re not doing this with the people who take out the orders, if you’re not digging into that, the likelihood is that it is going to come and bite you.”

This is of particular concern, he adds, with kinship care arrangements, which offer “no guarantee” that a blood-tie will make a placement more successful for a child who has suffered abuse or neglect. Simmonds agrees: “Are we confident that because these are family members they have the capacity and competence to look after these children for the rest of their lives?”

Wade claims special guardianship is increasingly being used for children who “can’t be described as being settled with their carers”, and may only just be moving in with them. “There’s no way a family could get an adoption order without a period of six to nine months where the child lived with them under the supervision of the council, but that can happen with special guardianship.”

Supervision orders

It has also become fairly common for judges to place supervision orders on families who have recently taken out a special guardianship order, experts tell Community Care. However, with the threshold for a supervision order being significant harm, this is an increasingly precarious position for families.

Simmonds says this means the order is being placed “in the absence of any direct evidence” that the placement will work. “If the court is making a supervision order, the threshold for making that order is significant harm. There’s a bizarre connection that on the one hand ‘yes we have confidence that these people are in the best possible position to safeguard, and provide for, a child’s needs, but the local authority needs to supervise that’. I do think that’s an odd position,” he says.

Calls for comparable support

Every expert consulted by Community Care agrees special guardians should have access to at least the same financial support as adopters. This, they say, would go some way to alleviating concerns about the viability of special guardian placements.

“We need to return to a situation where the framework for providing adoption support continues to be applied to special guardian situations as well,” argues Simmonds. Wade adds that children in special guardianship placements are “no different” to children in the care system or those who go on to be adopted.

For now, the government appears to be taking heed of the growing concerns, which, Wade stresses, do apply to only a minority of the special guardian placements taken out each year. But it seems evident that review and reflection is essential if special guardianship success stories are to continue being the norm.

*Names have been changed

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11 Responses to Special guardianship orders: are local authorities misusing them?

  1. SL July 23, 2015 at 5:46 pm #

    Our SGO was not done by an appropriately qualified practitioner. Only one of three of our referrees was spoken to for ten minutes and no reports written. An antagonistic family was dragged into the proceedings for the sole purpose of smearing our family. None of our referees were allowed to counter their fabricated accusations. Our employers were never contacted. Sinister emails between report writer and LA solicitor was made available. To us suggesting that the social worker was not writing an independent report but one directed by ten Local Authority. Our offer to pay for an independent SGO assessment from one of four we found was refused. The report writer had spoken to us about her supporting our application the last time we spoke with her before court. At court she apologised for the report and was simply doing her job. The judge criticised the report, but failed to act appropriately and sided with the local authority. Ensuring we were ridiculed in her judgement while making reference to her fact finding judgement where she made very silly mistakes proving she did not understand the medical evidence herself to the level she should have. All SGOs need to be done by independent practitioners not associated with local Authorities. The whole fiasco that was the safeguarding process of our GD was devalued by every professional involved not just social workers. Th echerry on the cake was the SCR that was to follow written by an ex social worker failed to address the failings of social services and additional NHS failings following the section 20 that was possibly signed illegally! Knowing what is involved now, I would advise SGO applicants to insist on independent assessors. Assessments in house are UNSAFE!

  2. Suzanne Loveridge July 23, 2015 at 6:05 pm #

    That’s our one! I will be warning anyone else I know what to watch out for and All SGOs shoułd be done by an independent assessor! In house assessments are open to gross abuse

  3. Jayne July 24, 2015 at 2:04 am #

    As a a long term carer of three siblings all with statements I longed to obtain an SGO but realised I would take away the benefits my children Need to progress ,ie educational tuition ,makes me really sad

  4. Chris July 24, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

    I done sgo on two boys 8 years ago would not have done it if i new what they missed out on ie one with dyslexia and one with asperges we had to pay to get for the dyslexic test yet told ss would help that was written in the court report no help and the same with the other child.One is going to uni this year and he just gets £1000 to start him off i have another fostered child who also going to uni next year she gets a lot more help.It was a bad mistake and have put other cares off.

  5. Stuart. July 24, 2015 at 7:24 pm #

    Moving to an SGO as currently operated can be a seriously bad deal for foster carers. As a then new foster children’s case holding social worker when SGOs first became available, I am extremely proud of having successfully fought off all manner of pressure on me to put pressure on foster carers to apply for an SGO. I foresaw all the problems referred to in this article and a number of others too, I was and remain pretty disgusted that government and workers and managers around me couldn’t also see them.
    Sorry Chris that I wasn’t your social worker or I’d probably have steered you away too.

  6. Nic Thompson July 29, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

    Your article stated: ‘ It is often cited as the reason for a more than 50% drop in the number of adoption orders and some of the rise in special guardianship orders.’

    However recent DfE figures show that the number of adoptions for looked after children have increased for the last three years (figures available for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014). The DfE says that adoptions for 2014 increased by 26% on 2013, the highest number of adoptions for years.

    Can the writer of this article please explain.

  7. Ben F July 29, 2015 at 10:51 pm #

    The lack of support to SGO families is highly frustrating. Children often have same backgrounds as children in public care but little to no access to life story work, mental health placement support and often expected to access Tier 2 CAMHS provisions that are geared to general population, not children who may have experienced abuse, neglect or early life trauma.

  8. Ann T July 30, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

    found it a very interesting article, but think everyone is really missing the point, children are still been denied an important factor of their lives…….that of extended family involvement, it doesnt matter if a child is placed with adopters or have a SGO, research has shown that by denying children this vital aspect they are taken away a part of that child that can never be ever given back……..children should be kept within families, instead of been taken from families………..but because that costs money, children are denied access to family on the so called alter of ‘best interests’

  9. Val July 31, 2015 at 10:53 pm #

    We are under pressure by our LA to take an SGO for a child who has been with us only 10 weeks. We are currently going through approval as Friends & Family Foster Carers but there is a great deal of pressure to take on the SGO. We are saying no and intend to keep it that way for the foreseeable future. This article has been enlightening and reassuring, providing us with the confidence to say no. Thank you

  10. Polly Baynes August 10, 2015 at 10:57 am #

    I am an independent social worker who carries out a large number of SGO assessments. Doing this properly is time consuming and must be very difficult for social workers carrying a large caseload. The assessment areas set out in the legislation result in assessments that are unfit for purpose as they address a lot of seemingly irrelevant questions (eg age of death of applicant’s brother) whilst failing to ensure that key issues are considered.
    These include: has anyone spent time with these applicants helping them think through what has happened to the child in their family?why is this child not with their parents? How has this affected family relationships? How do the carers feel about their son/daughter/sister etc? what risks do the parents and other extended family members present? do the potential carers understand these risks? are they able to protect the child? are they able to assert themselves in difficult situations? how do they deal with conflict? what is their relationship with each parent and how have they dealt with the sorrow, rage and shame that accompany child protection? Do they understand the permanent nature of an SGO? What help have they had to understand the impact of abuse/neglect/separation and loss/trauma/contact/loss of contact? Do they understand this child’s likely future difficulties? What is their motivation for seeking to care?

    I have twice been challenged in court for adding headings (including risk assessment) to the template – the judge dismissed the challenge on both occasions. This template needs to be revised urgently. I am currently carrying out a kinship assessment for Australia – this is based on a much simpler template that actually addresses the issues that matter. We could learn a lot from Australia – they now have more children in kinship care than in foster care and are way ahead of us in understanding both the benefits and the pitfalls of these placements, along with the need for on-going support. When Thatcher introduced the first drive for adoption from care, the government hoped it would be cheap. We have learnt that it is not. We need to learn the same lesson in relation to kinship care.