The 26-week timetable for care proceedings to be completed should be reviewed in cases of special guardianship, The Fostering Network has said.
In its response to the Department for Education’s consultation on special guardianship orders (SGOs), which closed on Friday (18 September), the charity said the move could stop “hurried or incomplete assessments” compromising the safeguarding of the courts.
The new timescales for public law outline (PLO) care proceedings were piloted in 2013 and enshrined in law under the Children and Families Act 2014. While The Fostering Network said that good work had been done to reduce delays for children in these proceedings, “the best interests of the child are not served by placing them with carers where there has not been a thorough assessment of the ability to care for the child throughout her/his childhood and beyond”.
‘Potentially inadequate’ assessments
It said that some potential special guardians did not come forward until a late stage in the 26 weeks, at which point assessments may be carried out in a hurried and “potentially inadequate” manner to meet the PLO.
In these circumstances, there should be more flexibility to ensure adequate checks can be made, and reflect the diversity of situations in which SGOs are sought, said Melissa Green, the charity’s director of operations.
She said: “The key here is that the range of situations where SGOs are applied (and the number of SGOs given) are far greater than anticipated when they came into effect in 2005. The flexibility to extend the process if appropriate would simply allow the proceedings to be more flexible in responding to the differing needs of individual cases and the young people and prospective special guardians involved.”
An SGO 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. The number of SGOs has risen more than 150% since 2010, and the sector has expressed concerns about how they might be being misused.
Foster carers under pressure
Local authorities are perceived to pressure foster carers to take out SGOs so they can meet the time requirements of the PLO, The Fostering Network said, and it questioned whether social workers felt confident with, and understood, the framework for special guardianship.
“A growing concern is that some local authorities have made it standard practice to encourage all foster carers with long-term placements to consider SGOs, as opposed to taking a child-centred, case-by-case, approach,” the response said.
Foster carers have reported “extreme pressure” to take out an SGO, the charity warned, adding that it was a concern that special guardianship isn’t seen as the “chosen path” in the same way that foster care and adoption are.
Consideration should be given to introducing an “approval system” for special guardians where assessments and recommendations can be challenged and discussed, the charity’s response said. It also called for a formal “two-way assessment process” to ensure sufficient consideration of applicants, and provide them with the opportunity to make an informed decision.
Special guardianship families should be receiving the same support as adoptive families, the response said, and all children placed with special guardians should be able to access leaving care support as and when required.
Green said that the support should not simply be about how much prospective special guardians are paid – although she said the lack of clarity can hinder them in making an informed decision throughout the assessment process – but about the need for a “comprehensive support package” aimed at providing ongoing training, support and information.
“We would want SGOs to be seen as one of the range of permanence options to be considered for young people but only pursued where this is what the young person and prospective SGs want. Our concerns are around SGOs being pursued without adequate planning around the child’s needs and a sense of pressure being applied on foster carers to take on SGOs without full consideration of the options and implications,” she added.