Special guardianship orders: Are decisions being made for the child, or the local authority?

Community Care has asked leaders from the adoption, kinship care and fostering sectors for their views on how the rise in special guardianship orders has impacted permanency

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Is permanency planning working in the best interests of children, or has recent case law prompted services to focus excessively on processes to the detriment of children and families?

Community Care has asked leaders from the adoption, kinship care and fostering sectors for their views on this increasingly controversial topic.

Special guardianship orders (SGOs) have been to the fore in the debate around permanence this past year.

Rising numbers of SGOs and placements in the wake of Re B and Re B-S judgements, which have been seen to have changed local authorities’ willingness to seek adoption, have occurred at the same time as a sharp decrease in placement orders for adoption.

Placement orders had been rising before the two judgements, and the number of adoptions have continued to rise while the investment and focus has been there to support them. But placements orders and the number of children placed for adoption have fallen since Re B-S was perceived to change the threshold for adoption and local authorities began, it has been claimed, to use special guardianship orders as a cost-cutting solution.

Does this reflect the ebbs and flows of a constantly evolving system, or does it instead show that permanency planning isn’t focused on a child’s best interests, but instead on what best suits local authorities at the time?

We asked:

Hugh Thornbery – Adoption UK

The current situation where we are seeing a significant fall in adoption decisions and placement orders and an increase in the use of SGOs risks setting up a sterile and adversarial debate about the relative merits of the two options.

My own public comments on the fall in adoption decisions since the Re B-S judgement have been taken in some quarters as anti birth family or anti special guardianship.

I start from the position that all children need the security of permanence, that it comes in many and varied forms, but at the heart of any good permanence option is a pre-existing or potential strong bond between parent/carer and child.

This is essential where children have a history of maltreatment and the trauma that comes from separation and loss. Strangers can provide this if properly assessed, prepared and matched – the success of adoption is evidence of that. Family members or friends can provide it and the research undertaken by Jim Wade into SGOs supports that. We know how successful long-term foster care can be.

Not in the best interests

What we are seeing now, firstly through anecdote and now more robustly through the Research in Practice report, Family justice review: special guardianship orders, is a series of decisions that do not seem to me to be in the best interests of some individual children.

There is emerging evidence that the attempts to counter the misinterpretation of Re B-S are having an impact in local authorities but not on the judiciary. I respect the independence of the courts, it’s essential to our child care system, but I fail to understand the placement of children under SGOs with people who are strangers – they might be relatives but with no knowledge or bond with the child – with highly limited time for assessment and with many of those taking on SGOs not properly equipped to understand the legal responsibilities that follow.

The government’s review of SGOs will tell us more and I suspect that it will reinforce that which Research in Practice uncovered.

If we see SGOs breaking down in increasing numbers we will see children returning to care with all the damage we know comes with further separation and loss.

All the evidence that we have about adoption demonstrates that delay, age at time of placement and number of placement moves before adoption are all risk factors for difficulties and disruption in the teenage years.

Making SGOs against social work recommendations, making SGOs with strangers, only allowing three weeks for assessment, having a threshold for those taking on special guardianships of only just good enough parenting all builds up problems for those children whose placements fail.

This isn’t feeling like a proper approach to finding realistic family options before the last resort of adoption, it’s feeling like anything but adoption. That can’t be right for children.

Cathy Ashley – Family Rights Group

Family Rights Group’s response on behalf of the Kinship Care Alliance to the government’s special guardianship review drew upon a recent survey undertaken of kinship carers. Those with a special guardianship order told us that when they took on the child they felt they did not know enough about the legal options and the consequences for support to make an informed decision (78%), that practitioners’ knowledge when undertaking the assessment was patchy (58%), and that they had to contend with a lack of support (93%).

This case study, graphically illustrates this.

Two years ago Louise and James were asked to become special guardians for their nieces aged four and five who lived in a different area. They did not know the children well and were given just two weeks to make their decision before the assessment began. Several months later the children came to live with them but they were totally unprepared for the children’s needs and bewildered by their behaviour.

During the assessment the local authority did not disclose that the children had attachment issues nor give any guidance about caring for children who have experienced trauma. The local authority only offered to pay for legal advice up to £60 and initially offered an allowance only until the youngest child started school, rather than 18.

Extenuating factors

Since the special guardianship order was granted they have found it difficult to access support. The local authority closed the case one month after the children moved to them. They were told the local authority’s view was that special guardianship is not adoption and they should just be a normal family. The family really struggled until they started receiving support from their own local authority. Louise said: “Our new social worker is the first person who has explained to us the psychological impact of early trauma and helped us in our parenting strategies. We feel the placing authority let us and our nieces down. They have experienced the same trauma as adopted children so they should get the same support.”

Despite these difficulties, the children are settling in and enjoying school. Louise said: “It has been wonderful to see them grow in confidence, make their first friends and be invited to birthday parties.”

The local authority repeatedly told them that they were doing right by the children, but too often the focus of the system wasn’t the welfare of the child and family, but extenuating factors, such as the drive by the local authority to save monies in the short term in the light of huge financial pressure, regardless of the longer term consequences.

Janie Spring – The Fostering Network

What Re B-S highlighted was a failure of the local authority in question to fully assess and evidence in their care plan all permanency options alongside that of adoption.

The Fostering Network strongly believes that the specific needs of any looked after-child should always remain paramount. Given the crucial importance of permanence in a looked-after child’s life, any such plan should only be decided after a careful and evidenced assessment of all permanency options ranging from returning home, a child arrangement order (residence), foster care*, special guardianship and adoption.

In The Fostering Network’s recent consultation response to the Department for Education it highlighted the increase in the use of SGOs as part of care proceedings and its increasing concern that the consideration of permanence planning for children in care was being misapplied.

Pressure

Through its regional forums with fostering services, and through its member helpline, The Fostering Network has received a steady flow of reports of foster carers being pressurised into applying for SGOs for children placed with them. It has also received reports of independent reviewing officers raising the option of an SGO at a LAC review, without prior discussion with the foster carer, without consideration of the full range of options for permanency and, seemingly, irrespective of the individual needs of the child.

The Fostering Network finds it of great concern that local authorities seem to making 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 to the needs of children in their planning for permanence.

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4 Responses to Special guardianship orders: Are decisions being made for the child, or the local authority?

  1. Jw52 October 22, 2015 at 1:47 pm #

    The figures do not support the BS judgement as the major factor: it is the availability of a new form if permanence and its growing acceptance by the authorities. Also the publication in 2011 of guidance – these are the key drivers. All based on the 1989 premise of the family as primary site of substitute care. Don’t blame the judges, congratulate the system for finally catching on.

  2. Felicity Collier October 23, 2015 at 1:58 pm #

    I do wonder if all the government rhetoric around needing to increase adoption orders every year has had a subtle impact on legal decisions influencing a small number of the cases where there have been the significant decisions by raising a hint of suspicion . Of course a kinship placement in a strong family with other extended family support, a realistic commitment and proper mulitidisclinary support is likely to be a better option than adoption with strangers, but the emerging research has found this robust placement is often not available and then there are risks. Adoption continues to offer the most vulnerable children a family for life . Local authorities need to be brave, and some have experienced no drop in placement orders, by presenting this option in appropriate cases as before, but others have perhaps been too cautious at children’s expense. Government must fund all options equally so that professional judgments can be made and permanence achieved. I am personally not sure about Cameron prioritising increasing adoption in conference speeches .

  3. Sarah Wellard October 26, 2015 at 12:03 pm #

    Through our advice service, peer support network and research projects Grandparents Plus is in touch with thousands of families like James and Louise’s who tell us how they are struggling to look after vulnerable children – often on SGOs but also on Residence Orders – with insufficient support, both financial and practical. Kinship carers are more likely than adoptive parents to come from lower income backgrounds, and to be raising several children and so will be hit hard by forthcoming welfare reforms.

    What is needed is for the kind of support available to adoptive parents through the adoption support fund to be extended to kinship carers, provided on the basis of children’s needs. Family members are usually better placed to meet children’s needs than unrelated strangers, but whether or not they already have a close relationship with the children they require support to do so effectively. Too many children are being failed by a system that allocates support based on legal status not on need.

  4. Nicola October 27, 2015 at 10:18 pm #

    I raised five children and in the last 15yrs got a qualification and started up my own business. I have for the past 15 months, since my grandson was 5 months had full time care which has resulted in me being given an SGO. I’ve had to cut my work commitments as I couldn’t physically or mentally cope with the pressure of work and a baby, along with the trauma of whatever is happening with the parents, my son. I have developed back problems from the lifting and the very little rest, I’ve been suffering depression due to financial worries. My grandson is an absolute treasure I just wish it wasn’t so hard. Saying this worries me as I don’t want to lose him I wish what I’m doing was supported better