Law on special guardianship assessments to be reformed immediately

Government takes action to make assessments "more robust and consistent" after review says too many are "rushed and poor quality"

The government is to amend regulations and statutory guidance for local authority court reports on special guardianship orders after a review identified major problems with the assessment process.

In a consultation response published today, the Department for Education said it would strengthen SGO assessments in England to ensure that they are “more robust and consistent for all children”, and that they are “based on the fundamental principle that the person being assessed is capable of caring for the child for the whole of that child’s life to adulthood”.

It also said it would “consider what support should be available to children living under special guardianship arrangements”.

Changes to the law

Under the government’s amendments, which a DfE spokesperson said would be made in due course, local authority court reports on SGOs will have to consider the capacity of the guardian(s) to care for the child at the time of the application.

The reports will also have to cover, until the child turns 18:

  • the prospective special guardian’s understanding of the child’s current needs and likely future needs, particularly in light of any abuse or neglect the child has previously suffered, and their ability to meet those needs;
  • the prospective special guardian’s understanding of any current or future risk posed by the child’s birth parents and their ability to manage this risk;
  • an assessment of the strength of the previous and current relationship between the child and the prospective guardian

Concerns over supervision orders

The review, following a call for evidence in July, identified problems with “rushed and poor quality assessments of prospective special guardians” and “potentially risky placements being made”, such as where the SGO is awarded with a supervision order attached because “there remains some doubt about the special guardian’s ability to care for the child long-term”.

This was “particularly concerning where the child is not already living with the guardian, or where there is no or little pre-existing relationship”, it added.

The government said that poor quality assessments at the outset were a “major contributor” to the challenges identified with SGOs, though these “occur at different points in the care process”.

“It is vitally important for the local authority analysis to be robust, supported by strong and independent evaluation,” it said.

Long-term welfare

“SGOs are permanence orders, awarded on the expectation that the child will remain in that placement until he or she is an adult. For that reason, a sound prediction of the child’s long-term welfare in that placement should sit at the heart of the assessment, and form the basis for the final care plan.”

Of the 154 respondents to the call for evidence, 24 were concerned about an increase in the number of SGOs granted with supervision orders. A Community Care investigation earlier this month found that more than a quarter (29%) of the 4,121 SGOs made in 2014 had a supervision order attached, and that the number of SGOs made with a supervision order almost tripled from 2012 to 2014, while the numbers of those without a supervision order rose by around 50%.

An analysis of 51 case files as part of the government’s review said almost half had a supervision order.

Community Care has regularly reported on concerns with the SGO process in recent months, including many of those identified in the review.

An SGO grants parental responsibility to one or more ‘special guardians’ while not severing the legal bond with birth parents. It was introduced as a permanency option in 2005 and is legally binding. Once made, it is expected to last until a child turns 18.

Huge increase in use of SGOs

The use of SGOs has risen by 193% since 2010 as local authorities wrestle with costs and the Re B-S judgment, which was perceived to have risen the bar in achieving adoption for a child, making special guardianship a more realistic option in many cases. SGOs are commonly used to give parental responsibility for children to kinship carers and, in some cases, foster carers.

The Department for Education said it would issue more proposals early in 2016, following discussions with other government departments, local authorities and the voluntary sector.

Children’s minister Edward Timpson said the evidence from the review “provides a clear rationale for creating a stronger, more robust assessment framework for potential special guardians. I want this to be implemented quickly”.

Responding to the DfE’s announcement, Andy Elvin, chief executive of TACT Fostering and Adoption, said he “warmly welcome[s] this report and the fact that DfE recognise the valuable contribution many relatives are making in taking SGOs”.

He added: “It is good news that the standard of assessments is being addressed to ensure that courts can be confident that the placement with a relative is well founded and that they have the capacity to care for the child and meet their needs.

“High quality robust assessments are vital so that family court decisions are based on sound evidence about the child, potential carers, and all the options available.”

Since children’s social care is a devolved issue, the DfE’s proposals only apply to England and not to Wales, which has had its own regulations and guidance for special guardianship since 2005. A spokesperson for the Welsh government said it would “consider the UK government’s review of special guardianship and the changes they are proposing to make”.

Review findings

  • Of 154 respondents to the call for evidence, 35% said practitioners were not clear and consistent about the factors to take into account when considering whether an SGO was the most appropriate order (36% did not answer yes or no but suggested improvements should be made).
  • 71% said the assessment process for determining whether a prospective special guardian is suitable should be improved.
  • The main issue cited by those calling for improvements was that assessments of SGOs were being rushed due to the 26-week deadline for cases to be completed under the Public Law Outline.
  • 76% said advice and support should be provided to children, special guardians and birth parents before, during and after the award of special guardianship.
  • Most SGOs are made to carers who have an existing relationship with a child and who, with some appropriate support, “intend to and will be able to care for the child until [they turn] 18”.

More from Community Care

12 Responses to Law on special guardianship assessments to be reformed immediately

  1. yvonne December 17, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

    Can you tell me please is this England or England and Wales? Often things are refered to as if they cover both countries when in fact they do not relate to Wales as powers are devolved.

    • Gordon, Community Care December 17, 2015 at 5:10 pm #

      Dear Yvonne, we have clarified that these changes will apply to England only.

      • Diana December 17, 2015 at 9:57 pm #

        Sounds like he will make the assessment process even harder for SGO’s and the move will be more towards Foster2Adopt. No mention of looking first to Special Guardians and supporting them with training, like Foster carers get. They criticise but dont support or assist or help with potential behaviour issues or learning difficulties, just push back to SG.

  2. George Bragan December 17, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    Under this New order introduced under s115 The adoption and Children Act 2002 and also 14A-14G of The Children Act 1989. Chapter 4 The Adoption Law Book (p36) it states quite clearly the basic fundermentals of how the SGO order should be assessed. It would also appear that the direction of the law appears not to be looking at how the assessments should be adhered to; and previous articles have already explained and SGO assessments for babies should not be in the SGO equation; due to this New Order back in 2005 appeared to be for much older children due to the Goverments concerns of children in care woul;d have wanted to stay with a family member and the new order for SGO was to deal with this concern.

  3. Barry December 17, 2015 at 3:24 pm #

    What needs to be born in mind here is the reason for the supervision orders. It is probably the case that they have been made not because of doubts about the long term prospects for stability of the placement but in order to guarantee support to the guardians who may well have taken a child with issues and attachment problems etc

  4. linda December 17, 2015 at 4:56 pm #

    Supervision orders are pointless. They do not ensure any level of support. A good support plan created as part of the sgo assessment should be ample.

    • Diana December 17, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

      Supervision orders do not provide support. Social workers often dont know how to support Special Guardians, they are typically only used to dealing with Foster carers or Adoptees. Not the contact issues that often occur which are typical for SGO or the childs emotional/attachment issues which affect their education. Schools are also not geared up to deal with this and label these children as ‘disruptive’ but dont listen to their needs.

  5. Graham December 17, 2015 at 6:46 pm #

    Our assesment was extreamly personal and in depth. I dont think the LA could have done any more for the assesment. The serious lack of support for guardians however needs a major overhaul. Its pathetic and disgusting how guardiands are just dropped like a stone after the order is made.

  6. Doreen December 17, 2015 at 8:55 pm #

    I do agree with Linda. A SMART support plan should suffice. In my opinion there appears to be a lack of confidence in LA mainly by CG and thus sgo and so.

  7. Edna December 17, 2015 at 10:25 pm #

    After care should be in place at the end of a supervision order

  8. Dan Debz December 18, 2015 at 5:09 am #

    And what about deeply flawed Assessments done by so called independent SW’s and NHS Psychiatrists to suit Local Authorities and against Families regarding the future of vulnerable Adults?

  9. Joe December 18, 2015 at 8:54 am #

    The points made in the review are absoultely spot on but hopefully they will also address the issue of unrealistic timescales. Just yesterday we were ordered to do an SGO assessment of a family member not known to the child, living 120 miles away and for it to be filed the second week in Feb! No amount of written requests to the court highlighting the concerns, drawing their attention to the ‘non standard route’ or not recieving DBS checks back in that time have made any difference. It’s heartbreaking and often the families don’t know what they are getting themselves into.