Support fund extended to special guardians as government outlines adoption law changes

The government has said it will change the law to make sure the quality and stability of placements for children are prioritised in decision making

Children in special guardianship placements will be eligible for help from the Adoption Support Fund from April 1, the government has announced.

In a policy paper, published on Sunday, the Department for Education (DfE) outlined how the fund – which was launched in May last year to help adoptive families access therapeutic support and short breaks – will increase in size every single year in this Parliament, be accessible for adopted children until they are 21, and be open to those in special guardianship placements.

More than £16 million of the £19 million fund has been spent since its launch, the DfE said, and this had helped more than 4,700 adoptive families. In 2014/15, 5,330 children were adopted from care, while 3,520 left care with a special guardianship order. The use of special guardianship orders has increased 193% since 2010.

Increased funding

The fund will be increased to £21 million for 2016-17, and £28 million for the year after. The government has pledged to increase the fund every year until 2020.

However, Andy Elvin, chief executive of TACT, warned that the funding “looks low in relation to the numbers of special guardianship orders already granted and those progressing through the courts”. While he welcomed that the Adoption Support Fund would be accessible to special guardianship families, he remained hopeful “the DfE will revisit this and increase the money assigned”.

Children adopted via inter-country adoptions will also have access to the fund from 1 April, and adopted children will continue to have access to its support until they turn 21.

The extension of the Adoption Support Fund to special guardianship arrangements has been called for since its launch, with the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, now CoramBAAF saying children living under special guardianship “have often experienced similar trauma to those adopted from care”.

The DfE also outlined plans to appoint an expert working group to help create training for social workers by 2017.

The training will focus on improving the quality of permanence assessments of children and carers, enabling more robust and evidence-based decisions between different permanence options, and building skills to ensure court material is well prepared and clearly argued. The programme will also seek to help social workers present and defend cases in court effectively.

Legal changes

The government also intends to amend the Children Act 1989 so that the quality and stability of placements are prioritised when decisions are being made. The DfE said the move is due to “a lack of appropriate emphasis and analysis” on the quality and stability of placements in the wake of the Re BS judgment, which it believed created “a mistaken view that the legal test for adoption has changed and the bar that must be met for an adoption placement order to be made has risen”.

The law will also be changed so that prospective adopters are explicitly included within the categories of people a court and adoption agency must have regard for.

Currently, “the categories of people currently consist of relatives and ‘any such person the court considers relevant’. We will amend legislation to explicitly add prospective adopters in this list, to ensure what the child’s relationship with them is also considered in all cases where the child has been placed with them,” the government said.

The legislation to make these changes will happen “as soon as possible”, the government said. The details about the change followed an announcement made earlier this year. At the time, experts were split about whether the change would impact permanency decisions.

Regional adoption agencies

The DfE added that it will continue to support the development of regional adoption agencies so that every local authority is in one by 2020 and that £14 million will be used to support transitions across 2016-18.

Hugh Thornbery, chief executive of Adoption UK, said regionalisation “must not be seen as solely a mechanism to save money”.

He said: “All regional plans must be based on the best understanding of what works and by putting the child’s needs at the centre of the process and, then how to replicate that. We must build on the excellence that currently exists in the independent not-for-profit adoption sector and in some local authorities.”

Nicky Morgan, education secretary, called the plans a “watershed moment”.

“We are explicitly setting out how we will transform the lives of our most vulnerable children by making sure they get the opportunities they deserve,” Morgan said.

“This radical new vision will make sure decisions rightly prioritise children’s long-term stability and happiness, so that children are placed with their new family as quickly as possible – helping them fulfil their potential and get the very best start in life.”

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