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.
“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”.
- 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”.