Special guardianship reforms do not address time pressures facing social workers

Ensuring that social workers have the time to do thorough special guardianship assessments have not been addressed by government reforms, warns John Simmonds

Photo: Flickr/Kayla Kandzorra

by John Simmonds

The amendments to the special guardianship regulations laid before Parliament a few weeks ago is intended to raise the bar in special guardianship court reports.

The amendments explicitly require a report to address any harm the child has experienced, or potential future harm from family members, including parents. It must also address the capacity of the prospective special guardians to address the child’s needs currently and into the future – with a degree of predictive accuracy associated with the latter requirement.

It might be hoped that all of these issues would have been at the centre of any court report prior to these amendments being made, whether they were explicitly required by regulation or not. But if that was not so then, the regulations will now require it.

But there is one substantial issue at the heart of these questions – the time, expertise and resources it takes to explore any of this, and how that time may not easily or adequately be available if the plan for special guardianship emerges during care proceedings.


The pressure of the required 26-week timescale in concluding care proceedings is a very specific part of this and does not help. It was a substantial issue raised in the review of special guardianship undertaken by the Department for Education.

Special guardianship was largely designed to result from an application being made by the prospective special guardian to the court based on evidence from the relationship already established between the child and the carers. The local authority’s responsibility is to prepare a written report to the court based on the evidence from that relationship and the care arrangements to date.

It was not expected that the making of the order would be the end of the story and the detail of on-going support is a required part of the report – indeed the special guardianship support regulations are very similar to those that apply to adoption.

For anybody considering taking on the weight of responsibility in creating a family life for a vulnerable child, they need to understand what that might mean through experience.

Fundamental questions

There are fundamental questions that carers need to consider. Who is the child and what are their needs? How will I deal with this? What (substantial) adjustments will I have to make to my life in becoming a parent again (or for the first time)? What resources will I need to enable this?

Where this is a family member – grandparents, aunts and uncles or adult siblings – it probably also means negotiating complex family relationships, rebuilding those relationships and placing the child at the centre as that happens.

This cannot be done in a theoretical way but must be rooted in direct experience. Just ‘being family’ is not enough.

No life-changing legal order for a child should be made without it being rooted in direct and meaningful experience established over time. All of these issues must drive the report to court and that is why time, expertise and resources are essential.

The context of the questions raised about the adequacy of special guardianship also cannot be ignored, especially the question of whether it is one of the causes in the very large drop in the number of adoption plans over the past two years.


The court judgments of Re B and Re B-S may be the direct challenge to adoption in requiring a full and detailed exploration of all the realistic options for the child. But the consequent and questionable use of special guardianship with family and friends carers is an important part of the current policy and practice debate.

It is very regrettable that this has resulted in something of a standoff between the alternatives of adoption and special guardianship.

A guide to giving Re B-S compliant evidence is available for social workers on Community Care Inform Children.

It could not be stressed more strongly that the children for whom these orders are being considered are a very vulnerable group. They deserve and need the highest quality of planning and decision making that focuses on their own individual circumstances in order to secure a stable and loving family life over the long term.

More needed

But that returns us again and again to the questions raised in Re B and Re B-S – has there been a substantial, early, expert and well-resourced exploration of the realistic placement options?

Where this includes placement with family members, as statute requires, is this based on planned, direct and substantial experience and evidence with the provision of focused support?

Only when that evidence is clear should an application for a special guardianship order be made and due consideration then given to the merits of that application.

Children deserve no less, but that requirement is far more than what the amended regulations provide.

John Simmonds is director of policy, research and development at CoramBAAF

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