Councils failing to properly advise and support special guardians, ombudsman finds

National complaints analysis finds recurring faults around financial assistance and information provision, with 'long-lasting consequences'

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Councils are leaving some special guardians out of pocket and “causing confusion” among others by failing to share information, a review by the local government and social care ombudsman has found.

The watchdog’s report, Firm Foundations, warned complaints about local authorities often revealed faults with potentially “long-lasting” consequences.

The analysis of all upheld complaints relating to special guardians between 2015 and 2018 identified recurring issues around financial assistance – some of them illegal – and information provision.

Special guardianship orders (SGOs), which often involve family members stepping in to look after children who cannot live with their birth parents, have become far more common over the past decade.

Ministry of Justice figures published in 2016 and cited in the ombudsman’s report revealed that more than 5,300 SGOs were made during 2015.

“Many guardians take on their role willingly, but with little notice and without understanding the consequences,” said Michael King, the local government and social care ombudsman.

“It is imperative, therefore, that these children and their guardians get the right support available to them – and without having to fight the system to get what they are entitled to.”

Bad advice

The ombudsman’s report found that in a number of instances councils had given incomplete or misleading advice to people planning to become special guardians.

These included failing to back up verbal guidance with written information, and in some cases giving completely wrong advice, such as informing somebody that they could not be their sibling’s special guardian.

The report cited one couple who were encouraged by a council to become special guardians, but were not kept informed about financial assistance policy changes. Social workers subsequently offered “confusing and mixed messages” as to whether the authority could support them to move into a larger home.

The watchdog found further “evidence of confusion” being caused by councils failing to carry out their duties around support planning.

Some had neglected to share final versions of plans with guardians – leading in one example to a misunderstanding about what holidays could be paid for. Others provided insufficient information as to what support people were eligible for, or did not carry out necessary reviews.

“We have found examples where guardians are left unclear about what support they will get, and for how long, after becoming special guardians,” the report said.

Financial faults

The ombudsman’s review also found councils at fault with regards to setting and paying financial support.

According to government guidance, special guardianship arrangements must not fail solely because of financial problems. Additionally, case law dating from 2010 established that local authorities must not by default pay special guardianship allowance as a fixed percentage of their fostering allowances.

In a decision published at the same time as the Firm Foundations report, the ombudsman found North Tyneside council must issue backdated payments to more than 170 families who received money based on a fostering allowance percentage.

The fault had been identified by one woman, ‘Mrs X’ in 2011, but despite setting things right in her original case it failed to update its policy, triggering a further complaint in 2015.

A spokesperson for the council said: “We have fully revised the way in which we calculate allowances and are writing to all special guardians to explain the changes that we have made in light of the findings of the ombudsman.”

In its review, the watchdog also found some councils had been paying special guardians flat fees rather than exercising their discretion to reflect individuals’ circumstances.

Positive steps

Among a series of recommendations, the ombudsman said that councils should provide “clear and unambiguous” advice and information, backed up in writing and transparent as to elements such as time limits.

The report also stressed the importance of keeping accurate records and using plain English.

King noted that many councils that had been found at fault had since taken “hugely positive steps” and developed “constructive learning cultures” including around support and guidance for social workers.

Responding to the ombudsman’s report, Cathy Ashley, chief executive of Family Rights Group charity, said the research reflected the experiences of people who call the organisation’s advice service.

“Special guardians are relatives and friends who have done the right thing by children who would otherwise be in the care system,” Ashley said.

“Too often local authorities then roughshod over their and the children’s needs, taking advantage of these carers’ good nature and lack of knowledge of the system.”

Protecting resources

Lucy Peake, chief executive at Grandparents Plus, which advocates for grandparents’ role in caring for their grandchildren, said she was “grateful” that the ombudsman’s report had highlighted special guardians’ concerns.

But she added that social workers need adequate resourcing, protected by legislation, as well as direction, in order to properly support special guardians.

“We have to be realistic that the real problem is that by only providing guidance, with no statutory entitlements for special guardians, central government is making them easy targets for cash-strapped local authorities to bend the rules,” she said.

“If the government is serious about supporting special guardians, they need to be recognised in policy and there needs to be investment at all levels.”

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5 Responses to Councils failing to properly advise and support special guardians, ombudsman finds

  1. Donna Battersby May 21, 2018 at 10:59 pm #

    I became a special guardian to my great nephew in 2015, i have no idea what im entitled to or what support i can get, so far the only people that have been involved in his care are his health visitor and his nursery, he has developmental delay due to his birth parents smoking weed. If we are saving the councils thousands of pounds surely they can help us in some way

  2. Helen May 22, 2018 at 6:32 am #

    My self and my husband look after how granddaughter who we love so much for last 8 years she has special needs we have just left to get on with it we get support from family and friends I think why can’t we be treat the same as foster cares and get what they get we have to paid for everything to help her with her needs I think it’s about time the government do something for all of us who look after how grandchildren we saved them thousands

  3. Nora Rudkin May 23, 2018 at 2:17 pm #

    We are Granparents & have sgo since 2013 for three children, one has leaning differculty , one has ptsd. All three Bradley traumatised.
    We were told because we agreed to take them & stoped s/s proceedings to put them in care ,
    then that made it a family arrangement . So we were told we were entitled to nothing no financial help no support.

    That’s just what we got NOTHING…we are 67 years & 73 years old Pensioners . It’s all very wrong that we get no help at all to just be left.
    I here other kinship careers going on about sgo alowence & there foster care payments it’s not far at all that they pick out people like us that have given up there own life to look after these kids .

  4. Florence Nightingale May 23, 2018 at 11:09 pm #

    Is it discrimination of family and friends when we take on the care of children”s family members and not been treated the same? I would have imagine that and SGO is and SGO? Surely the government should look into it and help us. My husband and myself have to give up our jobs to look after our grandson who has a disability and trauma.

  5. Caz May 28, 2018 at 11:26 pm #

    We are paternal grandparents of our 3 year old grandson, we got our SGO when he was 8months old, I dropped my work hours to part time to look after him, so lost approximately £200 a week also had to pay £70 a week childcare,
    While we were reg 24 SS paid towards his childcare as soon as SGO nothing!! What we did get was obviously means tested without taking care costs into account!!