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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”