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Report on special guardianship orders urges changes in mindset, regulations and protocols

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has called for major changes to special guardianship orders (SGOs) to ensure that family members who become carers have direct experience beforehand of looking after the child concerned.

Its research review was undertaken in response to the Court of Appeal’s call for authoritative, evidence-based guidance for the use of SGOs. 

This concluded that the use of SGOs was not aligned with best practice in other forms of placement such as adoption and foster care, even though the children involved have experienced similar levels of abuse and neglect and the demands placed on special guardians are as great.

Research led by Dr John Simmonds from CoramBAAF and Professor Judith Harwin from Lancaster University found that local authorities and the courts faced major challenges in providing special guardians with adequate preparation and support for the long-term consequences of becoming responsible for a child, leading to avoidable and significant stress that is potentially damaging to children’s futures.

Use of SGOs has rapidly increased between 2010-11 and 2016-17, when more than 21,000 children had an SGO made at the end of their care proceedings.

But the review found special guardianship is a stable option for children, the majority of whom fare well in relation to their safety, well-being and developmental progress.

Observatory director Lisa Harker said: “Relatives are often the first to be considered when finding a loving, stable home for children who are unable to live with their birth parents but too often they are asked to care for children with significant emotional and behavioural difficulties, without sufficient support in place to help them to do so.

“This evidence review points to some serious gaps in assessment, preparation and support which need to be addressed.”

Mark Smulian

The Observatory's review led to the following recommendations:

Timely identification

  • Strengthen and resource the pre-proceedings phase of the Public Law Outline to identify and work with family members who might become long-term carers for the child.
  • Family group conferences should be used as a significant opportunity for undertaking this work.

Preparation and training for prospective special guardians

  • Ensure that prospective special guardians complete preparation and training to an agreed statutory minimum.

Assessments

  • Assessments should not be concluded until sufficient preparation has been completed.
  • Developing the skills and knowledge of children’s social workers in family placement must be prioritised.
  • Ensure that viability assessments are appropriately robust and undertaken by a skilled professional.
  • Ensure that the local authority agrees a plan with the prospective special guardian about the assessment process.
  • Establish a robust protocol that ensures that the prospective special guardian has – or develops – a significant relationship with the child, including day-to-day care of the child, and that this forms the evidence base for the making of the Order.

Party status and legal advice

  • Ensure that prospective special guardians receive full information about the meaning, significance and responsibilities of the relevant legal Order in both the immediate and long term.
  • Identifying a solution to the issues of party status of prospective special guardians in care proceedings is a priority.

The impact of the 26-week timescales

  • Ensure that the timetable for concluding care proceedings within 26 weeks is complied with or that an evidenced-based timetable for an extension is agreed.
  • A resolution is needed about a legal order that would allow sufficient time for the prospective special guardian/s and child to live together before an SGO is made. This may include the extension in the use of Placement Orders or the introduction of interim SGOs.

The support plan for the child and the special guardians

  • Ensure that a support plan is based on a comprehensive evidence-based assessment of need as required by the Special Guardianship Regulations 2005.
  • Ensure that support services are available locally that comply with the Special Guardianship Support Regulations 2005. This must include alignment with entitlements that apply to adoption and/or foster care such as parental leave, housing priority and benefits.

Research priorities

  • Further longitudinal studies are needed to track children’s developmental outcomes of placements made under an SGO where these are the conclusion of care proceedings.
  • Children and young people’s views and experiences of special guardianship must be appropriately explored.
  • There is a pressing need for research on how best to ensure safe and positive contact with birth parents and the wider family.

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