Speaking at a conference on the subject in London, John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at BAAF, said that while he believes the design of SGOs is “largely right”, there are elements that are “not fit for purpose”.
An SGO is an order made by a court under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which gives legal status for non-parents, meaning a child or a young person can live with them permanently, and they are no longer the responsibility of the local authority.
Their use has rocketed in recent years – with 3,330 SGOs issued between April 2013 and March 2014, compared with 1,290 in 2010.
They are predominantly used to give relatives of a child legal responsibility for their upbringing, but are sometimes granted to foster carers already looking after the child.
The process for granting an SGO assumes a prior relationship between the carer and child so does not require as thorough an assessment of suitability as an adoption placement.
However there is evidence that children have been placed with relatives with little prior involvement with the child, and concerns that, even where a prior relationship exists, the capacity of the guardians to provide a suitable environment for the child’s development may be lacking.
“The strengths and vulnerabilities of [SGO] carers may be very different to those of adopters and foster carers,” Simmonds who co-authored a government-commissioned research report on SGOs published last month, said.
“That, for me, raises questions about whether we have got preparation, assessment, and support [for SGOs] right.”
Simmonds said a 2008 study found that parenting capacity at time of placement is a hugely significant factor in identifying future outcomes for children.
“I think there are problems identifying which [SGO] placements are likely to run into difficulties,” he said.
“That issue about parenting capacity at time of proceedings, I think re-emphasises the importance of preparation, assessment, and having the time and resources to do that well in a similar way to that in foster care and adoption.
“I don’t think that the design of SGOs is fit for purpose in that sense.”
Simmonds said he would like to see a number of issues looked into as part of a review into the SGO framework, including whether the assessment process is fit for purpose and whether it should remain a private law order.
“There’s a particular concern about making orders where the relationship between the child and the special guardians has not been established,” he said.
“I feel very uncomfortable with that issue.”
Simmonds also raised concerns about the level of support available for special guardians and the children they care for.
He said that, when creating the orders, the previous Labour administration intended that support would be provided at an equivalent level to support for adoptions, so that decisions could be made in the best interests of the child – without an “unhelpful incentive”.
But he fears the scheduled national introduction of the government’s Adoption Support Fund next year, which aims to boost support available to adoptive parents and children to reduce the likelihood of placement breakdown, is likely to alter this balance.
“Unfortunately I think that with the Adoption Support Fund at the moment, that link [of equivalency] has been broken.
“It’s not something that applies to special guardianship families and I think the national roll-out will create real tensions.
“It’s a very difficult issue and something the Department for Education does need to think very seriously about.”
The evidence so far is that relationship breakdown in SGOs is at a relatively low level, but the fact that the orders have only been available for around a decade means that many of the children subject to them have not reached their teenage years – the time that adoption studies have shown breakdown to be most likely to occur.
The conference also heard from Gill Kilbane, adoption and post-permanency team manager at London Borough of Brent Council, who said that the number of SGOs granted in her authority has followed the national trend – with 35 made last year (2013/14), compared with just five in 2007/08.
“With the growth in SGOs there is a clear relationship with the need for support,” she said.
“It is going to be a huge growth area.”
She added the authority is also facing increased pressure on services as a result of birth parents [of children on SGOs] who want to get involved with the child again and go to court to apply for a contact order.
“Facilitating supervised contact is becoming absolutely huge,” she said.
“We know what the contact arrangements are at the point of the support plan but what we are starting to see now is a number of special guardians coming back to us much later down the line because their relationship with the birth parents has broken down and they want us to get involved again in supervising contact, or mediation work.”
The authority is also experiencing cases of birth parents going to court to apply for contact orders.
“One case that has been running for two years has taken on a life of its own,” she said.
“Before agreeing to contact the judge made an order for story work for the children because they needed to understand what had happened before contact.
“And then there was a named worker for supervised contact.
“The boys are now teenagers and their behaviour is deteriorating and it's still in the court arena.”
She said there was another case of supervised contact of three hours a month being made.
“When you have a team of just three social workers it's becoming a struggle,” she added.