Call for 'significant changes' to special guardianship orders

By David Harris

| 01 August 2019

A review has urged that "significant changes" should be made to guidance on special guardianship orders (SGOs), including a requirement that the child has been looked after by the proposed carer.

Special guardianship orders are increasingly being used by the family courts. Image: Galinast/Adobe Stock

The special guardianship review was commissioned by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory in response to a Court of Appeal call last year for "authoritative, evidence-based guidance for the use of SGOs". 

It finds that SGOs provide children with a safe, permanent home with family members - preserving the legal link with the birth parents but handing parental responsibility to the relatives.

However, it concludes that reform is needed and makes a number of recommendations which it believes will benefit children and carers.

The research comes against a background of increasing use of SGOs to place children with relatives following care proceedings, in cases where the child did not have a pre-existing strong relationship with those relatives.

The Court of Appeal judgment raised questions over whether such orders are being made in the best interests of children and carers.

The case considered whether a judge had been right to decline an SGO in favour of paternal grandparents and refer the case back to the local authority for further assessment. 

The research was gathered including through five focus groups held with 44 family justice practitioners, including lawyers, social workers and Cafcass Guardians.

The review's co-producers, Judith Harwin, professor in socio-linguistics at Lancaster University and John Simmonds, director of policy at Coram BAAF, were told that preparation for SGOs was "almost non-existent" and "ad hoc". 

Harwin said: "Special guardianship is an immensely important route out of the care system.

"This review confirms what we have known for too long. We expect too much of special guardians and need to ensure their entitlements to preparation, advice and support match those available to foster carers and adopters.

"The practice of making an SGO before the child has lived with the carer is hard to justify and should stop."

Despite rising numbers of such orders, there is a "widespread dissatisfaction and frustration with the assessment process", the report adds.

This is partly because although courts have a duty to complete proceedings within 26 weeks, family members are often not identified until after proceedings have commenced. 

The research found that this "results in unworkable and professionally compromising timescales". 

Practitioners want prospective guardians to be identified as early as possible in the process so they have time to receive sufficient training and preparation, the report states, adding that professionals do not want assessments concluded until this process has been completed.

The recommendations include: 

  • Increase focus on working with family members who might become the child's special guardian before care proceedings commence 
  • A statutory minimum amount of preparation and training for prospective special guardians
  • Ensure that prospective special guardians have direct experience of caring for the child before making an SGO, evidenced by a thorough assessment of suitability
  • Ensure that support services are available locally and align with entitlements for adopters and foster carers such as parental leave, housing priority and financial support
  • Address the glaring gap in research on children and young people's views and experiences of special guardianship
  • Undertake research to address the challenge of how best to ensure safe and positive contact with birth parents and the wider family

The Family Justice Council is expected to publish guidance on special guardianship later this year and interim guidance was issued in May 2019.

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