Making best use of guardianships

Neil Puffett
Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Revised regulations on the use of special guardianship orders tighten criteria for assessing carers' suitability.

In the wake of concerns that some children have been placed at risk because of inappropriate special guardianship orders (SGOs), the government has taken action to improve the way they work.

SGOs are long-term care orders that last until a child is 18 and are usually applied to a family member or long-term carer. Their use has grown substantially in recent years - since 2010/11, the number of SGOs has risen by 98 per cent (see graphic).

But a review undertaken by the Department for Education into how they are used found that, in some cases where family members came forward late in the care proceedings process, assessments were too often rushed in order to meet court deadlines rather than the best interests of the child.

The review, published last September, found some children were being placed under a SGO even when there "remains some doubt about the special guardian's ability to care for the child long-term".

Procedural changes

As a result of the findings, the government committed to changing the procedures governing the use of SGOs, the amended regulations for which were published last month.

Reports prepared by local councils for the court, rather than simply setting out the prospective special guardian's relationship with the child, now require an assessment of the nature of the child's relationship with the prospective special guardian both at the time of the assessment and in the past.

The report must now address any harm the child has experienced, or potential future harm from family members, including parents. It must also consider the capacity of the prospective special guardians to address the child's needs, both currently and in the future. In addition, an assessment of parenting capacity is required.

Andrew Christie, chair of the health, care and additional needs policy committee at the Association of Directors of Children's Services, says the changes are as much about influencing the approach adopted by the courts as social workers.

"They will require some changes in practice, but these are changes that social workers have been pressing for anyway," he says.

"The predominant concern has arisen because courts appear, in some instances, to be going to great lengths to try and secure a connected person to be a special guardian. So I believe the new regulations are to be welcomed."

Christie adds that the changes could affect how many SGOs are made. "I believe they will put proper emphasis on ensuring there is a searching assessment of any proposed special guardian, to ensure they meet the needs of children and for the rest of that child's childhood," he says.

"What we have seen is a massive rise in the making of SGOs and a decline in numbers of adoption orders. These changes might arrest that swing to SGOs. We might see a decline in the number of SGOs."

Andy Elvin, chief executive of The Adolescent and Children's Trust, says the changes in regulations will make special guardian assessments much closer to assessments for foster care or adoption.

"The quality and the depth [of assessments] should be more akin [to fostering or adoption assessments]," he says.

However, Elvin says there is an issue with timings. He is keen for social workers to be allowed at least 16 weeks in which to conduct assessments to ensure that they are thorough - but there is no mention of timeframes in the revised rules.

If such provision was made, however, it could potentially come into conflict with the legal requirement, introduced in April 2014, for public law care proceedings to be completed within 26 weeks.

At the end of 2011, the average duration of care proceedings was 54.6 weeks. However, most recent government statistics show that during the third quarter of 2015 (July to September), the average time for the disposal of a care or supervision application was 28 weeks.

Longer proceedings

But this could be set to rise again if lengthier SGO assessments become the norm. Legislation allows for the 26-week time limit to be breached in "exceptional circumstances", and Elvin believes this could happen more often where SGO assessments are concerned.

His organisation and charity CoramBAAF will be providing training for family court judges, part of which, he says, will be stressing the instances where comprehensive assessment is vital.

"The point we will be making very strongly is that a case with a grandparent who has been looking after the child from day one is very different to an aunt they have only met a few times," he says.

"Many special guardians have not had an enormous amount of involvement [with the child].

"It might be the case that there are some SGOs where it takes five or six months to make the assessment. They [family judges] should hold with that and let it go. What is the point in finding a quicker option if it is not the best option?"

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