Two young children, a brother and sister, settled with their foster carer. Everyone was surprised and delighted at how much progress they had made in such a short time, and the carer was happy to continue with their placement.
Then everything changed. Suddenly, the carer was told she was uncaring, selfish and not committed. She was told the children would be removed unless she bowed to local authority pressure to take out a Special Guardianship Order (SGO).
This is the human story behind growing fears that the misuse of SGOs is tantamount to permanence on the cheap, rather than the best option for a child or young person.
SGOs came into use at the end of 2005. Their intention is to provide permanency for a child or young person where that child is already part of the family, usually their birth family, and increasingly with foster carers.
The child is no longer looked after by the council, which nevertheless retains a duty to provide ongoing, but unspecified, support.
The numbers have shot up dramatically recently: 3,330 SGOs were issued between April 2013 and March 2014, compared with 1,290 in 2010. The number of babies has tripled in the last two years, rising from 160 in 2012 to 520 in 2014.
This contrasts with a significant fall in the number of adoptions in the past year, following the Munby judgement that adoption is ‘a very extreme thing, a last resort’. It is claimed that cash-strapped local authorities, already consumed by the expense of complex court action and of foster placements, can save time and money by pushing for SGOs.
Special guardianship provides a distinctive permanence option, especially where a child would benefit from contact with their birth family and/or continuity within their foster family.Wade et al’s recent research demonstrates its efficacy in achieving stability.
Speaking at a conference late last year, John Simmonds, the director of policy, research and development at BAAF and one of the study’s authors, expressed extensive reservations about the use of SGOs.
“There’s a particular concern about making orders where the relationship between the child and the special guardians has not been established,” he said. He emphasised “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.”
Concern among foster carers is building. Some have been told that they must either take out an SGO or the child will be moved. They perceive this as nothing short of blackmail.
Also, SGOs are being introduced far earlier than should be the case, before a full assessment of the child’s needs.
Further, adequate support packages are not guaranteed, leaving carers feeling vulnerable, yet Wade et al found one third of SGO carers in their study failed to get a break and a quarter said they were tired “most of the time”.
Half said they were not properly prepared for the placement, while 40% felt under pressure from councils when making their decision, 20% defining that pressure as ‘strong’.
I have been consulted on four cases this year where the option of carers taking out an SGO was raised with short-term foster carers before the placement was six months old. When challenged, social workers told carers: “It’s our policy.”
In one case, the foster carer of a baby with multiple disabilities and health problems was pressurised to take out an SGO before medical assessments were complete, therefore it was impossible to predict the nature and extent of his future support package.
A year later and they were still no further forward, yet the pressure continued and eventually the carer was told the child would be removed from her care if she refused.
The DfE have begun a review of special guardianship. Despite the problems there are beacon examples of good local authority practice that deserve to be shared.
Until then, the suspicion lingers that too many decisions are being unduly influenced by financial expediency – and that cannot be good for children.
Alan Fisher is an Independent Children’s Social Work Consultant and former chair of Fostering Through Social Enterprise