Reform special guardianship to protect and support children and their carers

02 August 2019

A call for significant changes to Special Guardianship Orders (SGOs) includes ensuring family members who might become carers have direct experience of looking after the child before the court order is made.

A new research review shows that SGOs provide children with a safe, permanent home with family members when the court decides they cannot live with their birth parents.

But local authorities and the courts face major challenges in providing special guardians with adequate preparation and support for the long-term consequences of this life-changing responsibility, leading to avoidable and significant stress that is potentially damaging to children’s futures.

The review calls for significant changes including:

  • 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. 
  • Ensuring that prospective special guardians have direct experience of caring for the child before making a Special Guardianship Order, 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 review was commissioned by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory in response to the Court of Appeal’s call for authoritative, evidence-based guidance for the use of SGOs.  It was led by Dr John Simmonds from CoramBAAF and Professor Judith Harwin from Lancaster University.

Special guardians – usually family members – have parental responsibility for the child in their care, but unlike adoption, the basic legal link between the child and their birth parents is preserved. The use of SGOs has rapidly increased - between 2010/11 and 2016/17, more than 21,000 children had an SGO made at the end of their care proceedings.

The review examined the research evidence on special guardianship, informed by the views of special guardians themselves, and sought the views of lawyers, social workers and Cafcass Guardians. It found that special guardianship is a stable option for children, the majority of whom fare well in relation to their safety, well-being and developmental progress.

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

Lisa Harker, Director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory 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.”

Dr John Simmonds, Director of Policy, Research and Development at CoramBAAF said:

“Children who cannot be cared for by their parents because of significant abuse and neglect need a robust plan that ensures their safety, needs and development are secured for the rest of their childhood and beyond. Special guardianship is one such option and typically involves placement with family members such as grandparents. Our research review has explored the current evidence, and this reinforces the message that Special guardianship is an important positive option. But there are a number of priority issues that need urgent reform to ensure that these life-changing plans are child and carer centred. The evidence indicates that currently they are not.”

Professor Judith 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 a SGO before the child has lived with the carer is hard to justify and should stop.”