Since the conviction of Special Guardian Kandyce Downer for the murder of little Keegan Downer there have been reports that the government has tightened up the assessment process for special guardians in the hope of preventing this sort of thing happening again (see here for example in The Times [paywall]: Adoption Loophole Is Tackled After Baby’s Death. In fact although Keegan died last September, the review of SGOs was already underway before then, probably in part as a result of the tragic death of another child under special guardianship (Shanay Walker), along with representations made by adoption organisations (BAAF).
The review led to the tightening of regulations in February of this year, some months before the conviction of Kandyce Downer. The Serious Case Review about Keegan Downer’s death has yet to conclude, although it seems likely that the bulk of the work has been done and the reviewers have been awaiting the outcome of the trial before finalising their report.
Until the SCR has been published we don’t really know where the blame lies (if indeed it can be laid anywhere other than at the door of Kandyce Downer). We don’t know where the child protection system went wrong or indeed if this death was preventable in the sense of it having been possible for this to have been foreseen. Maybe the special guardianship assessment was weak, maybe not.
There has been a lot of rhetoric about the risks of SGOs in the wake of this case (not just in the wake of this case but especially so), for example :
Hugh Thornbery, chief executive of Adoption UK, has urged the Government to tighten the laws surrounding SGOs, which he said have increasingly been seen by local authorities as a “cheap option” even though it leaves children in “potentially risky placements”…
“Some may say SGOs are a quicker and less costly alternative to adoption at a time when councils’ budgets are cut to the bone but we believe this flies in the face of good practice and common sense,” said Mr Thornbery.
“By taking a child from birth parents and placing them with someone who is only ‘just good enough’ totally fails to understand the quality of parenting that these children will need.”
In the same article containing the above Adoption UK quote, we hear Coram BAAF making a similar complaint.
John Simmonds, director of policy research and development at Coram BAAF, said that a lack of time and resources leads to local councils making rushed decisions about placing children with special guardians. “There is a very real risk that by placing a child with a special guardian, the child can lose contact with the local authority very quickly after the order is made,” he said.
Whilst I welcome the tightening of the assessment process for SGOs these criticisms are criticisms of SGOs themselves not just the assessment process. I’m not sure of the logic in suggesting SGOs are inappropriate because they lead to a loss of contact with the LA very quickly – once an adoptive order is made the same applies and complaints about the lack of support for adoptive parents are commonplace (and acknowledged in recent government policy).
Although the subbie who wrote the headline for the Telegraph article I’ve been quoting initially made the slightly large mistake of referring to Kandyce Downer as a foster carer (thus rather missing the point of the article! It’s now corrected), the article correctly places all this in the context of the supreme irritation of some in the Adoption establishment at the impact of Re B and Re B-S, saying :
The National Adoption Leadership Board warned that the two judgements “resulted in inaccurate assumptions” drawn by local councils about where to place vulnerable children. Following the judgements, the number of adoptions has halved while the use of SGOs has rocketed, with 3,330 issued between April 2013 and March 2014, compared with 1,290 in 2010. This rose again to 5,300 in 2015.
Which leads me to ponder about something that ministers did NOT do in light of the SGO review (which I confess I am not completely au fait with) : they amended the guidance on assessment but didn’t amend the task set out in statute for the judges. This is interesting, because whilst an SGO assessor is now directed to have a more acute focus on the longer term capacity to care and meet a child’s needs as a SG, there is no equivalent refocusing of judicial attention. Of course a judge will be looking at a more honed and robust SG report (one assumes) if it has been written post Feb 16 and one would hope that would help a judge make better decisions. But it would have been open to ministers to take steps to require a judge to apply the expanded ACA 2002 welfare checklist to decisions about special guardianship as well as decisions about adoption. But they didn’t do that. And now I’ve thought of it I’m sort of wondering why…wouldn’t it have closed the loop and forced everyone to sing from the same hymn sheet? Perhaps the answer is that secondary legislation to amend the regulations is easy and quick, whereas amendments to primary legislation are more complex and slow – the SGO Review Report promises that the government will “Actively consider whether further changes are required to the legal framework that underpins decision making around special guardianship”. Perhaps that is not abandoned as much as it is just not yet actioned, but at the moment it seems rather anomalous.