Not So Special Guardians

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.

17 thoughts on “Not So Special Guardians

  1. Suddenly Mummy

    “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”

    In the case of adoption, supervision does stop after the AO, but the AO can’t be applied for until the child has been in the adoptive placement for a number of weeks (can’t remember the exact number) and usually takes months to actually get. This means that for the first few months at least, the new adoptive family should be getting regular visits by social workers. In reality, I have known many adoptive families where the AO has taken a year or longer to get for various reasons – supervision is occurring all through this time. Some adoptive parents delay applying for the AO precisely because they value this ongoing support and are reluctant to ‘go it alone’ until a sensible package of post-adoption support has been agreed. As far as I see it, that’s the logic of that argument. There have been concerns about the rise in the number of SGOs for a while before Keegan Downer came to public attention and, in particular, the number of SGOs being issued with a supervision order. I don’t believe these concerns are about SGOs per se (they can be an excellent permanence option for many children), but about the potential for their inappropriate use. And may I say thank you for noting that referring to Kandyce Downer as a foster carer was a ‘large mistake’ – we foster carers appreciate the distinction precisely because of the massive difference between the levels of pre-approval assessment, ongoing training and supervision found in foster care as opposed to SGOs.

  2. Suddenly Mummy

    May I add my apologies if I appear to be teaching you to suck eggs in my previous comment! While I am sure you are well aware of adoption processes etc, maybe all your readers are not!

    • Suddenly Mummy,
      Not at all – it’s a very good point which I almost (and should have) included. It is of course true that the cliff edge is often further away in adoption cases, which I suppose must be protective – but there is still a cliff edge for many carers.
      I do think that there were (are) weaknesses in the SGO assessment process, but this is mainly because of the need for them to be shoehorned into an artificially short timescale, whereas foster carers and adopters are assessed at leisure and then matched specifically. Also, because in my experience some sGO assessments are conducted without a proper look at the wider context and balancing of alternative options – they are just a list of answers to the points in the regs not a holistic assessment. That is to do with the structuring of assessment teams in some LAs into discrete silos. It does not make for rounded assessment.

      • HelenSparkles

        Discreet teams aren’t the issue, often the independents is hugely valuable, it just needs good communication.

  3. Winston Smith

    Unhappily an SGO is often seen as a Cheap, easier to obtain, form of Forced Adoption.

    We have seen cases of where Forced Adoptions are going to be difficult to obtain, or even leave to appeal against a placement order being granted by the RCJ, an SG being sought instead.

    But they were intended to be for relatives or friends of the family and NOT for fosterers,

    They are also used in Fost-Adopt schemes where a Forced Adoption would be difficult to obtain.

    Significantly it is adoption agencies who are objecting.

    The answer is better vetting of foster carers and limiting SGs to what they were intended for.

  4. HelenSparkles

    Independence even…

  5. HelenSparkles

    Adoption Order applications can be made once a child has been in placement for 3 months I believe, then it is of course down to the court timescales. Most of the LAs I have worked in or with provide post SGO support for 2 years, this isn’t just £. It’s too late for me to look through regs but this would be longer than Adoption Order being granted usually.

    Post Re B-S, I do think that some kinship placements have been made which are not robust enough to offer children who have experienced trauma and abuse reparative care. Most SWs I know viewed them as placements which needed to be “good enough” whereas adoption or fostering is uber parenting/parenting plus, whatever you want to call it. Timescales are an issue for assessments but I would argue it is a also a very different assessment to that of a fostering or adoptive carer. It may be the same child but it isn’t the same task, because it accommodates a very different dynamic when you are assessing someone with an existing relationship with the child. Obviously that can be positive or negative. If a psychologist can assess a parent or child in one meeting, I don’t know why a SW wouldn’t be considered capable of completing an assessment (assessment being THE thing we do all the time) in timescales for court.

  6. Julie Doughty

    The changes are only in regulations and guidance to local authority social workers in England. Parliamentary process would be needed to change the Act as applied by the judiciary. Yes judges should be evaluating assessments in England in accordance with the new guidance, but has anyone told them about it?

  7. Hi,
    I know very little really about SGO assessments so apologies if what I say is over simplified but I am struck by the fact that, in situations I have come across via different assessment routes (as an expert witness) the proposed SG has quite frequently been a family member and as such has often been connected/exposed in some fashion to at least some of the difficulties experienced by the birth parent (living in the same family, exposure to abuse etc). Family histories are often extremely complex with multi-generational difficulties and I am not sure this always gets fully recognised or fully assessed in such a way that therapeutic input is available for those potential SG where there may be outstanding family problems that really need some work.
    I have also done some assessments in SGO matters where a specific request for assessment of therapeutic needs of the children and of the SG has been made the the LA. This does seem to have the potential to be very useful as assuming that CAMHS will be able/willing to just step up if required in future seems a rather risky option and as we all know, if the child has attachment problems etc then the SG is highly likely to need proper training and support such as would be available to foster carers or adopters (in theory anyway)

    • SG Support plans are crucial. So often LAs neglect to produce them – and advocates fail to pursue it before the order is made – but like an EHC plan they are the only way to create a binding duty on an LA to DO ANYTHING! I would NEVER let an SGO be made in favour of my client unless and until the SGO SUPPORT PLAN IS NAILED DOWN!!!

      • HelenSparkles

        I agree, there should always be a support plan where one is needed, I do wonder though – why it is the LA funding because that is likely to be the barrier. Therapy is health, LAs can’t afford to fund it privately any more than anyone else can? This is just a thing I wonder generally, and I also wonder why, if there isn’t support for birth families in the community (which could be therapy for e.g) where the parity is in service provision. These are all wondering things because it seems that LAs have no £.

    • HelenSparkles

      If CAMHS has a LAC team (as it does in my area) it is available to SGO carers , all of those carers can have prep training in my area as well as access to specialist training. Should carers remain as kinship carers, they are supervised as and have to meet a set of standards (TSD) which foster carers also work to, this is support and educative rather than testing. Whilst I know Lucy is discussing SGOs here, it would be interesting to know what proportion of carers remain under fostering regs for the supervision/support.

  8. WantsToRemainIncognito

    Excellent article Lucy, my comments cross Helen’s and Lisa’s (both 9 May above). In my experience by far and away the least understood part of Special Guardianship is the provision of support services… Except for money.

    Support services must be provided by every relevant Local Authority in accordance with Section 14F(1) Children Act 1989 and Regulation 3 Special Guardianship Regulations 2005.

    It was entirely envisaged that SGO Support Plans would (accepting that the LA would be lead) be a tool for multi-agency support for the family… which is entirely reflected in Reg 4(1) which even helpfully lists who “may provide special guardianship support services”.

    It is almost entirely missed that:

    Reg 12(3): “Where it appears to the local authority that the person may have a need for services from a Local Health Board, Primary Care Trust or local education authority, they must, as part of the assessment, consult that Local Health Board, Primary Care Trust or local education authority.”

    * I would bold the must if I could.

    Which is kindly repeated in Reg 14(3) “Where it appears to the local authority that the person may have a need for services from a Local Health Board, Primary Care Trust or a local education authority, they must consult that Local Health Board, Primary Care Trust or local education authority before preparing the plan.”

    If the child(ren) has needs which require the involvement of PCT services such as CAMHS then they must be consulted and brought into the SGO Support Plan and if there isn’t a local agreement as to provision… someone (the LA in all likelihood) must foot the bill.

    I have only once seen a report prepared in accordance with 12(4) of the 2005 Regs and yes, this is separate and discreet from the draft and final plans to be filed under regulations 14, 15(4) & 16(2).

    I tire of seeing support plans which say little other than “these needs will be met by universal services” then listing a sum of money which the Special Guardians will be paid each week.

    • HelenSparkles

      Thanks for looking all that up, or knowing where to find it, I haven’t had a chance. I did though have a view that anything can be written into an SGO, which made it a very useful order which included a support package. There probably should be a pot of £ for SGO support packages, as there is for adoption support, given that service provision agreement is so fraught and the LAs so cut.

    • Winston Smith

      The problem is a Special Guardianship is a Private Order, and designed as such, like a Residence Order, therefore no assistance.

      • Well, it’s not QUITE like a residence order. There are statutory provisions for Support Services as explained in previous comments. Those are not indefinite duties but there are duties for a LA to remain involved and provide those services IF (important) those services are set out in the plan at the point when the order is made. I suspect that the reason supervision orders were being made in some cases was not so much because there were concerns about child protection as much as an attempt to try and ensure the LA kept an eye on things and offered support if required. Which is in fact the sort of thing an FAO is supposed to to in theory – but as we all know a FAO is really a rather sad, toothless creature.

      • HelenSparkles

        Also there are residence order allowances and SGO allowances, so neither totally without assistance.

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