Think tank calls for major reform of Special Guardianship Orders

Family members should have direct experience of looking after children before a Special Guardianship Order (SGO) is made, a think tank has urged.

The call forms part of a new research review carried out by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO).

The study has made several major recommendations to improve SGOs, which they believe are no longer fit for purpose.

SGOs were first introduced under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 for children who cannot live with their birth parents but would benefit from a legally secure placement. An SGO is different from an adoption order as it does not end the legal relationship between the child and his/her birth parent.

According to the latest data, the use of SGOs has increased to more than 21,000 between 2010/11 and 2016/17.

While research shows that in some instances an SGO provides a child with a safe, permanent home with family members, it can, in fact, have a damaging effect.

NFJO says its study found that local authorities and the courts face “major challenges” in providing special guardians with adequate preparation and support for the long-term consequences of legal guardianship, leading to “avoidable and significant stress that is potentially damaging to children’s futures”.

Commenting on the review, Lisa Harker, Director of the NFJO, 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.”

As a result, the review has called on the Government to implement a number of 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.

To read the report in full, please click here.