Impact of the Family Justice Reforms on Front-line Practice Phase Two: Special Guardianship Orders
Phase one of this research investigated the impact of the family justice reforms on local authority practice. Through interviews with local authority and Cafcass professionals1, it explored how local authorities are working to implement the revised Public Law Outline (PLO). It also looked at professionals’ perceptions of the types of orders for which local authorities (LAs) are applying and which the court are granting. Some of the changes discussed were an increased use of Special Guardianship Orders (SGOs) over recent years, and SGOs being used in a wider range of circumstances.
This finding is consistent with recent statistics showing the increase in the proportion of children leaving care through an SGO, from 5 per cent in the year ending 31 March 2010 to 11 per cent in the year ending 31 March 2014 (Department for Education, 2014a). As well as an increase in children leaving care for Special Guardianship, there also appears to be an increase in cases arising during (or sometimes prior to the initiation of) care proceedings (Wade et al, 2014).
Wade and colleagues (2014) estimated that between 2006 and 2012, 13,000 SGOs were made, of which almost a quarter were made either as an alternative to or as an outcome of care proceedings2. This is in line with the requirement for local authorities to explore placement within the family network before considering a long-term placement with strangers (Department for Education, 2014b).
During the period that Wade’s research covered (2006 to 2012), there was no evidence of a reduction in the number of adoption orders being granted, suggesting that there had been an overall increase in permanent placements for children (Wade et al, 2014). This is consistent with the rise in the number of children adopted between 2010 and 2014 (a 58 per cent rise between 2010 and 2014) (Department for Education, 2014a).
More recently, however, there has been a sharp decrease in the number of placement orders being made; between 1 September 2013 and 30 June 2014 the number of placement orders granted by the court decreased by 54 per cent, from 1,650 to 750 (Adoption Leadership Board, 2014). This has been attributed, in part, to Supreme Court and Court of Appeal judgments in 2013, most notably Re B and Re B-S, which appear to have led to a perception that higher thresholds are required when seeking adoption for children (Bentley, 2014).
The conversations that informed phase one of this deep-dive study, and information from Department for Education seminars with lawyers, identified a number of challenges that LAs are facing in relation to SGOs, including difficulties in identifying family members early in proceedings; concerns around the assessment of and support provided for special guardians; SGOs being used for younger children than previously; SGOs being used when there is no existing bond or relationship between the child and carer. These issues were all also noted by Wade et al (2014; Wade 2015).
The Department for Education commissioned Research in Practice to undertake further research to explore local authority practice and decision-making with regard to SGOs to gain a deeper understanding of changes in local authority professionals' perspectives of how SGOs are being used since the reforms compared to previously.