Skip to main content

Investigating Special Guardianship: experiences, challenges and outcomes

Research report

Permanency planning has been a central driver of child welfare policy and practice since the identification of large numbers of children who had ‘drifted’ in care without the security, commitment and opportunity that ‘ordinary’ family life provides for most children (Rowe and Lambert, 1973). Permanence has a particular prominence in child care policy and practice across the U.K., a tradition that is not reflected in the rest of Europe in anything like the same way. Permanence is a complex concept but it typically combines both the psycho-social features associated with family life, the physical environment called ‘home’ and the legal framework that identifies who can exercise parental responsibility for the child.

When families find themselves in difficulty and parents cannot provide a safe, stable and appropriately child-centred environment, the state has a responsibility to support those families through a series of universal and specialist services with the aim of restoring the capacity of the parents to provide the parenting and environment the child needs. For some parents this might involve their children being cared for by the State as a temporary solution. For a very small number, their capacity to provide safe and effective parenting may be so limited that an alternative solution may be required and a range of options is possible including: most commonly, family and friends care in which the State may or may not be involved, stranger foster care or adoption. Each is typically associated with particularly groups of children, with age a significant determining factor, and each is associated with a distinctive set of characteristics and linked pathways (Sinclair et al., 2007). Each is also associated with a particular legal framework with Residence Orders, Care Orders and Adoption Orders the most commonly used to frame and enable the permanence plan. The Adoption and Children Act 2002, fully implemented on 30 December 2005, provided a further legal option in establishing permanency through Special Guardianship.

This report reviews the progress that has been made in implementing Special Guardianship, explores the extent to which it is meeting the needs of children and families whose permanency plans have become enabled by Special Guardianship and identifies a range of important new messages for policy and practice. The study draws on national datasets to describe the extent to which Special Guardianship is being used by local authorities and the courts across England, how its use varies from one area to another, the characteristics of the children and their families and assesses the risk of disruption to these arrangements and the factors associated with breakdown. At the heart of this study, however, is a three to six year follow-up of a sample of families in seven local authorities where a Special Guardianship Order (SGO) was made between 1 January 2006 and 31 December 2009. The follow-up study charts their experiences, describes the support they have received and assesses the progress and outcomes of children. It is therefore the first study to assess how well Special Guardianship is working for children and their guardians over the medium term and to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of this new legal order in providing permanence for children.