A document endorsed by the President of the Family Division calls on child welfare professionals to adopt best practice guidance when considering special guardianship orders.

The guidance comes as the family courts begin to signal a significant shift away from the sector’s “good enough” standard of practice, which has been widely criticised by child welfare experts for being inadequate.

Judge Keehan, who wrote the guidance and who has just been promoted to Family Division Liaison Judge for London, also outlined a sharp increase in new child protection cases which was not in line with national data on the prevalence of child abuse, raising concerns about the motivations behind the increase.

Special guardianship orders (SGOs) allow courts to place children with someone other than their birth parents, when the parents cannot look after them. Most SGOs are made in favour of a family member known to the child.

The document offers information about the Working Group which helped to develop the guidance, the background to SGOs (which is very good) and a best practice guidance (Appendix E) on how to spot cases where SGOs are appropriate and how to process SGOs correctly.

The guide also mentions several other recommendations the Group says must be implemented, including a renewed emphasis on parental contact, better support for Special Guardians and a reduction in the use of supervision orders with special guardianship orders.

Other important areas related to child welfare the Group said it would investigate are mentioned, such as:

  • The increase in short-notice applications being made by local authorities when issuing applications for public law orders;
  • Whether guidance should be given on the appropriate use of s 20 / s 76 accommodation;
  • Whether child welfare proposals contribute to delivering enhanced benefits and outcomes for children and;
  • How children in family court cases can be engaged in the most effective way.

While it’s worth reading the whole document from start to finish (you’ll need a packet of Digestives and 12 tea bags – the guidance is 54 pages long excluding the bumpf), these are the sections we think are must-reads if you don’t have that many Digestives, or tea bags:

Executive Summary (Pages 12-13)

Short and sweet, this summary offers a clear outline of the guidance and the 10 recommendations the Group makes for SGOs.

Best Practice Guidance (Page 14)

We have only been saying this for ten years, but it’s great to see the family courts finally raising the bar and demanding that best practice be the “new normal” within child welfare work. The Guidance makes it clear that best practice must be applied when processing SGOs, and while the sector’s idea of best practice is still nowhere near good enough (for us at Researching Reform at least), it’s a good place to start.

Special Guardianship (Pages 17 – 26)

The first page in this section offers a good reminder that local authorities must always try to place children with relatives or someone known to the child before considering adoption. This is a legal requirement and not a discretionary policy.

This section also explains what a special guardianship order is, how it works and the complications within the current SGO framework which can compromise appropriate placements and disqualify eligible family members through no fault of their own.

And there is some discussion about poor assessments and variations of quality nationwide, as well as a sub-guide on how to ensure assessments meet best practice guidelines.

Options for placement with family and friends (Pages 66- 69)

This appendix outlines all the options available to child welfare professionals to enable SGOs with the child’s relatives or friends. We would encourage birth parents and their extended families to read this section, as it offers vital information on how SGOs can be secured and which options allow parents to retain parental responsibility.

Conclusion (Pages 33 – 34)

Another significant development is mentioned in the Conclusion by way of a recommendation, which says that where a child has little to no previous connection with a proposed special guardian, the child may live with the guardian on an interim basis before an SGO is made, if that is in the child’s best interests.

The guidance also recommends that the child’s plan should include clear provisions for the time he or she will spend with his or her parent(s) or former carers and the planning of and support for the contact arrangements.

You can read the message from the President of the Family Division and access the Guidance here.

Further reading

Section 20: Councils Bypassing Parents, Targeting Children To Secure Agreements

Children’s Right To Speak To Judges In Family Cases Shelved Because Of Cost – Former Family Court President 

Screenshot 2020-06-17 at 16.23.58