Research published by NHS researchers in Birmingham has suggested that children who are made the subject of a Special Guardianship Order (SGO) could be at greater risk of abuse than the general population, despite such placements requiring carers to pass social care parenting assessments.

An SGO made in a family court places a child in the care of someone other than their parents, usually but not always a relative or someone the child already knows and has a relationship with. Many children are placed with their grandparents.

The research, published on 2 July, 2021, was carried out “to determine difference in frequency of referral for child protection medical examination (CPME) in children [in Birmingham in 2018] subject to special guardianship order (SGO), subject to child protection plan (CPP) or neither.”

The average age of the children included in the study at the time of the first child protection medical examination was 47 months (almost 4 years of age).

As well as raising concerns about abuse within special guardianship orders, the research also concludes that children subject to child protection plans might not be adequately protected from further abuse. Additionally, it found that children on child protection plans were 28 times more likely to come in to a clinical setting for a child protection medical examination.

The researchers concluded that children subject to special guardianship orders may be at higher risk of physical abuse, although less at risk than those subject to child protection plans.

The research is problematic for several reasons.

The study itself is small, and does not separate out other forms of court order, such as care orders, adoption orders, or foster placements.

It also cites bruises as the main type of non-accidental injury, which is controversial. This is because a growing number of social work academics are concerned that many bruises, particularly those found on pre-mobile children (those less than 6 months old) may be being wrongly classified as non accidental.

Distinguishing between accidental and non accidental bruising in children is particularly hard, and requires specialist knowledge. The research unfortunately does not clarify whether the professionals who diagnosed the bruises had received this training.

The researchers also note that children on a child protection plan are significantly over-represented when it comes to presenting for a child protection medical examination. Interestingly, they attribute this increase in examinations to professionals overseeing these child protection cases, who appear to be doing the referring for these examinations.

The study confirms a substantial data gap when it comes to children subject to SGOs and child protection plans, explaining as it does that the government is not required to record a lot of very significant details.

The conclusion for the study says:

“Our findings suggest that children subject to SGO may be at higher risk of physical abuse, although less at risk than those subject to CPP. At present, children subject to SGO can be invisible to services, with local authorities not required to keep records of these families. Services can only offer enhanced support if they are aware of the need.

Children subject to SGO should be considered as having additional need for support and be offered this routinely by health and social care services. At present, guardians are not entitled to the same level of assessment and support as adoptive parents, particularly if children were not previously in care.

There could be many more children subject to SGO experiencing abuse and neglect who do not require CPME. Further research is needed, detailing the frequency of SGO children presenting to social care with abuse and neglect so that the scale and nature of this problem can be accurately determined.

Only once we have a more nuanced understanding of the issues can we plan better assessments, support and monitoring for these vulnerable children.”

You can access the study here.

Many thanks to Dana for alerting us to this research.

Image by Cheryl Holt