Judith Harwin, Professor in socio-legal studies and co-director of the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research, Lancaster University
The pandemic has brought with it yet more hardship for families across the nation. But amid increases in domestic abuse, parental and child mental health difficulties as well as deprivation and poverty, the impact on family courts has yet to be fully documented.
This is despite the integral role these courts play in intervening when it’s not safe for a child to remain at home. Without those opportunities to step in, more children could fall through the cracks, especially as the courts already expect an increase in child protection cases when lockdown ends and schools have reopened (schools are one of the main referrers to children’s services).
The challenges over addressing and lessening the effects of the expected increase in demand for children’s services are enormous. Against this background, the work of the recently launched independent review of children’s social care is especially important. Described as a “once in a generation opportunity to reform systems and services”, the review is intended to be “bold” and “ambitious”.
The important role of adoption in providing children who can’t remain with their birth parents with a safe and permanent new home is singled out for special mention in the review. Boosting adoptions was a 2019 Conservative manifesto pledge which aimed to reduce the number of children in foster and residential care. Kinship care, which enables children to be brought up by family and friends, is also named as a priority for support. There are around 220,000 children currently living in these private family arrangements with their extended family or with friends.
But the review is silent on a less well-known legal order: special guardianship. The order gives carers – mostly relatives – the main parenting responsibilities and lasts until the child reaches the age of 18. Introduced into law in 2002, it was designed for children who, by virtue of their age, the strength of existing family ties, their culture, religion or their status as unaccompanied asylum seekers, needed an alternative to adoption.
The benefits of special guardianship
Special guardianship has struggled under a veil of invisibility since it was first introduced. Yet in recent years there’s been a remarkable transformation in its use. Family courts have placed more children with special guardians than with adopters in recent years, keeping children in their family networks and enabling them to stay in contact with their birth parents. In 2020, 3,700 children were placed with special guardians and 3,440 were adopted.
National research led by Lancaster University shows this is a clear pattern. More than 21,000 vulnerable children now live with their extended family on a special guardianship order. The courts have played a part in this transformation by saying that adoption should only be used when “nothing else will do”. Put slightly differently, the message is that family ties matter and should be preserved and built on whenever possible, which was a principle of the Children Act 1989.
The research also shows that special guardianship brings many benefits to children. It gives children a stable and permanent home. Just 5% of children under special guardianship return to court because of further harm within five years. Though the figure for adoption is lower (0.007%), 5% is still considered a small proportion. Children cared for by special guardians also have better results at school than those who are looked after by children’s services (typically those in foster or residential care). For these children, belonging to a family and the anchor that it provides is highly valued.
But this isn’t the full picture. A powerful film made by Lancaster University with leading children’s charities Kinship and CoramBAAF, vividly illustrates the lack of support special guardians and their families receive and the struggles they face.
The decision to bring up a child in their wider family will change the lives of special guardians forever, yet they have no automatic entitlement to legal aid and don’t receive training. Special guardians aren’t a priority for rehousing either, and financial support from local authorities is patchy and variable. And, although guardians are entitled to therapeutic support from the Adoption Support Fund for the children in their care, only 9% received help in the past four years – the rest went to adopters. Unlike fostering and adoption, special guardians don’t get automatic employment leave when the child joins their family. The playing field is far from level.
Fixing the issues ahead
The first steps have been taken to address these serious issues and to improve practice by children’s services and the courts. But the agenda for change must go much further. A national coordinated strategy is needed, supported by key government departments that recognise the benefits special guardianship brings to children, their families and society.
On March 15, a landmark webinar brought together sector leaders (including the chair of the independent review of children’s social care) and publicly acknowledged the need for change. The webinar, hosted by Lancaster University in partnership with Kinship and CoramBAAF, launched their new film a second film which identifies top priorities for sector leaders.
But there’s still much more to do. If properly supported in law, policy and practice, special guardians can play a larger role in providing abused and neglected children with loving, safe and secure homes. Although it costs more to give special guardians the same range of support that adopters receive, in the long run, fewer children are likely to need foster care or residential care. Children flourish better when they remain with their relatives.
The benefits of supporting and promoting special guardianship alongside adoption far outweigh the merits of the current situation. As Britain begins to open up again, providing as many avenues of support for children as possible will be a matter of urgency.