It is disappointing to learn that a study has identified that special guardianship assessments are being rushed in a bid to complete care cases within the 26 week deadline.
Such rushed assessment may lead to poor quality reports, unfavourable recommendations meaning that children are deprived of a chance to live with family members/close friends (or placed inappropriately) and also may mean that these proposed carers are not getting all the information they need to make an informed decision about whether they are happy to become the child’s special guardian and whether they have the right level of support that they will need to make that placement a success.
The 26 week deadline for care cases was introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014 to reduce the amount of time that children spent waiting for their future to be decided. The then President in Re S (a Child)  B44 Fam set out clear guidance as to when it might be necessary for there to be an extension of that timetable, one such example being when :
despite appropriately robust and vigorous judicial case management, something unexpectedly emerges to change the nature of the proceedings too late in the day to enable the case to be concluded justly within 26 weeks. Examples which come to mind are (a) cases proceeding on allegations of neglect or emotional harm where allegations of sexual abuse subsequently surface, (b) cases which are unexpectedly ‘derailed’ because of the death, serious illness or imprisonment of the proposed carer, and (c) cases where a realistic alternative family carer emerges late in the day
Yet it seems that is not being relied upon to allow the full and fair assessment to be undertaken.
The Court needs all the relevant information to allow them to make a final decision about what is in a child’s best interests.
The Court may need to consider a potential carer who is put forward late in proceedings and the deadline may need to be extended to allow an assessment if that person is deemed to be potentially positive and/or the Court feels that time might need to be allowed to test out a placement. The President has recently reiterated that there can be “ no question of abbreviating what is necessary in terms of fair process, and necessary to achieve the proper evaluation and furthering of the child’s welfare”
A special guardian is normally a family member or close friend who seeks to care for a child in the long term.
The effect of a special guardianship order is that the special guardian acquires parental responsibility which will be shared with the mother and any father who has parental responsibility. They are often considered in care cases when there is a family member who is willing and able to care for a child.
The recent study also found that there were very low levels of placement breakdown or return to Court when this type of Order was made confirming that it must generally be considered a very positive option for a child. However, the report did also identify a need for greater support and investment in special guardianship.
Whilst delay in determining a child’s future arrangements is generally contradictory to their welfare, the loss of a potential family placement in my view is likely to be more detrimental especially with the knowledge that a placement under a Special Guardianship Order has a better chance of success and therefore provides the child with better prospects in terms of achieving a long term and stable home.