What are Special Guardianship Orders?
It is sometimes the case that neither parent is regarded as suitable to be the carer of a child. This can happen when the relationship between parents breaks down – but can also occur if the parents have never been together, or even if they are still together.
This decision can be made for a variety of reasons such as:
- drug or alcohol abuse
- mental health problems or learning difficulties preventing proper care being given to
- the child
- chaotic or unstructured lifestyles
- domestic abuse between the parents or towards the child
- criminal behaviour
Removal of the child into care and possible adoption
If such behaviour continues and the child is considered 'at risk', emotionally or physically, the Social Services department of the local authority will consider taking care proceedings. Such action will often see the child being removed from the parents and placed with foster parents. Sometimes, particularly in the case of a child under the age of four being placed for adoption, this frequently means a severance of the link between the child and the parents.
There is, however, an alternative solution for the child which can be used in suitable cases. This is known as a Special Guardianship Order.
Special Guardianship Order (SGO)
A SGO is an order appointing one or more individuals to be a child's 'special guardian'. It is a private law order made under the Children Act 1989 and is intended for children who cannot live with one or both of their birth parents and who would benefit from a legally secure placement.
It is a more secure order than a residence order because a parent cannot apply to discharge it unless they have the permission of the court to do so. It is, however, deliberately less secure than an adoption order because it does not end the legal relationship between the child and the birth parents.
Who can apply for a SGO?
A SGO cannot be made to a person under the age of 18 and must not be the parent of the child in question. An application can be made by one person or jointly with another.
The following people may apply to be special guardians:
- any guardian of the child
- a person with a Child Arrangements Order or a Residence Order for the child
- anyone with whom the child has lived for at least three years out of the last five years
- anyone with the consent of the local authority if the child is in care
- a local authority foster parent with whom the child has lived for at least one year preceding the application
- a relative of the child with whom the child has resided for at least one year immediately pre-dating the application for a Special Guardianship Order
- anyone who has the consent of those with parental responsibility
- anyone who has permission of the Court to make the application
When can a SGO be made?
The court must decide:
- that a special guardianship order is the most appropriate order to make in the best interests of the child
- whether, in addition to the making of a special guardianship order, a contact order should be made to a third party (which might include a parent)
- whether any existing court orders should be varied or discharged
The court must also consider a very detailed report from the local authority dealing with the suitability of the applicant and any other matters that the local authority consider relevant before it can make a SGO.
What is the effect of a special guardianship order?
Once a SGO is made:
- it overrides any existing care order or related court orders
- it confers parental responsibility, which can be exercised to the exclusion of any other person with parental responsibility apart from another special guardian
- the special guardian has responsibility for day to day decisions relating to a child's care and upbringing
- the order allows a special guardian to remove a child from the UK for up to three months without the permission of anyone else with Parental Responsibility or the leave of the court
- the court can give permission for the child to be taken out of the jurisdiction for longer than three months
- the court may give permission for the child to be known by a new surname
Most important of all, it gives the child security and a long term placement. It may also, unlike adoption, help to give the young person links to their birth parents, if deemed appropriate.
Continuing support of the local authority after a SGO is made
Each local authority must make arrangements for the provision of special guardianship support services which may include:
- financial assistance (means tested)
- assistance with the arrangements for contact between a child, his/her parents and any relatives that the local authority consider to be beneficial
- such assistance can include cash to help with the cost of travel, entertainment, and mediation to help resolve difficulties on contact
- respite care
- counselling, advice, information and other support services
- services to enable children, parents and special guardians to discuss matters, this might include setting up a support group
- therapeutic services for the child