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Special guardianship orders were bought into effect in 2005. The idea was to take children from the care system and give them legal permanency with their existing carers. This order gives you parental responsibility for the child; this won't remove all responsibility from the birth parents, however their input can only ever be extremely limited. You may apply for a special guardianship if the child has been with you for over a year and you have been their guardian or if they have lived with you for at least three years out of five. The order was to help many older children in the care system, those who had no hope of ever being adopted and who would probably remain in care. It was also to help those children who are cared for by relatives.
In practice, this means that your child will no longer be the responsibility of the local authority. As a special guardian you will have a more defined responsibility for everyday decisions concerning your child. All of the important decisions regarding their upbringing, for example welfare issues and education will be your responsibility. The birth parents still have to be informed of life threatening illnesses, bodily disfigurements, for example, tattoos and if they are out of the country for more than three months at a time, aside from that the child would be your responsibility.
If you decide to make an application for a special guardianship, first of all you have to give the local authority three months' notice in writing. There will then be a lengthy assessment done by a social worker. They will interview you, your family and friends. They will build up a profile of you and your family. They will even ask for access to your bank statements and all other financial details. No stone is left unturned as they have to be sure that you will be able to support the child and give it stability.
There is usually a financial package available and you may be granted an allowance which can be paid for up to two years. This however is negotiable and there are not strict guidelines. The funding varies vastly from one authority to another.
My foster son had been part of our family for 5 years. He had lost all contact with his birth family through choice and longed to be my legal son and to be out of the care system. Unfortunately he was subject to a care order and I didn't have the option to adopt him. We were informed of the special guardianship order and decided to look into it. I was lucky that I had the full support of those around me and was being encouraged by the local authority. This is an account of our journey.
I tried to do some research into special guardianship. Unfortunately in 2008 there was very little information available to me. My son's local authority was quite vague as it was relatively new to them and they had only ever done one before us. There is a good website http://www.baaf.org.uk/info/lpp/special/index.shtml#whatreg
It offers some basic information and also some links for further reading. There are many sources of information now available but still very little in the way of personal experiences.
Armed with very little information, I arrived at the local authority's financial meeting. I was shocked at the lack of structure and the even more dismayed when I was asked what sort of remuneration package I was looking at. I would have much rather been offered a set package rather than have to haggle over money. I found this distasteful and embarrassing. It was eventually agreed that they would match my fostering allowance for 2 years.
The next step was to start my assessment. We had a lovely social worker who made the family relaxed and we began to look forward to and enjoy her visits. The assessment was conducted over about 2 months and was fairly intense at times.
An application is then filed with the courts with a basic report. You have to outline the care order that is in place for your child and give details of any previous orders and give details and dates. You are given the chance to express the reasons for applying for the special guardianship. My reason was simply that I loved my son and wanted to give him the stability that he longed for. I was then instructed to notify my son's birth parents of my intentions in order to give them the opportunity to contest my application. I was offered a solicitor to help me but I didn't feel that it was necessary as the application wasn't being contested and the whole process seemed relatively easy.
The local authority's full report and recommendation was sent to the courts and then we were given a date to attend. My son's social worker decided that he didn't need to attend the hearing and as a result the order couldn't be placed. The judge was very supportive of the application and invited us to come back on 3rd of January last year together with friends and family to rubber stamp the order.
It was a very special start to the year for us, my son was the happiest that I have ever seen him; I am shedding a tear just remembering the day as I write this. There was quite a crowd so we were taken into one of the larger court rooms. The event although just a formality was made special for us due to the judge's input, she said such touching things and offered us her blessing, wishing us all the best for the future. She was overcome with emotion herself which showed in the many photos that we took that day.
One of the reasons that I wanted to do this review was to share my experiences with any of you who are considering a special guardianship. The actual event and lead up to the event was fine but the problems that I have had afterwards is ridiculous. Firstly there is no governing body, which gives local authorities the green light to put these orders in place themselves. The package that you receive is based on what the borough can afford and quite crudely how good you are at haggling. If you have a problem afterwards, you only have the ones causing the problem, to deal with it.
I was instructed that you can claim for child benefits and child tax credits, this money would be taken out of the allowance given for my son. Unfortunately when I phoned to apply for these no one seemed to know what a special guardianship order was and consequently it took 10 months to get this executed. It is a tedious and frustrating process and I had to fight so hard to be understood. I had no support from the local authority and I often felt so angry. My son's birth certificate had been lost and it took over a year to get a copy done. Many times I sent emails and left messages for the permanency and adoption team and it took weeks sometimes months before I got a response. In my opinion once the order is in place, there is very little back up or support. The one contact that I did have in the team, informed me that she wasn't on the accounting side of things and couldn't be expected to work out the finances with me, I had no other contact!
Special guardianships are being promoted by most local authorities as it saves them lots of money and takes many children out of the care system. I do however think there is need for a structured system and a governing body to control the way they are handled. The financial side of things is too loose and needs to be properly regulated.
For my son and I the special guardianship was right. He would have always been an important member of our family but for him it was imperative as it gave him security, stability and peace of mind.
I would give this review a 5* rating if it was purely for the special guardianship order but 1* for the lack of support and after care associated with it. I therefore rated it a 3*