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The parallels between adoption and special guardianship

Each year the Department for Education publishes data on expenditure across children’s social care. Its latest release in December showed that 2020/2021 was the first year ever that expenditure on special guardianship support (£350.1m) was higher than spend on adoption services (£336.7m). This reflects an important movement across the children’s social care sector towards prioritising children’s birth connections, evidenced by the growing number of special guardianship orders being made by Courts in recent years.

Adoption and special guardianship are sometimes perceived as being at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their approaches towards caring for children. For example, most special guardians are connected by family ties or friendship to the child and birth family, whereas adoptive parents rarely are. These forms of care also vary greatly in how long they have existed, as adoption was brought into legislation in 1926, whereas special guardianship entered into law in 2002, within the Adoption and Children Act.

Yet despite these obvious differences, there is much common ground between these two types of caring arrangement, both in what they stand for and what they do. In this blog we look at where they align, and the advantages of a system which supports these families in similar ways, being guided above all by the individual needs of each child.

  1. They care for children with similar characteristics

Both adoption and special guardianship share the substantive task of caring for children with high levels of need – children who have suffered significant abuse or neglect, usually from an early age, and can have complex emotions and behaviours as a result. For example, Kinship charity recently found that 36% of children in kinship care had special educational needs – and adopters too care for children with similar characteristics. The legal test for adoption being only when “nothing else will do” reflects the fact that adoption is a major intervention into children’s lives, in response to only the most serious harm. Special guardianship orders too are significant interventions which transfer to carers more parental responsibility than other forms of care, such as foster care.

  1. They are forms of permanency

Above all, both adoption and special guardianship are established forms of permanency, defined as a “a sense of security, continuity, commitment and identity … a secure, stable and loving family to support them through childhood and beyond”. Research has shown that adoption has lower disruption rates than other forms of care, and that special guardianship too brings a higher level of stability than other forms of care – although less so than adoption. The higher educational outcomes for children in adoptive and special guardianship placements compared to children in care are suggestive of emotional permanence too.

  1. They face similar challenges around maintaining birth family connections

As already outlined, special guardians are usually kinship carers with pre-existing relationships with children and their families. As such, it can be easier for special guardians to support children with their identity development, because they know more about their families and histories. This can be harder for adoptive families who do not know the birth families of the children they adopt, and have to rely on information they have been given. Despite these differences, both types of carers face challenges with supporting children to build positive senses of identity through maintaining connections with birth families.

Pre-existing relationships with birth families can at times put special guardians in a difficult position, and result in contact arrangements which are problematic and conflictual, putting strain on carers. Conversely, contact between adopted children and birth parents is usually done through the exchange of letters only, which brings emotional and practical challenges, and often leads to lines of communication breaking down. There is a growing understanding and willingness among all carers to support birth family relationships, but high-quality contact is dependent on high-quality specialist support for everyone involved, which neither special guardians nor adoptive parents are receiving currently.

Looking forward

The parallels between the responsibilities of adoptive parents and special guardians were helpfully recognised by the Government in 2016 when the Adoption Support Fund (ASF) was extended to special guardians. Yet in other respects, these families are treated very differently, despite caring for children with similar levels of need. For example, figures suggest that special guardians are not accessing the ASF as much as adopters, even though it is available to them. There is an additional issue of assessments of prospective adopters being far more rigorous than special guardians, with one report describing special guardianship preparation as ‘almost non-existent’ and ‘ad-hoc’. This difference not only risks setting special guardians up to fail, but risks children’s future stability and security. Moreover, there is a wealth of specialist expertise in the voluntary adoption sector which could be put to greater use supporting special guardians and their families, in partnership with local authorities.

The year ahead is set to be an important one for all children involved with the children’s social care system. There is no better time for Government and its advisors to be thinking about how children with comparable needs and carers with comparable responsibilities are treated equally, rather than basing decisions solely on the care categories children fall into. For a truly child-focused approach, there must be more parity between adoption and special guardians to put children’s life chances on a level playing field, along with better research which shows the impact on children’s outcomes as a result. Investment in lifelong family connections is no exception – all carers need support to get this right, so that all children have equal opportunities to explore and establish a positive sense of who they are and where they have come from.