Bedford couple’s support withdrawal highlights special guardianship concerns

Special guardians deserve the right advice and support from councils before taking on the role, says the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.

The findings come from an Ombudsman report in which Bedford Borough Council unfairly cut the financial support to a couple, after asking them to become special guardians to the children they were fostering.

The report echoes the calls the Ombudsman made earlier this year for councils to learn from the seven out of ten complaints it upholds about Special Guardianship Orders (SGO), to ensure children and their guardians are properly supported.

In this case, the council applied for an SGO for the couple without fully involving them in the process and not properly explaining it would review their financial support. This was despite the couple saying they didn’t want to accept the arrangements if it meant a reduction in their income as professional foster carers.

During the Ombudsman’s investigation, the council agreed to restore the support to the level the couple received as foster carers, and to backdate payments they had missed out on.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman said:

“Special guardians do a vital job in providing stability and security for some of our most vulnerable children who cannot live with their birth parents. While taking this on willingly, in return they deserve to have all the facts to understand the implications for their lives.

“In this case, Bedford Borough Council simply didn’t follow best practice in advising, involving and consulting with the couple. However, I welcome its acceptance of our findings and its offer to restore the family’s support.

“In addition, I have used our powers to recommend how the council should improve its procedures in the hope that other potential special guardians will not be placed in the same position.”

The couple who complained to the Ombudsman said:

“Having to go through this stress was a traumatic ordeal. So our hope is that other councils hear this story and learn from it.

“We feel without the Ombudsman’s help, we wouldn’t have got to where we are now, with the council accepting they got things wrong. We’re thankful we have got our issue resolved, and other special guardians should know that the Ombudsman is there if they have been treated in a similar way to us.”

The couple had fostered two young siblings for around 18 months before the council approached them to be special guardians, when it became apparent the children could not return to their mother. The couple made it clear the arrangement needed to be financially viable for them.

As part of the care proceedings, the council filed a support plan with the SGO, but it hadn’t been shared with the couple in advance so they could not agree to it.

The support plan said the couple would be expected to claim welfare benefits, and the value would be deducted from their current allowance rate. However, it did not say their overall allowance rate may be reduced in future or subject to a wider means test.

After the special guardian court order was agreed, the council reviewed the couple’s level of financial support. Eventually, after paying the allowance at the same level for over two years, the council reduced their payments by up to half for both children.

The couple told the council they were happy to be looking after the children and were pleased with how they were thriving. But they felt bullied into taking the SGO and were now struggling financially. They said they were led to believe they would continue to receive the same level of support they had as foster carers.

The Ombudsman’s investigation found the council at fault for a number of things including:

  • not explaining the financial implications of changing status from foster carers to special guardians
  • not consulting on versions of the support plan
  • reducing allowances contrary to the support plan
  • poorly explaining its decisions and keeping records

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council has already offered to restore the financial support to foster carer allowance levels until the children reach 18, and repay missed support.

It has agreed to double the £250 it originally offered to recognise the couple’s distress and time and trouble complaining. It will also report back to the Ombudsman on how it will brief its staff on the correct procedures and legal requirements of special guardianship, particularly around making SGO support plans clear on the matter of financial support.

Special guardians are people who look after children who are not their own, following a court order. The Special Guardianship Order gives children more permanence than a regular fostering arrangement, and gives their guardians more rights to make decisions on their behalf. In practice, they are often a less costly option for councils than residential or foster care.

Article date: 20 November 2018

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