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York researchers shed light on Special Guardianship

Posted on 4 December 2014

New research by academics at the University of York suggests that Special Guardianship (SG), an alternative to adoption, increases the potential for permanent stability for children who are unable to live with their birth parents.

Jim Wade, Ian Sinclair and Lucy Stuttard from the University’s Social Policy Research Unit, worked with the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) on the report which is published by the Department for Education.

A Special Guardianship Order (SGO) is a private legal order that enables a special guardian, usually relatives or family friends, to exercise full parental responsibility for a child up to the age of 18. Unlike adoption, an SGO does not legally sever a child’s relationship with its birth parents, and contact usually continues if in the best interests of the child.

The report follows case studies of families for three to six years after a SGO was made, monitoring progress and outcomes for children and guardians. The research shows that SG is a positive, effective option for some children who are unable to live with their birth parents, enabling them to have a stable and secure family life. Before being transferred to the care of an SG family, almost two thirds of children were reported to have been at risk of abuse or neglect.

More than 13,000 SGs were made during the research study period. Though the report found no evidence to suggest the rise in SGOs has led to a reduction in adoption, it highlights the need for long-term support for Special Guardians and the children in their care.

Jim Wade, Senior Research Fellow in the Social Policy Research Unit, said: “This research demonstrates the important contribution being made by special guardianship to the range of permanent placements for some children unable to live with their birth parents. Evidence suggests that, alongside adoption and child arrangement orders, SGs have helped to increase the potential range of permanent placements for children.

“The risk of breakdown appears low, even amongst higher risk groups. The younger the child at placement, and the stronger the bond between the child and carer prior to the SGO being made, the less likely a breakdown will occur. However, there are limitations in the support and services available to special guardianship families. Support varies by local authority, but it is important for agencies to work together to provide an appropriate range of services.”

Dr John Simmonds, Director for Policy, Research and Development at BAAF, added: “BAAF is clear that the sector needs to work together to ensure that support is as available as it is for adoptive families. The report also raises concerns about the number of cases where the child does not already have an established relationship with their carers. BAAF agrees that greater caution, even a settling-in period before the order is made, is needed in such cases, to counteract the higher risk of disruption.”

Further information:

  • To read the full report Investigating Special Guardianship: experiences, outcomes and challenges, visit:
  • For further information on the University of York’s Social Policy Research Unit, visit:    
  • For more information on the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, visit:

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