Ruth Hawkins, Family law specialist and partner with Turpin Miller

SPECIAL Guardianship Orders ('SGOs') have been in the news again this week, this time for quite tragic reasons.

Poor little Keegan Downer, was murdered by her Special Guardian Kandyce Downer, aged just 18 months, and this week, Kandyce Downer was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum term of 18 years being imposed.

It has put the making of SGO’s under the spotlight. We are told that Keegan’s former foster carer, who had cared for her for the first 10 months of her life, had raised concerns about Kandyce Downer’s motivation in wanting to care for Keegan, questioning whether there could have been a financial motivation for doing so?

There will be a Serious Case Review, and no doubt lessons will need to be learnt by all of us working in the area of child protection. Birmingham City Council who placed Keegan with Kandyce Downer, as well as the other agencies involved, no doubt including the court, CAFCASS, local health services and so on, will all be required to participate in that.

SGO’s are orders that the court can make to a relative, family friend or carer, which share parental responsibility with the carer, along with the parent or parents. The special guardian then receives enhanced parental responsibility for the child, and in most decisions, if there is a dispute between the special guardian and the parent(s), the special guardian’s decision holds sway. They get to make those key decisions. They should consult the parent(s) but if matters cannot be agreed, they get their way.

Only the court can grant an SGO, and it can be obtained either within care proceedings, as was in Keegan’s case, or within private law proceedings (where the local authority is not directly involved and is not a party to the case) between the carer and the parent(s). They were introduced by The Adoption and Children Act 2002, and were designed to bridge the gap between the (then) residence orders and adoption.

There will inevitably be calls to curtail their use, and indeed there is already underway a review into their use. Indeed in February I wrote about the review which was underway, and confirmed that as a result SGO Assessments, which have to be carried out by the local authority, were being toughened up, and the assessment carried out on any proposed carer is to be as robust and cover the same issues and enquiries that an assessment of a proposed adopter covers. In future there should be no difference. Those new arrangements are already in force, and any new SGO assessment undertaken after 29th February 2016 will be subject to the new more rigorous assessment. There is also a drive to ensure that the proposed carer has a more defined relationship with the child already.

The Daily Mail and other publications have already questioned whether SGO’s are a cheap substitute to adoption. I think this is an over-reaction to a tragic case. The Serious Case Review will provide some answers on what went so tragically wrong for Keegan, but there are a couple of thoughts that I have. Firstly, Keegan was placed with Kandyce Downer, and very quickly appears to have fallen off any professional agencies’ radars: she stopped attending nursery, and it seems that social work visits stopped soon after. One of the key points of SGO’s is that carers have for a period after the order is made some ongoing support and involvement from social services, and very often there is a Supervision Order which continues for up to 12 months (and can be extended for a further 12 months) which is designed to support the child in its new placement. That appears not to have happened for Keegan.

I would have thought that with the more rigorous assessments introduced earlier this year, together with ongoing support for carers beyond the conclusion of cases, that more tragedies like this can be avoided. Maybe we need to have a rethink about cuts to early intervention services too?