Hammersmith and Fulham council lead the way with Special Guardianship Orders

Hammersmith and Fulham has made big cuts in the number of children in care in the borough by leading the way in using a new form of placement called special guardianships orders.

Under the orders, a guardian has full parental responsibility for all aspects of raising a child but the children’s relationship with their birth parent is not legally severed.

Between 2007 and 2011, the number of children in care in the borough has fallen from 365 to 250, although it has one of lowest percentages of children adopted each year. Conservative Councillor Harry Phibbs says it is “bucking the national trend”.  He compared the decrease in Hammersmith and Fulham to the general trend across England, where the total number of children looked after by local authorities is up by 9 per cent since 2007.

The number of special guardianship orders has risen steadily since they were introduced in 2005. In 2011, 19 per cent of children who left care in Hammersmith and Fulham did so as a result of the orders, compared with 13 per cent in 2008, the best record in England, according to the Department for Education. But the borough still has one of the worst records for children in care. In 2011 the figure was 0.91%, almost double the national average.

Special guardianship orders were introduced in December 2005, under the Adoption and Children’s Act 2002, to provide an option to provide permanent placements for children for whom adoption was not feasible, for instance due to the number of potential adopters. They are popular with the families of children in care who want to become permanent guardians. Research by the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York found that most take-up came from relatives, particularly grandparents.

According to the York Social Policy Research Unit “there is a high degree of goodwill towards special guardianships amongst child welfare professionals… Overwhelmingly, carers in the study also welcomed it.”

The trend for special guardianship orders to increase while adoptions decrease, is common across the country, according to Jack Smith, of The Who Cares? Trust, a charity working to improve the lives of children in care. He said: “The number of children in permanent care is going up, however there has been an overall decrease in adoptions.”

Mr Smith says that the orders are particularly successful with older children, as “they do not forcibly break the links with their parents”. Older children are much less likely to be adopted than the under 5s. In the year to March 2011, 97 per cent of children adopted were under 9.

Councillor Caroline Needham, Hammersmith and Fulham’s shadow cabinet member for education and children’s services, praises the borough’s efforts:  “That Hammersmith and Fulham has a high level of special guardianship orders is a very praiseworthy achievement.”

She agrees that it is good for children to retain links with their birth families: “It’s good that children are raised by somebody who loved their mothers, and who understands why their mother wasn’t able to look after them.” She adds: “I’ve always taken the view that a good outcome for children is above politics.”

Special guardianship orders are also cheaper for councils than keeping children in care. Hammersmith and Fulham said recently that “over 30 per cent of the total budget of the council’s children’s services budget is spent on just 0.6 per cent of children living in the borough. The council spends, on average, around £1,000 per week to care for a looked-after child. Over the past five years, 50 children in H&F have left care with a permanency order, which equates to a saving of around £2.5 million.”  A permanency order involves adoption, or a special guardianship order.

But there are questions about the allowances guardians receive for caring for a child under a special guardianship order. Payments are means-tested, and the final decision remains with the local authority. The York University research found that “many [carers] received less money than they did as foster carers”, and that there were “continuing concerns about financial security”.

Cllr Needham said: “My view is that [carers] should get an allowance from the age which the child is their responsibility up until the age of 18, but sometimes guardians only receive it for a certain number of years.” She plans to look into the question of carers’ allowances.

Hammersmith and Fulham do still have a high proportion of children in care, with the borough’s ratio almost double the national average. Councillor Phibbs says that the high number of children in care in Hammersmith and Fulham is “partly to do with the affluence of the area.” He said: “We have made a big deal about our progress, but we need to keep going with the reduction. We do need to be better; there is still some way to catch up.”

Percentage of children who ceased to be in care due to adoption

Percentage of children who left care due to adoption

 

Rank Name 3 Year average (2009, 10, 11) 2011
England 12 11
1 Derby 26 20
64 Reading 13 12
88 Shropshire 11 7
102 Wandsworth 10 14
129 Hammersmith and Fulham 7 11
129 Westminster 7 n/a
139 Kensington and Chelsea 6 8

 

Percentage of children who ceased to be in care due to a special guardianship order

 

Percentage of children who left care due to a Special Guardianship Order

 

Rank Name 3 Year average (2009, 10, 11) 2011
England 6 6
1 Hammersmith and Fulham 16 19
9 Wandsworth 11 10
10 Reading 10 19
53 Kensington and Chelsea 6 n/a
53 Derby 6 11
93 Westminster 4 6
141 Shropshire 0 0

Slashed budgets will deny vulnerable youngsters support

Labour MP for Hammersmith, Andy Slaughter, feels the cuts will have huge implications on frontline policing. Photo: Pete J

Hammersmith and Fulham Council will slash the budget of its young offending team by 63 per cent over the next three years.

Critics fear that the cuts, full details of which were buried in official statistics, will leave vulnerable youngsters without desperately needed support and lead to an increase in youth crime, with more youngsters in detention centres and out of school. Police in the borough fear a fall in incidents involving young offenders could be reversed.

Spending on young offenders in 2010 was £689,306. By 2013 it will be 63 per cent lower at £255,173. Figures published in November gave details only of a 26 per cent cut over the next two years to £510,346. But calculations show that the third year projections reveal an even larger cut of 37 per cent for 2012-13. The council says that only administrative tasks will be affected.

In the past seven months incidents involving the under 18s, have fallen by 33 per cent in Hammersmith and Fulham, against a London average of an 8 per cent drop.

Professor Bill Whyte, director of the Criminal Justice Social Work Development Centre for Scotland, said that the severity of the cuts would leave young people who are “prolific” offenders without vital support.

“The consequences could be catastrophic – more young people in detention centres or in care or excluded from school – which is already too high and is very costly. Unless some of the work is picked up by social services these offenders will be even less likely to receive the support they so crucially need, and that is horrifying.”

Inspector John Ballard, who is in charge of integrated offender management at Hammersmith police station and works with the youth offending service, fear that his team’s work will be undermined by the cuts.  “At the moment we are the second best borough in the capital when it comes to preventing youngsters from committing crime. In the last four weeks we’ve convicted six young offenders.

“But with these cuts we’re going to have to fill gaps. We’re constantly looking of ways to change the behaviour of these offenders. With a lot less people we have to be realistic – crime will increase.”

Youth offending teams were set up under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to cut the risk of young people offending or reoffending, and to support offenders and the cuts come only five years after an official inspection of the council’s service found that it only met bare minimum requirements.

The report said: “Despite the quality assurance system in place in the young offending service, the inspection found that a number of cases that had been reviewed by managers had not met basic requirements.

“The young offending service had an underdeveloped approach to evaluating the impact of its work with children and young people.”

Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP for Hammersmith and Shadow Justice Minister, said: “Cuts of this scale will inevitably lead to reduced frontline staff and a reduction in service quality.

“If judges in youth courts don’t have confidence in youth offending programmes, they’ll be forcing offenders in to custodial sentences where a community sentence might usually be appropriate. Cutting prevention teams, which helped to drive cuts in the number of young people first committing a crime by 43 per cent over the last Parliament, is simply counterproductive.”

The council is cutting spending in an attempt to reduce its £122 million debt, which means that it has to pay more than £4 million a year in interest payments. Councillor Greg Smith, the Conservative cabinet member for residents’ services, denied that crime will increase because of the cuts: “It would be overly simplistic to argue that spending less results in a worse service or an increase in crime. There are many examples where this council has cut wasteful spending while delivering a much better service through innovation and modernisation.”

But Inspector Ballard, a police officer for 28 years, said that it was illogical to suggest that cutting the young offending team budgets would not have an adverse effect on crime rates.

He said: “We will be doing everything we can to fill those gaps but we are going to be doing a lot more with less people. We have to be realistic, there will be more administration done by staff. A logical person would argue that point when you are trying to reduce the budget by such a large amount.”