On the same day that a verdict was handed down in the tragic case of toddler Ayeeshia Smith, another horrific case came to trial.
This case has not (yet) hit the national headlines in the same way. Perhaps, as some have suggested, it's because the child in question was in care. More realistically I think it's probably because there is no verdict as yet. I await with interest the media coverage when we do have a verdict.
This case, of murdered toddler Keegan Downer is horrific and shocking. It's so appalling that I'm not going to go into details here - a quick internet search will reveal all. Suffice it to say that this child experienced months of horrendous abuse before her death at just 18 months old, including serious, untreated fractures.
Now, before I go on, I must say that I am getting my information from various news sources, and that the defendant in the trial, one Kandyce Downer, has pleaded 'not guilty' and has not been convicted.
Baby Keegan was removed from her birth mother shortly after her birth in March 2014, and placed with a foster carer. In January 2015, she was placed with Kandyce Downer on a Special Guardianship Order (SGO). Kandyce Downer seems to have been the ex-wife of a cousin of the child's birth father, hence the same surname. By September 2015, the toddler was dead.
In the context of what is a truly tragic and horrific event, it might seem strange to some that I am taking issue with the description in many media outlets of Kandyce Downer as a 'foster mum' on trial for murdering her 'foster daughter'. Please bear with me as I try to explain why this concerns me.
This woman was not the child's foster carer. At all. She was the child's guardian. It might seem like a fine distinction, but it matters because there's a huge difference between foster care and guardianship, especially when it comes to the quality and depth of the approvals procedure, and the monitoring that takes place after the child has been placed.
A Special Guardianship Order gives children a permanence plan other than long term foster care or adoption. In fact many long term foster carers who have made a commitment to a child until adulthood will switch to an SGO as it gives them more freedom, and removes some of the parental role of social services which can be cumbersome and restrict family life. Other candidates for SGOs include family members who are willing to raise nieces, nephews, grandchildren, etc. Importantly, an SGO gives the guardians parental responsibility for the child, which a foster carer does not have.
No assessment process for gauging the suitability of an individual to parent another person's child can ever be infallible but, for a foster carer, the process of approvals takes months, involves hours and hours of meetings where the applicant reveals every detail of their personal life to a social worker in order that a huge document (mine was over 60 pages long) can be prepared, and is accompanied by mandatory training (which continues after approval), and numerous references and interviews with the prospective carer's friends and family.
In contrast, a person can be considered for a Special Guardianship Order after very few actual meetings with a social worker - as few as two meetings in cases I have known of. It's a much less rigorous assessment, which on one level I understand, as some family members might be put off coming forward if they were then to be rigorously assessed and trained for 6 months before the child was even placed with them.
As a short term foster carer, I am visited by my own social worker every 4-6 weeks, and by the child's social worker every 4-6 weeks. Children in long term foster carer usually have fewer visits than that. Children on an SGO could have no visits at all as the guardian has parental responsibility for the child.
So, yes, it does matter that this woman was the child's guardian and not her foster carer. It matters because in recent months the number of adoption placement orders has been plummeting and the number of SGO applications has been soaring. The reasons for that are not fully researched, and there isn't space here to run through the many opinions. Let's just assume that some children who might previously have gone for adoption are now getting SGOs.
I am not against SGOs at all. I am not against children living with family members when they can't live with their birth parents. This can be an excellent answer to a difficult and complex situation. If this option has been overlooked in the past, then I'm glad if that is being rectified now.
But, there will no doubt be debate following this tragedy about why it happened and how it could have been prevented. And the relative shallowness of the procedure for identifying and assessing guardians (as opposed to foster carers or adopters) must form part of that debate. The possibility that children are being placed with unsuitable guardians due to expediency, cost-cutting, and knee-jerk reactions to recent court rulings must form part of that debate.
Does abuse happen in the homes of foster carers? Well, demonstrably it unfortunately does. And if a tiny number of foster carers can get away with it, considering all the assessments, training and supervision we get, surely there is also that risk in an SGO placement, without all those safeguards in place?
Nobody wants to see a child go for adoption when they could have reasonably been raised by family members. Nobody wants that. But neither does anybody want to see the definition of adoption as a 'last resort', 'when nothing else will do' interpreted so vaguely as to mean that children risk being placed with those who are totally unsuitable to care for them long-term merely on the strength of some family tie, however distant.
The Serious Case Review into Keegan's death will hopefully shed light on what went wrong here. Personally, I hope that the inevitable soul-searching as to how and why this could have happened leads to assessments for special guardianship being made considerably more rigorous (not easy with the 26-week timescale in place, I know), intensive input from relevant professionals in the early days and ongoing professional support guaranteed. Well, I have always been a dreamer.