Special Guardianship? Huh?
What even is a Special Guardian? Do not fear, we thought exactly the same thing when we first heard about it. Our journey towards becoming Special Guardians was a long process, which we want to share with you. We didn't even know it was an option until we were a few months into our court proceedings. We are having to refer back to our big file of paperwork to remember all of this (baby brain is a thing even if you've never given birth!), so some aspects may be a little fuzzy.
Rewind to September 2016. Our first step towards becoming special guardians was a meeting with a social worker, which happened 2 days after our niece and nephew's Mummy passed away. Yes, this all went by in a whirlwind! By this point we had already discussed the option of becoming responsible for our niece and nephew. The meeting with the social worker scared the life out of us. We were currently living with aunt's parents and therefore didn't have a home of our own. To quote the social worker... "I suggest that securing a property is an immediate priority as this may be a stumbling block for the court securing residence with yourselves". WELL. You can imagine our panic. Where would we live? How could we afford it? ARGH! We then spent that weekend rearranging aunt's parents home so two children could have their own bedroom. We needed support at this time and moving out (for the first time!!) just did not seem like the best decision at this point.
Three days later, we met with a family law solicitor. We were told that because there was no will appointing a guardian, an application needed to be made to court. This application would be for a Child Arrangements Order, which simply decides where a child will live, and was submitted the following week, with a court hearing arranged for November 2016. In the meantime, we were appointed a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) Guardian, who would act as our niece and nephew's guardian during the court proceedings. Let the meetings commence.
We met with the CAFCASS Guardian for the first time in October 2016. She had the same name as out niece and nephew's Mummy so we thought that was definitely a sign. We were ridiculously nervous for this (we must've asked her if she wanted a drink about 23975 times), but she was brilliant and made us feel reassured about the whole process. She completed police checks on us and the family that we lived with. She then visited us twice before our hearing and in her statement she said that "despite the very difficult circumstances the applicants are providing a high level of care to the children and providing appropriate support to them." Cue the tears. This application was submitted to court, advising that the Child Arrangements Order be made in our favour. This order would also grant us parental responsibility of our niece and nephew.
During the hearing in November 2016, we were granted the Child Arrangements Order (yipee!) The hearing was extremely nerve racking. We thought we would be in a court room like on the TV, but we were just in a simple room with a table and chairs! Being closer to the judge was definitely far more intimidating. However, this was not the end! Our CAFCASS Guardian suggested that we also apply for a Special Guardianship Order, which is more secure that a Child Arrangements Order. Why this wasn't suggested from the start we don't know! But we definitely agreed that is was the best option. Special guardianship would mean that our parental reponsibility could not be reversed (unless we returned to court) but also maintains links with their birth parent, whereas adoption removes this connection.
A date for our final hearing was confirmed for May 2017. In the meantime, we were appointed a social worker who would complete a Special Guardianship Report. We were told that this would be far more rigorous process and to prepare for a lot of in-depth meetings and personal questions, not only for us but our family members too. In the lead up to our first Christmas without our Mummy, sister and friend, we met with our social worker. We did indeed complete six detailed interviews which were rather draining, but when we received her 60 page report it was overwhelming (rereading it right now is a little overwhelming too!). To see in black and white such lovely words really reassured us that we were doing the best for our niece and nephew.
Before we knew it, our final court hearing was here. Along with our solicitor, CAFCASS guardian and social worker, we met with the judge for the second and final time. We had the same judge as he requested to continue with our case which we can only assume was a good thing. Our solicitor told us this hearing would simply be a case of ticking a few boxes and that we wouldn't be required to do or say anything. Oh how wrong she was. We both had to go up onto the stand (just like on TV!) and answer questions the judge had about our report. After hours and hours (it could've been weeks for all we know) the judge finally concluded. He said that he heard something in our case that he has never heard in court before (which made is think "oh bloody hell what have we said?!") But it was that we had said that looking after our niece and nephew was a privilege. It honestly and truly is.
And that was it! In May 2017 we were legally made special guardians of our niece and nephew. So basically, how we describe what special guardianship is to those who ask is "a step below adoption" - we think that summarises it nicely!