Foster 'mum' or guardian: does it really matter when a child has died?

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.


  1. You have raised many serious question - will the great and good be bothered to answer them?

    1. If only any of the great and good read my blog....! But yes, hopefully people far more influential than me are raising some of the same questions.

  2. Having only just heard of this tragic case after the verdict today, I scoured the internet as I couldn't understand how such a tragedy could occur in the context of foster care (not that there are no cases of foster family abuse, but this seemed particularly severe and prolonged). As you feared, most sites had misreported the relationship. Your site is the only one that clarified the situation and I have now written to the BBC to ask them to amend articles referring to foster mother or, in one case, adopted daughter.

    As an adoptive father, I completely agree that this is an important distinction. Not only is it crucial to the serious case review, but the media portrayal of the relationship smears all foster carers and adoptive parents.

    1. Thank you. I am disappointed to see the 'foster carer' inaccuracy being repeated across most media outlets today but not really surprised. It's such a shame that news outlets, who play such a formative role in shaping public opinion, cannot strive for accuracy in their reporting. I notice that the report I saw on the BBC website stated 'guardian' so perhaps your efforts were to good effect!

  3. I have also been disappointed by the reporting of the case and the issues you discuss in regard to SGOs are important. There is a shorter timescale on kinship assessments, some of which remain under fostering regulations, others make SGO applicatoins. Timescales don't generally mean fewer visits, they mean the same number of visits in a shorter time frame. The value of SGOs is that they offer children permanency without social work intervention; normal family life. They are also "good enough" placements whereas fostering and adoption are uber parenting assessments, recognising the very base line trauma that children separated from family of origin will experience, as well as any other trauma and abuse. The government has recently asked that kinship carers should be able to offer reparative care, bringing it closer to the therapeutic parenting asked of other carers. I would be interested if the LA supported this SGO application, carers can make that application independently, and if not if the LA felt under pressure to recommend a family based placement in the current adoption/placement landscape.

    1. I think there's sometimes a difference between best practice and what actually happens on the ground. I personally know of kinship carers that have been approved after a couple of visits. I had a child in foster care with me who was going to go to a kinship carer on an SGO - the prospective carer had been positively assessed after just one visit. As it happens, that carer pulled out and the child went for adoption. Like you I am interested in how this particular SGO placement was agreed on - hopefully the SCR will shed some light on it. SGO can be a wonderful option for many children, but I worry that tragedies such as this could erode trust in the system and lead to a knee-jerk reaction against them. As always, we wait and hope for a measured response!

  4. Of course there is, I generalise. Having completed kinship assessments in v short timescales, I've done extended visits (carers won't know they are) and a lot of behind the scenes work that carers won't count as visits - agency checks and referees. One visit would be unusual but I have had a colleague go to the other end of the country and do two visits, they just happened to take most of both of those days up!

    1. Yes, I do appreciate that SGO assessments are likely done as thoroughly as possible within the protocols - as you say, they are 'good enough' placements. I suspect there will have been some lack of oversight in this case, although that's all speculation until the SCR is done. Still, though, SGO placements are under way less scrutiny than foster placements and the assessment process is way less rigorous - for the media to conflate the two undermines already fragile trust in the foster care system, which was really what I was driving at. I wasn't meaning to suggest that SWs are not doing SGO assessment properly within their guidelines, just that the guidelines themselves might need looking at.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Sorry, made a mistake in previous comment deleted...

    We do have to accept that there may have been poor practice and timescales may have caused an issue. I do take issue with SGO assessments being less rigorous, they are different is all. You can argue they are for the same children but they are not separating children from their family of origin where possible and placing them within their existing social network.

  6. 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.

    24 hour care at home


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