Consenting to Care?
Parents can agree to their children going into care, without going to court. Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 says that a local authority shall provide accommodation for any child in need within their area. Section 20 also sets out when that can happen. This includes when parents cannot provide suitable accommodation or care for the child themselves.
That might happen when parents need a short, planned break from caring for a child (for instance a child with complex health needs). It could also happen if there has been a family crisis, and accommodating the child for a few weeks would help the family sort out their problems.
Strictly speaking, the local authority has to make sure parents do not object to their child being accommodated. It is good practice, however, for a local authority to make sure that parents actually agree to the child being accommodated. If parents do object to the child being accommodated (and can arrange accommodation for the child themselves), the local authority cannot accommodate the child, without going to court for an order. Parents might object from the start, or later on (even if they agreed to begin with).
The issue of parents’ agreement to section 20 accommodation, and what happens when parents no longer agree to their children being accommodated by a local authority, has recently come under the courts’ scrutiny.
The Supreme Court is currently considering the law in relation to section 20, in the case of Williams v London Borough of Hackney, and you can see what happened at the hearing in February 2018 here - https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/uksc-2017-0037.html . This will be an important decision for families and children, because the Supreme Court allowed a number of organisations, including the Family Rights Group, and the Association of Lawyers for Children, to take part in the case. Those organisations have alerted the Supreme Court to the policy issues affecting everyone involved – local authorities, parents, and children. The Supreme Court’s decision is due later this year.
Press coverage last week focused on another case, Herefordshire Council v AB  EWFC 10 (available at http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2018/10.html ) . The judge was highly critical of the local authority, Herefordshire Council, which had ‘voluntarily’ accommodated two children (from different families), one for eight years, the other for nine years (the whole of that child’s life). The judge said: ‘I have never before encountered two cases where a local authority has so seriously and serially failed to address the needs of the children in its care and so seriously misused, indeed abused, the provisions of section 20 of the Children Act 1989.’. He went on to say that, luckily, each children had ‘remained in the care of quite extraordinary and superlative carers who have met their respective needs extremely well’ The problem, however, was that there was no proper long term planning for either child. That included no proper thought about the parents’ involvement in their children’s lives. That had been damaging to both children.
It is crucial that parents know their rights, and take legal advice before agreeing to a child being accommodated by a local authority. At TV Edwards, we regularly advise clients on the use - or misuse - of section 20. We can help with talking to the local authority about any problems parents are facing, and how to deal with them. That includes looking at support to keep children with their families, as well as any need for short term section 20 accommodation. For instance, parents need to know, from the start, that they can object to their child being accommodated. They also need to know that they can change their minds, object to on-going accommodation, and demand the return of their child. If that happens, the local authority might then go to court for a care order, if there is a real risk of harm to a child - but the local authority would have to prove that to a judge, and would have to show that they are planning for the child’s longer term future. Our experienced and specialist team will be happy to help if you have a query about section20 accommodation, or the involvement of children’s services with your family