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Our advice service

We provide advice to parents, grandparents, relatives, friends and kinship carers who are involved with children’s services in England or need their help. We can help you understand processes and options when social workers or courts are making decisions about your child’s welfare.

Our advice service is free, independent and confidential.

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By phone or email

To speak to an adviser, please call our free and confidential advice line 0808 801 0366 (Monday to Friday 9.30am to 3pm, excluding Bank Holidays). Or you can ask us a question via email using our advice enquiry form.

Discuss on our forums

Our online advice forums are an anonymous space where parents and kinship carers (also known as family and friends carers) can get legal and practical advice, build a support network and learn from other people’s experiences.

Advice on our website

Our get help and advice section describes the processes that you and your family are likely to go through, so that you know what to expect. Our webchat service can help you find the information and advice on our website which will help you understand the law and your rights.

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Looked after child

In England, if a child is described as a ‘looked after’ child it means that either:

  • Children’s services are providing the child with a place to live and with a carer. This might be with unrelated foster carers, or in residential care for example, or
  • A place to live and carer for the child has been arranged by children’s services. And is supported by children’s services. An example is a grandparent who has been assessed and approved by children’s services as a kinship foster carer for a child, or
  • Children’s services are providing or arranging for a child to live in placement in which their parent is also present (for example, a mother and baby foster placement, a residential assessment unit, or with a family member who supervises the care provided by the parent).

Child who are on remand because they are awaiting trial in the youth court are also looked after children.  These children will usually be placed in a secure children’s home, a secure training centre or a youth offender’s institution.

If a child is ‘looked after’ in the care system does it mean a court order is in place?

Not always.

Some looked after children in England enter or remain in the care system under a court order. This is because the Family Court has decided that is in their best interests. And that children’s services should have parental responsibility for them. These children are described as being ‘in care’.

But some children are looked after in the care system under a voluntary arrangement.  A voluntary arrangement can be put in place without any court oversight. It is not a court order. Children’s services do not have parental responsibility for a child looked after under a voluntary arrangement. So, children in voluntary arrangements are not described as being ‘in care’. Instead, they are described as ‘accommodated’ by children’s services. See our Children looked after in the care system under voluntary arrangements (section 20) page for further information.

If a child is already looked after in the care system, then children’s services have a legal duty to place the child with people in a certain priority order. This duty is in section 22C of the Children Act 1989 and says children’s services should:

  • See if a child can be safely cared for by their parent(s). If not, then
  • See if a child be safely cared for by someone else who holds parental responsibility for them
  • Next look at anyone who was caring for the child under a child arrangements order just before they came into the care system
  • Next, look to place the child in the most appropriate placement looking first at wider family, friends and other people already connected with the child who are already approved by children’s services as foster carers
  • Only where this is not possible, should children’s services go on to arrange for a child to live with unrelated carers. This could be foster care, or if not possible then in residential care (a children’s home).

The law sets out the duties children’s services has to children who are looked after in the care system. Some of these duties are slightly different depending on whether a child is looked after under a court order or under a voluntary arrangement. Open or download this table to see the main duties children’s services have when any child is looked after in the care system. The table describes:

  • Each legal duty
  • Whether the duty applies to children looked after under a court order- children who ‘in care’
  • Whether the duty applies to children looked after in a voluntary arrangement
  • Where the duty can be found.

Examples of the duties include that:

  • All looked after children must have a care plan. As far as is reasonably practicable, the care plan should be agreed with the child’s parents (and anyone else with parental responsibility for them).
  • Children’s services should also draw up a placement plan for the child. This will set out arrangements for the child when they are looked after in the care system, including where they will be living.
  • Regular planning and looked after child review meetings will be held to make sure the placement remains suitable, and the care plan is meeting all the child’s needs
  • Once a child has been looked after for four months, children’s services must also prepare a permanence plan for them. This is a long-term plan for a looked after child’s upbringing and living arrangements until they become an adult.

See these website pages for more information about children looked after in the care system:

Children in the care system under voluntary arrangements (section 20) and Children in care under a court order.

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