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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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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.

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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.

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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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Urgent protection of children

In an emergency or crisis, there are different arrangements that children’s services (and other agencies) can make for a child. Not all of these involve going to court.

This page explains four such ways that a child may be urgently protected. Some of these measures are often followed by care proceedings.

1. Voluntary arrangements

Some children in England are looked after in the care system under a voluntary arrangement. It is an arrangement that can be put in place without any court oversight.   This is not a court order. And children’s services do not have parental responsibility for a child looked after in this way.

Children in voluntary arrangements are not described as being ‘in care’. Instead, they are described as ‘accommodated’ by children’s services.  Voluntary arrangements are therefore sometimes called voluntary accommodation. Or section 20 accommodation. This is because the law about voluntary arrangements is found in section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

There are many different situations which may lead to a child coming into the care system under a voluntary arrangement. Some voluntary arrangements start in response to a crisis or an urgent situation. It may be that children’s services suggests the arrangement because they are worried a child may be unsafe at home. Or it could be that a parent or carer with parental responsibility may ask for their child to come into care in this way for a time.

For more information about voluntary arrangements, including the duties that children’s services have towards children who are looked after in this way, see our Children in care under voluntary arrangements (section 20) page.

2. Police protection

Police protection is not a court order. It is a power the police have to protect a child. It can be used in an emergency and where there is no time for children’s services to go to court. To use this power the police must believe the child will suffer serious harm if they do not use this power.

What police protective powers allow the police to do

The protective powers the police have are set out in section 46 of the Children Act 1989. The powers enable the police to do two things:

  • Remove a child to suitable accommodation for their safety
  • Stop a child being taken from a place where they already are, for example from a hospital where they are being examined or are receiving treatment.

Examples of situations where police protection r might be used

  • The police attend a family home and think it is unsafe for a child to remain there
  • Children’s services believe a child is in need of such immediate protection there is no time to go to court to apply for an emergency protection order or an interim care order. They therefore ask the police to take the child into police protection.

What the courts have said about police protection

The Court of Appeal has said that where possible, children’s services should try to work in partnership with parents. They should do this even in very urgent situations. And that children’s services should apply to the Family Court for an order to protect the child, rather than use police protection. This is because the court process involves ‘a more elaborate, sophisticated and complete process’ than removal under police protection (see Langley v Liverpool City Council [2005] EWCA Civ 1173).

Who looks after a child who is in police protection?

The police themselves do not look after a child who is in their protection. Instead, children’s services have a duty to find a suitable place for the child to stay. This is usually with another family member. Or it may be with an unrelated foster carer or even temporary residential care.

What must happen after police protective powers have been used?

When the police take a child into police protection, the officer in charge and, thereafter the child’s social worker, must:

Let the following people have contact with the child if it is in the child’s best interests:

  • The parents
  • Anyone else who has parental responsibility
  • Anyone your child was living with immediately before being removed
  • Anyone that a court has ordered a child should see (for example under a child arrangements order, or contact order) (see section 46 (10) of the Children Act 1989).

The arrangements for the child to be in touch with a parent or other person listed, are likely to be supervised. And during the Covid-19 pandemic government regulations and restrictions may also affect how contact takes place.

How long can a child stay in police protection for?

A child can be kept in police protection for up to 72 hours. That is three days.

If children’s services think a child should not return home after police protection comes to an end they can consider whether to:

3. Emergency protection orders

If children’s services think that a child may be at immediate risk of significant harm in their parents’ care, they can apply to the court for an emergency protection order. These orders are made under section 44 of the Children Act 1989. Applications for emergency protection order are made where children’s services think a situation is too urgent to wait to start care proceedings.

What is the effect of an emergency protection order?

Parental responsibility:

An emergency protection order grants parental responsibility for the child to children’s services for as long as the order in place. And allows children’s services to remove the child from the care of their parent (or other carer).

Looked after child:

A child subject to an emergency protection order becomes a looked after child. This means that children’s services owe them certain duties. This includes drawing up a written care plan for the child within 10 days of them becoming looked after. See our Children in care under court orders page for more information about these legal duties and information about care plan.

Seeing parents, wider family members and other important people:

The order can be used to prevent the parents or any named person from seeing the child for a short time if it is in the child’s best interest for this to happen (see section 44 (6) of the Children Act 1989).

The court may make an emergency protection order with conditions (see section 44 (8) of the Children Act 1989). This can include conditions about whether and how the child should see their parent(s).

As a child becomes looked after in the care system when an emergency protection order is made, children’s services have a duty to allow the child reasonable contact between the child and their parents (see section 34 of the Children Act 1989).

What are the most important things for parents to know about emergency protection orders?

  1. They can last for up to eight days, but can be extended once for another seven days (see section 45 of the Children Act 1989)
  2. They can be requested at a Family Court hearing that a parent does not know about. This is called a ‘without notice’ hearing. But the law and government statutory guidance called Court orders and pre proceedings says this should only happen in high risk cases where the child would be put in danger if the parent(s) know about the application. Or where it is not possible to tell the parents about the application
  3. If the hearing goes ahead without the parents being notified, the court must make sure:
  • It gives clear reasons in writing about why the order has been made
  • It explains why the parents were not invited to the hearing
  • The hearing is recorded in full
  • All of that information is available to the parents at the next hearing – the return hearing
  • Make sure the parents are invited to the return hearing.
  1. A parent (or anyone else who has parental responsibility or has been caring for the child) who was not present when the order was made can apply to the court for it to be removed (discharged) (see section 45 (8) of the Children Act 1989)
  2. When the Family Court makes the order, it can say what kind of contact should take place between the child and a parent (see section 44 (6) (a) of the Children Act 1989). Contact is who the child will see or be in touch with
  3. The court can also make an ‘exclusion requirement’ when making an emergency protection order. This allows the court to order a person that children’s services believes is a danger to the child to leave the home. This can be done instead of the child having to leave (see section 44A of the Children Act 1989). But this kind of order can be made only if that person agrees.

Will care proceedings still start if an emergency protection order has been made?

Where children’s services remain concerned about a child’s safety at home, they will start care proceedings during the time that the emergency protection order is still in force. They may seek an interim care order if they feel this is necessary to keep the child safe once the emergency protection order expires. Or the parents might be asked whether they agree to the child being voluntarily accommodated by children’s services during the care proceedings. It is very important that if a parent is asked to enter into a voluntary arrangement for their child to become looked after, they seek urgent legal advice. For more information about voluntary accommodation, please see our page on Children in care under voluntary arrangements (section 20).

4. An urgent child arrangements order

The Family Court can make a child arrangements order saying with whom the child should live. This is often described as a ‘lives with child arrangements order’. The court can make this type of order if it thinks someone else should care for a child in an urgent situation. This could be a family member or a friend for example.

In an urgent situation the court is likely to make this order for a fixed period. Or until ‘further order’. Until further order just means the court will leave the child arrangements order in place until it looks at the case again. Or until the court can make final decisions about the child’s long-term care.

If a child arrangements order is made the person then named in the order then shares parental responsibility for the child. This is only for as long as the child arrangements order is in place (see section 12(2) of the Children Act 1989).

A child arrangements order does not give children’s services parental responsibility for the child.

The court must make an interim supervision order when making a ‘live with’ child arrangements order, unless it is satisfied that the child is safe without it (see section 38(3) of the Children Act 1989).

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