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Children in care under a court order

The law about children in care – what it means to be ‘looked after’ and ‘in care’

What does it mean if a child is looked after in the care system?

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).

Are all children looked after in the care system in care under court orders?

No. 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.

Children’s services duties to children in care

What are the main duties children’s services have when a child is in care under a court order?

Children’s services departments are under a general legal duty to keep any child who is looked after in the care system safe and well cared for (see section 22(3) of the Children Act 1989). This duty applies to any child who is ‘in care’ under a court order. And it also applies to children looked after in the care system under voluntary arrangements. It is a duty that applies whatever the reason a child has become looked after.

There are a range of things children’s services must do to as part of keeping to this duty. Including making sure the views of parents (and other important family members) are gathered and are taken into account when any key decisions are being made about their child (see section 22(4)and(5) of the Children Act 1989).

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.

The two FAQs below look at What do children’s services have to do to understand the needs of child in care under a court order? And the duties and rules that apply when deciding where a child who is in care under a court order should live?

Care plans, placement plans and permanence plans for children in care

There are three types of plans that families will hear about when a child is in care under a court order. These plans must be prepared. The FAQs below explain more.

Duties and plans where a child is under court ordered remand

What is court ordered remand and how does it involve children’s services?

Court ordered remand is when a criminal court makes an order saying a young person under 18 is not to be released on bail whilst they are waiting for their trial.

A criminal court may remand a child to:

  • Children’s services accommodation (see regulation 47A (a) of the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010). This means children’s services provide the child with a place to live. This might be with:
    • Unrelated foster carers
    • In residential care
    • Or it can be where a place to live and carer for a child has been arranged by children’s services. And is supported by children’s services. An example of this is a grandparent who has been assessed and approved by children’s services as a kinship foster carer for a child.
  • Or to youth detention accommodation (see regulation 47A (b) of the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010). This includes young offenders’ institutions, secure training centres and secure children’s homes.

What happens if a child is remanded to youth detention accommodation?

When a child or young person is remanded to youth detention accommodation, children’s services do not have to provide them with somewhere to live and someone to care for them. Instead, they will be in custody and live in one of the three types of placement of accommodation:

When a child is remanded to local authority accommodation, children’s services are responsible for arranging suitable accommodation for them. They should give priority to placing the young person with their parents or wider family network, if suitable. See Where will a looked after child live? for more information about this.

For more information about looked after children and youth justice see government statutory guidance here.

What should be in the care plan for a child who is remanded by a criminal court and who must agree the plan?

Open or download this table which explains what should be in a care plan for a child who is remanded by a criminal court. And how this is different to what should be included in the care plan for other looked after children.

Children’s services must agree the care plans with the child’s parent, a person with parental responsibility. Or, if the young person is aged 16 or over the plan must be agreed with the young person themselves, provided this is practical (see regulation 4 of the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010). Parents as well as young people should be consulted about making and reviewing these plans. The only exception is that the court may have decided on the kind of accommodation the young people will be living in while on remand.

Reviewing arrangements for a child in care

Once a child is looked after in the care system, children’s services must prepare a care plan for them. This is required by Regulation 4 of the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010.

The care plan must be kept under regular review. These reviews will happen at a looked after child review meeting. Sometimes this is shortened to just ‘LAC’ review. This process will happen when a child is in care under a court order. It will also happen where child is looked after under a voluntary arrangement.

The FAQs below explain more about the review process and how often reviews should take place.

Raising concerns about where a child in care under a court order is living

Social workers visiting children in care under court orders

How often should a social worker visit a child who is in care under a court order?

A child’s social worker must visit them during the first week in their new placement. After that, they should visit at least once every six weeks throughout the time the child is in care.

If it is a permanent placement the social worker will visit less often. But government regulations say this should still be at least every three months (see regulation 28 of the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010). A permanent placement is one that the child going to be living in long term. And until they are old enough to live independently.

The social worker must see the child alone. If they have concerns about the care being provided they must report this to their manager and the independent reviewing officer.

What is an independent visitor and will a child in care under a court order have one?

An independent visitor’s role is to:

  • Make friends with the child and establish a trusting relationship
  • Promote the child’s educational, social and emotional development
  • To encourage the child to play an active role in decisions that affect them
  • Offer practical advice and support on a range of issues.

If social workers think a looked after child will benefit from it, then they have a duty to appoint someone to become the child’s ‘independent visitor’. This person must have no connection with the local authority. The decision to appoint an independent visitor is looked at as part discussions about the child’s the care plan. It should be discussed during looked after child reviews.

Most independent visitors are likely to be local volunteers.

Examples of when an independent visitor might be appointed include where a child:

  • Does not get many visits from or contact with members of their family
  • Is placed a long way from their home area

Is unable to go out independently.

Children in care keeping in contact with their parents and wider family

When a child is looked after in the care system it is important for their wellbeing that they keep in touch with members of their family. If it is safe for that to happen. The term ‘contact’ is often used to describe who a child sees or stays in touch with. It also refers to the details of how often and in what way this happens.

Government statutory guidance makes clear that the ‘first weeks that a child is looked after in the care system are likely to be crucial to the success of the relationship between the parent, the social worker and the child’s carers, and to the level of successful future contact between the parents and the child’. It says eearly visits are essential, though parents may need help to cope with both their own and their child’s distress (see paragraph 2.82 in the guidance).

Open or download the table, which looks at the law and guidance about contact that applies when a child is looked after in the care system.

Our table of contact duties aims to show the duties children’s services have. And to help parents and carers see quickly see what they should be able to expect when social workers put together plans for contact for their child. The table explains:

  • Each duty that exists
  • Whether the duty applies to children looked after in a voluntary arrangement, and
  • Whether the duty applies to children looked after under a court order, or
  • Whether it applies to all looked after children
  • Where the legal duty can be found.

Further information and advice about the contact duties children’s services have where a child is looked after in voluntary arrangement is available on our Children looked after under voluntary arrangements (section 20) page.

Messages from research and tips for discussing contact arrangements with social workers

The next three FAQs may be helpful for parents and others wanting to discuss or propose contact arrangements.

Children in care keeping in touch with brothers and sisters (sibling contact)

Seeing or keeping in touch with brothers and sisters is often called ‘sibling contact’. Sibling contact includes contact between full and half-blood siblings.

Children’s services have a legal duty to:

  1. Make sure siblings who are looked after in the care system can live together where reasonably practicable (possible). This means that if brothers and sisters are looked after in the care system they should live together in the same placement where possible. This duty is in section 22C (8) (c) of the Children Act 1989)
  2. Promote contact between a child and their sibling(s) who are also looked after if they are not placed together. This should happen unless it is not consistent with the child’s welfare (see schedule 2, paragraph 15 (1) of the Children Act 1989).

What does government guidance say about sibling contact when children are in care under court orders?

The relevant government guidance is called the Children Act 1989 guidance and regulations volume 2: care planning, placement and case review.

The guidance:

  • Makes clear that sibling contact is a high priority for looked after children and is important
  • Applies to all looked after children. Those who are looked after under voluntary arrangements and those in care under court orders.
  • Is statutory guidance, which means children’s services should follow it unless there is good reason not to

Key points from the guidance are that:

  • Sibling contact can ‘…provide continuity and stability for a child in a time of uncertainty and possibly great change. Sibling contact can help a child maintain their identity in an unfamiliar environment and promote self-esteem and emotional support’ (see paragraph 2.85)

And that:

  • ‘The wishes and feelings of children about where they want their contact to take place and who they want there should be ascertained, as well as the views of children’s carers’ (see paragraph 2.87)
  • ‘It is important that arrangements for contact between siblings should be given very careful attention and plans for maintaining contact must be robust. Contact must be meaningful and take place where children feel safe and supported’ (see paragraph 2.87)
  • ‘It is important that children and young people understand the contact arrangements in place and are fully supported to understand the reasons for contact not happening, including when arranged visits are cancelled. All parties will need support to ensure that contact is a positive experience for all siblings’ (see paragraph 2.88).

Children’s services must include in a child’s care plan the arrangements for contact between brothers and sisters (see schedule 1, paragraph 3(1 ) of The Care Planning, Placement and Review (England) Regulations 2010).

These requirements help to make sure that everyone is clear what the plans for sibling contact are. And to help the arrangements to be carefully reviewed.

How should sibling contact arrangements be reviewed when a child is in care under a court order?

The arrangements for sibling contact should also be regularly reviewed. Government statutory guidance says the independent reviewing officer (IRO) should make sure review meetings consider contact between siblings. The guidance is called the Children Act 1989 guidance and regulations volume 2: care planning, placement and case review. Siblings who are looked after in the care system should share the same IRO (see paragraph 2.89).

Reviewing the sibling contact arrangements involves looking at whether sibling contact is taking place in line with the care plan (see paragraph 2.89). The IRO should make sure the child is happy with the contact they are having (see paragraph 2.85).

What if children’s services say a child in care under a court order should not see their siblings?

If a social worker has said the child should not see their siblings, the parent or carer can:

  • Ask the social worker to give the reasons for this view and the specific information they have looked at in reaching that view
  • Ask for those reasons to be put in writing, in a letter or email
  • Politely remind the social worker about the legal duty on children’s services to ‘promote contact’ between siblings who are looked after in the care system (see schedule 2 paragraph 15(1)) of the Children Act 1989)
  • Remind the social worker about what government guidance says about the importance of sibling contact for children. See What does government guidance say about sibling contact for looked after children?

If there the difficulties with the plans for sibling contact don’t resolve, parents or carers may want to take some legal advice about their options.

Options for getting some advice include:

  • Posting a question on our Parents Forum or Carers Forum and receive advice from one of Family Rights Group’s expert advisers
  • Calling Family Rights Group’s specialist legal and practice advice line on 0808 801 0366 (the advice line is open Monday to Friday, from 9.30 am to 3 pm excluding bank holidays)
  • Taking legal advice about from a solicitor.  To do this, find a solicitor who is a specialist in children law. Or who has Children Law Accreditation. To find a solicitor, search using the ‘how to find a solicitor’ function on the Law Society website.  See our Working with a solicitor guide on our Top tips and templates page for more information about finding and working with a solicitor.

Children in care getting ready to leave the care system

These key principles must be considered by local councils at all times when supporting young people leaving care.

There are different categories of young people leaving care that children’s services owe extra duties to. These are:

  • Eligible children
  • Relevant children
  • Former relevant children
  • Qualifying young person.

The table below shows some key information about each

Our advice sheet Children’s services duties to young people leaving care includes an easy to use chart explaining each different category and the related children’s services legal duties.

Some young people come to the United Kingdom as Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children. This is sometimes shortened to UASC. If they are under the age of 16, leaving care duties apply to them. This is the case whatever their immigration status is.  But when they reach the age of 18 their situation is different.  See our Children’s services duties to unaccompanied asylum seeking children advice sheet for information.

What help can parents or carers get from children’s services if a child in care is getting ready to leave the care system?

If a child is returning home to live with their parent, children’s services must:

Where a child has been looked after in care system for more than 20 days, children’s services must:

Parents whose children are returning home from care should also see our Children returning from the care system to parents or wider family advice sheet.

What is staying put?

Staying put is a duty on children’s services. It is about helping young people to stay with their foster carers after they reach 18 and are no longer looked after. It applies even if the young person has been looked after in the care system by a kinship carer.

The duty is in section 23CZA of the Children Act 1989. It says children’s services should:

  • Where consistent with the young person’s welfare, maintain a former fostering arrangement after the young person reaches 18. This would only be done if both the young person and their foster carer agree that the living arrangement should continue.
  • Monitor the staying put arrangement; and
  • Provide advice, assistance and support to a young person who is a ‘former relevant’ child and the foster parent so that the arrangement can continue until the young person is 21. Support from children’s services must include financial support (see section 23CZA(4) of the Children Act 1989).

The details of all these types of support can be found in our Children’s services duties to young people leaving care advice sheet.

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