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Children in the care system under voluntary arrangements (section 20)

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. It is not a court order. And children’s services do not have parental responsibility for a child.

When a child becomes looked after in this way it is especially important that children’s services work in partnership with their family. And that fair processes will be followed.

The law and what it means to be ‘looked after’ and under a voluntary arrangement

Four important questions about voluntary arrangements

Best practice and voluntary arrangements (what should families be able to expect from children’s services)

Before a child becomes looked after under a voluntary arrangement, parents and carers should be given clear and accurate information. Children’s services should tell parents and carers about their rights. And about what responsibilities children’s services have. Parents and carers should never be pressured into agreeing to the plans proposed.

The information in this section is drawn out from:

The following information aims to help families know what they should be able to expect from children’s services. And understand their rights and options when voluntary arrangements are discussed, put in place or continue.

What should a parent be told by children's services when a voluntary arrangement is first discussed?

  1. Children’s services should provide parents with clear, accurate information
  2. Children’s services should explain the situations in which a parent or other person with parental responsibility can:
  • Object to a voluntary arrangement
  • Remove a child from a voluntary arrangement
  1. Children’s services must share information about their responsibilities. What is shared may vary depending on the precise situation but may include:
  • Children’s services power to apply to start court proceedings if they suspect (have reasonable grounds) that a child is likely to suffer significant harm
  • Key duties children’s services will have once the child is looked after in the care system
  1. Children’s services must share information about the plans for the child including:
  • Where the child will be living and who will be looking after the child. There is no exception to this duty. These details must be shared (see schedule 2, paragraph 15 of the Children Act 1989).
  • What the proposed arrangements are for the child to see their parents or carers and other family members while looked after under the voluntary arrangement.

What other points of good practice guidance have the courts suggested?

  • Put the arrangements in writing so what is being proposed is clearly set out or recorded
  • Explain the arrangements in plain language
  • If English is not a parent or carers first language, or they do not feel confident speaking or reading English, an interpreter should be used. And anything written should be translated into their first/preferred language
  • There should be opportunity for the parent to seek legal or other advice if they don’t understand something. Parents can ask the social worker for more time to go away and seek legal advice, or to think about their options before a voluntary arrangement is put in place
  • If the arrangements are set out in writing the parent or carer should be asked to sign the document. Even if the parent or carer is not asked to sign a written document, the social worker should take time to carefully explain what the arrangements are.

See for Re N (Children) (Adoption: Jurisdiction) [2015] EWCA Civ 1112) for example.

What if it is an emergency situations?

In an emergency, a child may be taken into a voluntary arrangement without discussing this with a parent or carer with parental responsibility. One example of this is where a parent or carer has been arrested or taken into hospital.

In such situations it may not be possible for a parent or carer be given clear and accurate information about their rights at the time the arrangement is put in place. But the Supreme Court has said that this information should be given as soon as possible afterwards (see Williams & Anor v LB Hackney [2018] UKSC 37 at paragraphs 40 and 41).

Open or download our note of some relevant extracts from the Supreme Court case of Williams & Anor v LB Hackney [2018] UKSC 37).

Children’s services duties to children in voluntary arrangements

What are the main duties children’s services have when a child is in the care system under a voluntary arrangement?

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 looked after under a voluntary arrangement? And the duties and rules that apply when deciding where a child should live.

Care plans, placement plans and permanence plans for children looked after under voluntary arrangements

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

Reviewing plans when a child looked after under a voluntary arrangement

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 should happen for any looked after child. The FAQs below explain more.

Foster for adoption and voluntary arrangements

Raising concerns where a child is looked after under a voluntary arrangement

Social workers visiting children looked after under voluntary arrangements

How often should a social worker visit a child who is looked after under a voluntary arrangement?

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 looked after.

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.

These same duties apply where a child is looked after under a court order.

What is an independent visitor and will a child looked after in the care system under a voluntary arrangement 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.

The duties in relation to independent visitors apply to all children looked after in the care system. So an independent visitor may be in place for child in care under a court order too.

Children in voluntary arrangements keeping in touch with parents and wider family and friends

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.

Where a child is looked after under a voluntary arrangement, these contact arrangements should be agreed with the parent or other person with parental responsibility.  It is always important to remember that when a voluntary arrangement is in place children’s services does not have parental responsibility.

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.

Open or download the table here.

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 voluntary arrangements 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 when children are looked after under voluntary arrangements?

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).

And in relation to voluntary arrangements, the guidance reminds children’s services that:

  • Contact is ‘a matter for negotiation and agreement between the responsible authority, the child, parents and others seeking contact’ (see paragraph 2.99 ).

Children’s services must include in a child’s care plan the arrangements for contact between brothers and sisters. If the Family Court has made any orders about sibling contact (under section 8 of the Children Act 1989) then all the details should be included in the care plan. This is all required by government regulations – see schedule 1, paragraph 3(1 ) and (2) of The Care Planning, Placement and Review (England) Regulations 2010.

Tip

It can be helpful to remind a child’s social worker or independent reviewing officer of what the guidance says. It can be useful to do this if parents or carers are worried there are not good plans for sibling contact in place. Or if sibling contact is not taking place as agreed and planned.

Children in voluntary arrangements getting ready to leave the care system

Children’s services duties to homeless 16 and 17 year olds

There are two ways that children’s services can provide a young person with somewhere to live. These are:

  1. In a voluntary arrangement under section 20 of the Children Act 1989.
  • The young person will become looked after in the care system. And children’s services will have parental responsibility for them.
  • Children’s services will have legal duties to make sure the young person is well cared for and supported
  • These duties include providing support when the young person leaves the care system
  1. Provide accommodation to a young person who is a child in need. The power to do this is in section 17(6) of the Children Act 1989.
  • The law says a child in need is a child who needs extra support or services to help them achieve or maintain ‘a reasonable standard of health or development’
  • This means the child needs extra help to be healthy and develop properly
  • The definition of a child in need comes from section 17(10) of the Children Act 1989).
  • A young person provided with accommodation in this way will not be a looked after child. And children’s services will not hold parental responsibility for them. It is rare for children’s services.

Where a young person is 16 or 17 years old and is homeless, children’s services have duties to support them. What children’s services need to do depends on the situation. Open or download this table which explains more.

What housing support is available when a young person leaves the care system?

The government has produced good practice advice for local councils to guide them in how to support young people who are leaving care to access suitable housing. It includes information about the support available from housing services and others. It is called the Joint housing protocol for care leaves – good practice advice for local authorities.

Parents or family members of young people who are leaving care may find it helpful to look at our detailed advice sheets about young people Leaving the care system on our Advice sheets page.

If a child is 16 and does not want to come home, can they be made to return home?

16 and 17 year olds cannot be made to return home from accommodation if they wish to remain there. A 16 or 17 year old can agree their own care plan, which includes where they will live.

Parents in this situation may want to ask their child’s social worker to make a referral for a family group conference. A family group conference is a family-led decision-making meeting. It brings together the whole family and others who are important to the young person.  Together, at the family group conference, they make a plan. It may be a helpful way to talk and think through r where the young person will live. And what support may be available to them from within the family and friends’ network. See our Family group conferences: advice for families page for more information.

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