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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). For Textphone dial 18001 followed by the advice line number. 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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In what situations can a child a become looked after under a voluntary arrangement? Where might they live? Are there some examples?

In England only a child who is ‘in need’ can be looked after under a voluntary arrangement.

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’ (see section 17 of the Children Act 1989).  All disabled children are children in need. If a child has more significant or complex needs, then they may be classed as a ‘child in need’.  See more information on our Child in need page.

There are four situations where children’s services must provide or arrange somewhere for a child to live so that they become looked after under a voluntary arrangement

  • When there is no-one withparental responsibility for the child (see section 20(1) of the Children Act 1989) or
  • When a child is lost or abandoned (see section 20(1)) or
  • When the person who usually cares for them is unable to provide them with a suitable place to live or care,for whatever reason; (see section 20(1) again)
  • Where a child is 16 and children’s services considers that if they don’t provide the child with somewhere to live, the child’s welfare is ‘likely to be seriously prejudiced’ (see section 20(3) of the Children Act 1989).

There is a situation where children’s services may bring a child into the care system under a voluntary arrangement

Children’s services have a power to bring a child into a voluntary arrangement where:

Children’s services have this power even if the child’s parent with parental responsibility (or someone else who has parental responsibility) can provide the child with somewhere to live. This means this part of the law can be used by children’s services to organise for a child who usually lives at home with their parents or family to have some respite care. Respite care here means when a child has a short stay with a foster carer. This is most often for disabled children and is part of the short break services children’s services offer.

Examples of situations children may be facing when the option of a voluntary arrangement might be raised:

  • A child is an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child
  • A child has been abandoned
  • Parents are arrested or expecting a prison sentence
  • Serious difficulties in a young person’s relationship with their family
  • A teenager is homeless
  • Parents of disabled children feel the family needs short term, respite care for the child – short break
  • A family is struggling, and a voluntary arrangement would help prevent a crisis
  • Children’s services are concerned about whether a parent can safely care for their child; they want to assess the situation while the child lives away from home with relatives.

When a child is looked after it means that either:

  • Children’s services are providing the child with a place to live and with a carer
  • Or it can mean that a place to live and carer has been arranged by, and is supported by, children’s services.

Examples of where a child in a voluntary arrangement may be being cared for include:

  • By unrelated foster carers, including foster carers who could go on to adopt the child
  • In a residential placement
  • By a wider family member such as a grandparent or sibling who has been assessed as a foster carer
  • In a placement in which the parent is also present (e.g. a mother and baby foster placement) a residential assessment unit or with a family member who supervises the care provided by the parent)

Or a:

  • Homeless young person may need supported or semi-independent living accommodation
  • Short-term unrelated foster placement for children when families are struggling to prevent problems escalating. Or at a point of crisis if wider family are not available to help
  • Regular short-term breaks (short breaks) for children with disabilities.
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