Knowledge Inquiry: Children who come into the care system under a voluntary arrangement

Your Family, Your Voice, is an alliance of families and practitioners that has been developed by Family Rights Group to counter the stigma and negative presumptions about families whose children are subject to, or at risk of, state intervention. The Alliance is leading a Knowledge Inquiry to look in detail at one part of our child welfare system - the powers and duties which exist under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. The inquiry was launched on 8th December 2016 at a national meeting of Your Family, Your Voice held in London.

The Children Act 1989 is the leading source of child welfare law in England & Wales and explains that children who are cared for within the care system are known as ‘looked after’ children. Some children are ‘looked after’ because a court has decided that it is in their best interests for that to happen. Other children become ‘looked after’ without the court being involved. It is because of the powers and duties that are in section 20 of the Children Act 1989 that children’s services (previously called ‘social services’) can in specific circumstances provide and arrange care for children without the oversight of the court. The power to do this under section 20 is called the ‘provision of accommodation for children’ and children provided with accommodation in this way become ‘looked after’ children.

Children’s services can provide accommodation for a child when the person who has been caring for the child is prevented from providing suitable accommodation or care. Children’s services can also provide accommodation to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child, even though a parent can provide accommodation. The powers and duties in section 20 enable children’s services to make arrangements for children who are abandoned or separated from their parents without needing to ask a court (e.g. an unaccompanied refugee child). These powers and duties also require that, in certain situations, children’s services provides accommodation to young people who are homeless.

Section 20 perhaps attracts much interest and attention because it can allow children’s services to provide accommodation for a child with the agreement of a parent (or other person who has parental rights and responsibilities for the child). Children’s services may not provide accommodation for a child if a parent who is able to provide, or arrange for, accommodation for the child objects. Once a child is provided with accommodation and becomes looked after a parent may remove the child at any time. This is because the arrangement is a voluntary one and parental responsibility (PR) is not shared by local authority. Children who have reached the age of 16 years can themselves agree to be accommodated however.

Children who live in section 20 arrangements may be in different types of accommodation and placements. This could be with unrelated foster carers, including foster carers who could go on to adopt the child (this is called ‘foster for adoption’); in a residential placement; with a parent; or with a wider family member such as a grandparent or sibling.

We are keen to hear from practitioners and families in Wales too. Please note that the duties and powers equivalent to those under section 20 Children Act 1989 voluntary arrangements are provided for in Wales under section 76 of the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014.

In addition to the information on this page, our briefing note will tell you more about Family Rights Group, the Alliance, section 20 Children Act 1989 and the Knowledge Inquiry.

The Inquiry context

As at 31 March 2016 nearly 19,000 of the 70,440 children that were in the care system were looked after under a section 20 voluntary arrangement. There are now record numbers of care proceedings and recent cases before the family courts have highlighted significant gaps in good practice where the powers in section 20 Children Act 1989 are used to place children and young people in care without going to court.

There is however no clear picture of how section 20 powers and duties are being used. There is no focussed government guidance indicating how practitioners and local authorities should or can use section 20 powers as part of a wider goal of delivering a good service to children, young people and families.

Against this background the Inquiry aims to find out the following:

  • What was the original purpose and intention behind section 20 Children Act 1989?
  • Is that original purpose and intent still valid and relevant today?
  • How is section 20 presently being used in England, and section 76 (Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014) in Wales?
  • What needs to change and what are the priorities?

Our Reference Group

Our work on the Knowledge Inquiry is being supported by a Reference Group of people who have a particular interest in this issue and the project.

The members of a Reference Group are:

  • Her Honour Judge Isobel Plumstead
  • Professor June Thoburn, University of East Anglia
  • Maria Young, Head of Children and Families, Swindon Council
  • Angela Frazer-Wicks and Robert Tapsfield, Co-chairs of Your Family, Your Voice
  • Emma Kendall, Barrister at St Philips Chambers
  • Sophie Conway, Youth and Young Parent Advocate at Just for Kids Law

You can find out more about each of the members of the Reference Group here.

Who we would like to hear from

We would like a range of individuals and organisations who have experience of, or have been affected by the use of, section 20 arrangements to contribute to the Knowledge Inquiry.

We would like to hear from:

  • Children and young people;
  • Parents;
  • Kinship carers (also known as family & friends carers);
  • Social workers and social work managers as well as other practitioners such as family support workers, contact workers and advocates;
  • Foster carers;
  • Lawyers; and
  • Voluntary sector organisations, policy makers and academics.

How to take part

Parents, kinship carers (also known as family & friends carers), foster carers, social care practitioners, lawyers, voluntary organisations, policy makers and academics to have been invited to share their experiences, views and insights by completing online, tailored questionnaires. The deadline for completing a questionnaire has now passed. We are delighted to have received questionnaire responses from all of these different groups during the Inquiry. You can still follow the progress of the Inquiry by looking for regular updates on this the Inquiry webpage.

Inquiry activities

In addition to the online questionnaires, the Inquiry also includes:
  • A series of focus groups with a range of interested individuals including social work practitioners and families;
  • A one day challenge event which took place on 24th April 2017 which brought together family members, practitioners and managers, policy makers and academics to discuss the information and ideas that have come from the consultation process and to help us develop the Inquiry’s main conclusions and recommendations; and
  • A legal roundtable which will take place in May 2017.

We are delighted to announce that the Inquiry legal roundtable event will be hosted by Birkbeck College Law Department. The event will be chaired by Her Honour Judge Isobel Plumstead and will include welcoming remarks from Professor Daniel Monk./p>

This roundtable will bring together solicitors, barristers and academics with specialist interest and expertise of relevance to the Inquiry. Topics for discussion will be informed by the findings from the Inquiry’s online consultation with practitioners and families as well as by freedom of information data gathered from local authorities about their section 20 Children Act 1989 (and equivalent provision in Wales) looked after children populations. Participants will be engaging in lively discussion about the existing legal framework, discussing its strengths as well as how the law and legal practice might respond to identifiable limitations, gaps and tensions. The roundtable discussions will help to inform the Inquiry’s final report recommendations.

Click here for details of the roundtable contributors.

The Inquiry Report

Family Rights Group has launched (10.07.2017) the Your Family, Your Voice Alliance Knowledge Inquiry report on section 20 voluntary arrangement for children coming into the care system. See full report including findings and recommendations here.

Research undertaken as part of the Inquiry including a freedom of information request submitted to all English local authorities found that 163 children in care under a voluntary arrangement have been placed with foster carers who are already approved as suitable adopters since foster for adoption legislation came into force three years ago. 111 of these are new born babies aged under 6 weeks old. In many such cases the parents will not have had access to free, independent legal advice and there will not have been any court scrutiny of the decision.

For further information or to express and interest in the Inquiry or specific activities please contact Caroline Lynch, Principal Legal Adviser at Family Rights Group at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..