All Child Care Law relating to children being accommodated by the Local Authority is governed by the Children Act 1989. At the heart of the Children Act is a belief that:
- the best place for children to be looked after is within their own homes
- the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration
- Parents should continue to be involved with their children and any legal proceedings that may concern them, and that legal proceedings should be unnecessary in most instances
- the welfare of children should be promoted by partnership between the family and the Local Authority
- children should not be removed from their family, or contact terminated, unless it is absolutely necessary to do so
- the child’s needs arising from race, culture, religion and language must be taken into account
Welfare of the Child
This will always be regarded as paramount by a Court in considering any question of a child’s upbringing. When the Court is making a decision it must use the following checklist before it decides what to do:
- what are the wishes and feelings of the child
- what are the physical, emotional, and educational needs of the child
- what are the likely effects on the child of any changes in his or her circumstances
- the age, sex, background and any other characteristics of the child that the Court considers to be relevant
- any harm which the child has suffered, or is at risk of suffering
- how capable each parent or other relevant person is of meeting the child’s needs
- the range of power available to the Court under the Children Act
If more than one person has parental responsibility, or more than one has a Residence Order in their favour, and if one of them is not in favour of the child being looked after away from home, then the child cannot be accommodated – even if the other party raises an objection.
Emergency Protection Order
- This is a short term Order which is made if the Court thinks that:
- a child or young person is likely to suffer harm if he or she remains where they are living,
- a child or young person is likely to suffer harm if he or she does not remain at the place where they are living;
- the Local Authority is concerned that a child is suffering, or likely to suffer, harm – and that access to the child is being refused and is required urgently.
The initial Order can be
- made for up to 8 days, with a possible extension for a further 7 days
- can be challenged in Court after 72 hours by the child, a parent, the person with parental responsibility, or the person the child was living with – unless they had notice of the Application, and they were present in Court when the Order was made.
The person who obtains the Order acquires parental responsibility for its duration. Contact must, however, be allowed with the family unless the Court says otherwise. The Court may also give instructions for a medical or psychological assessment of the child. These may be refused by a child who has sufficient understanding to do so.
The Police also have powers under the Children Act to take a child into Police protection for up to 72 hours where a Constable believes that a child would otherwise be likely to suffer significant harm.
- this places a child or young person under the supervision of the Local Authority or a Probation Officer, and this person is required to advise, help and befriend the child
- the Order can only be for one year in the first instance, but the Supervisor can apply for this to be extended. It must not be for more than three years in all, and not after the person is 18 years old
- it may include certain conditions. For example, that the child should have a medical or psychiatric examination or treatment. It may also say that the child should take part in particular activities at specified times
- the Order can be stopped if any interested parties apply to the Court and the Court agrees, or if a Care Order is made
Care Orders and Supervision Orders
The Court can only make a Care Order or a Supervision Order if it is satisfied that:
- the child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, significant harm
- the harm or likelihood of harm is attributable to the care given, or likely to be given, to the child – and is not what would be reasonably expected of a parent
- or the child is beyond parental control
An Interim Care or Supervision Order can initially be made for up to eight weeks and subsequently renewed for a four-week period so that more information can be obtained.
When might a Local Authority apply to take a child into Care?
The usual trigger for Care Proceedings is when the Local Authority believes a child is being neglected. Neglect involves ongoing, serious failure to meet a child’s basic needs and can include
- not taking a child to see a Doctor when they need to go
- not giving the child enough to eat or drink
- not keeping the child clean
- when the Local Authority is worried that the child has been, or is likely, to be abused either by their parents or Carers or other people they know
- physical abuse involving inflicting pain or injury to a child and also includes giving a child harmful substances, such as drugs, alcohol or poison
- sexual abuse when a child is pressured forced or tricked into taking part in any kind of sexual activity
- emotional abuse, when a parent or Carer behaves in a way that is likely to seriously affect the child’s emotional development. This can include constant rejection continual, severe criticism and witnessing domestic violence
What will happen if the Local Authority is worried about a child?
If the Local Authority is seriously worried about the safety or welfare of a child it may start ‘Care Proceedings’. If it also believes that the child should be adopted, it might also apply for a Placement Order.
The Local Authority will firstly ask the Family Court to make an Interim Care Order. Then the Local Authority Social Worker will carry out some investigations into your children’s welfare and suggest a Care Plan.
- the Care Plan outlines what they think should happen to your children, including whether they think your children should be taken into Care or stay in the family
- the Care Plan will be given to the Family Court to help it make the final decision about what should happen to your children
If you do not agree with the Local Authority’s Care Plan for your children we can advise you and put forward your objections. Your child will also have an Independent Reviewing Officer appointed to review the Local Authority’s Care Plan and you can speak to them and attend reviews to give your views.
How long will it take to decide what is going to happen?
It normally takes about nine to twelve months for a Court to decide what is going to happen in the end. There will normally be assessments to help decide whether children can safely remain at or return home or whether they should stay in Care. There may also be assessments of other family members or friends who may be suitable Carers if children are not able to safely return home. There may also be work with the parents to reduce any risk there may be.
What will happen in the end?
The Judge will listen to everyone involved in the Case including you, your Solicitor, the Local Authority Social Worker and the Cafcass worker before making a decision. If the judge is satisfied that it is safe to do so, children will go back home. For others, the Local Authority will find them a new home. That may be with other members of their family or with friends, or it may be with a new family.
These are complex and emotionally charged issues so if you need advice on this or any other aspect of the Law relating to caring for Children, get in touch with our dedicated Team specialising in all areas of Children Law.