In certain circumstances the Local Authority has a duty to provide alternative accommodation to children under the age of 18. There are a number of different circumstances which might lead to the local authority needing to intervene and ensure the safety of a young person. It might be that the young person can no longer live in the same house as their parents or they might have been locked out or asked to leave. This will surely be a distressing time, however there are options.
Amelia Smith is a paralegal in the Family Team here at Wollens and has put together this helpful guide looking at the frequently asked questions relating to Section 20 of the Children Act 1989.
What is Section 20?
Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 give local authorities in England and Wales (social services/children’s services) a responsibility for providing accommodation for children who do not have somewhere suitable to live.
Section 20 is not just about physical housing, it is taking a child into the care system by agreement, rather than a court order. This means that however long the Section 20 agreement is in force, the local authority should treat the child as if they were in care.
When can it be used?
Section 20 can be used in circumstances such as when a child has nowhere to live, no one to look after them or if parents can’t look after them for a period of time due to illness or other difficulties such as a short prison sentence or leaving a violent partner.
When can’t it be used?
It cannot be used where a parent objects to the child being accommodated so it is often referred to as ‘voluntary care’ or ‘voluntary accommodation’. Section.20 (7) says the local authority cannot provide accommodation for a child if there is someone who has parental responsibility that objects. In this case, the local authority can apply for a court order or it could be that the police may remove the child in an emergency. If a parent cannot be found, this does not prevent Section 20 being used, but the local authority should try to get consent from everyone. The local authority should not treat silence as valid consent.
Is it separate from court proceedings?
No – a local authority may also offer to provide Section 20 accommodation for a child when that local authority has made an application to court for a care/supervision order or are intending to make one.
What happens to the child under a section 20?
The child will move to foster care while the local authority carries out further investigation. There is no need for a local authority to apply to court to get an order to remove the child from their care. This is because Section 20 can be used without the court overseeing what is going on. The court may be able to get involved at a later date if the local authority thinks that the child should not return home.
What happens if the parents object to a Section 20 being made?
The local authority will need to apply to court for a court order to remove the child from their care or the police can remove the child (only in exceptional circumstances).
- No local authority has any right or power to remove a child from a parent who wants to care for that child, without an order from the court or if the police use their powers to take a child to a place of safety.
- Section 20 does not allow the local authority to share responsibility with the parents.
- The social worker has a responsibility to make sure that the parents genuinely understand what Section 20 accommodation means.
- If the parents object to Section 20, there are only two lawful options available to the local authority to remove a child from their care:
- Either asking the police to exercise their powers to remove the child for a short period of time (up to 72 hours – this is only in wholly exceptional circumstances) or
- By making an application to the court for an emergency protection order or interim care order.
- If a child goes into foster care under Section 20, there should be clear plans about the children’s future. The local authority cannot let the child ‘drift’ in Section 20 accommodation.
- Any Section 20 agreement that the parent is asked to sign should be written clearly and should be in clear, simple terms. If the parents agree it should be recorded in writing.
What is another name for a child under a Section 20 ?
Children who are accommodated under Section 20 by the local authority or under a care order are described as ‘looked after’ by the local authority. This means that the child is kept under review in terms of future plans for their life.
Can a child go into the care of a relative?
Yes – sometimes a child is accommodated under Section 20 with a member of their extended family who is a foster carer. The local authority may organise for the child to live with a relative with a parent’s consent. The hierarchy is that a child should: first live with its parents, if not then a family member/someone known to them and if not foster care with someone unrelated.
Parental responsibility – is it shared?
The Local Authority does NOT share responsibility with the parents if a child is accommodated under Section 20. The Local Authority must agree the plans they make for the child with the parents (and anyone else who has parental responsibility).
Can a parent take their child home ?
Parents can take their child home at any time UNLESS one of the following applies:
- Someone who has a child arrangement order which says the child is to live with them;
- Someone who has a special guardianship order;
- Someone who has care and control of the child by order of the High Court.
What are the social workers responsibilities ?
A social worker has a responsibility to ensure the parents genuinely understand what Section .20 means. They should not feel pressured into agreement. If there is any incline that they do not understand, the social worker needs to advise them to get further legal advice.
How is capacity of a parent relevant ?
Capacity is relevant in these cases – if a parent objects to Section 20, the social worker will have to take another route. To be able to make this decision, the parent must have capacity – able to make decisions. Capacity varies, sometimes they will have it and perhaps sometimes not. For example, able to decide what to have for tea but not what happens to their child. The social worker has a personal duty to be satisfied that the parents understand what is going on.
Can an unborn baby be subject to a Section 20?
If the social worker is worried about the care that may be given to an unborn baby, assessments should be carried out and plans should be discussed well in advance of the baby being born. If parents agree to accommodation before birth, they need to also agree once baby is born. It only occurs in very limited circumstances – to separate a new born from their parents.
How long does a Section 20 last ?
There is no set timeframe, it depends on the child and their circumstances. However, the local authority cannot just keep a child under a Section 20 indefinitely. The local authority should hold reviews every 3-6 months to discuss future plans for the child. The independent review officer should ensure that the local authority are reviewing the situation properly and regularly.
What other documents are involved with a Section 20?
A schedule of expectations will be created. This is what the local authority would like the parents to do or stop doing, while their child is in foster care. This is not legally binding or enforceable but is often relied on in evidence in later care proceedings to show that parent were given the opportunity to make changes in order that the child might be returned to the parental home.
What happens if a parent is placed on bail?
Parents who are on bail with a condition not to have unsupervised contact with their children are unlikely to be able to provide them with accommodation unless they have a friend or relative, which they can send the children to stay with.
At Wollens our family team are experts in this field and can advise you at an early stage.
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