‘lost children’ in care are living in limbo Image by listercz AdobeStock_37755377

Children Act 1989 Provision was intended as a short-term measure

Local authorities can place children into care without a court order when they are deemed not to have somewhere suitable to live. This action can only be taken with a parent’s consent, and is intended to be a short-term measure while efforts are made to find a permanent solution.

Unfortunately, research of 143 local authorities by Ridley and Hall Solicitors found that 40% of these children did not have a permanent place to live a year later.

The study, which was carried out between May and October 2019, found that in Central Bedfordshire 55% of the Section 20 children did not have a permanent home after a year. [sentence amended 09:40 19 March 2020 to give dates of the research].

Originally introduced in an attempt to move child law away from the courts, the Section 20 provision of the Children Act 1989 was intended as a short-term measure. It enables local authorities to quickly take over the responsibility of caring for children in a foster home or with another family member.

Ridley and Hall say that there has been growing judicial concern that these particular looked-after children are being accommodated for unacceptably long periods of time before official care proceedings are initiated.

Now, an expert is calling for more resources for permanent care plans for Section 20 children who are already at risk of significant emotional harm.

 James Cook, director and head of childcare law at Ridley and Hall

James Cook, director and head of childcare law at Ridley and Hall, said:

“This legislation, which is designed to give local authorities the power to provide accommodation for children without a court order when they do not have somewhere suitable to live, can be productive and helpful in some circumstances.

“It is, for example, helpful in situations where their parents might need temporary respite.”

He added that there are large numbers of children being kept in temporary care for lengthy periods of time.

“This was never the intention of Section 20, and the potential implications for the children can be truly damaging.

“The primary concern has to be for the welfare of the children.”

The breakdown of family relationships due to prolonged separation, as well as the stigma of being in care and the anxiety caused by the uncertainty of where they will ultimately live, can be extremely harmful. There is no doubt that this can have real, detrimental long-term implications for the children.

“There seems to be a lack of urgency in dealing with the long-term needs of Section 20 children; once they have been removed from the home, the local authority considers them to be less of a priority as they are out of immediate danger.

“No doubt, a lack of resources is partly to blame, but this needs to change.

“I want to urge local authorities to prioritise making longer-term plans via the courts in order to give these children the opportunity for their needs and wishes to be properly considered and represented.

“Despite ongoing pressure on public spending, the need to ensure that local authorities are adequately resourced is vital.

“We must ensure that they are able to effectively plan long-term care and so prevent more children from being lost in the system under Section 20.”

Why does it matter if a child is accommodated under Section 20 for a prolonged period?

If cases are allowed to drift on indefinitely without proceedings being issued, parents and children are subject to uncertainty and the insecurity over the child’s long-term future care.

There are a number of issues affecting ‘looked after’ children: prolonged parental separation can lead to further family breakdown and an inability to form relationships with adults; they have to cope with the stigma of being in care; there is the intrusion of regular social workers’ reviews; plus the stress of not knowing where they will be living long-term.

Section 20 and Central Bedfordshire Council

Central Bedfordshire Council (CBC) was asked why have so many children had been accommodated under section 20 for over 12 months. Also, what plans does it have in place to ensure that fewer children are subjected to uncertainty and insecurity over their long-term future. A CBC spokesperson said:

“Central Bedfordshire Council is committed to providing secure, stable and well-planned care for all the children we look after, so that the best outcomes are achieved for our children.

“Currently 43 per cent of children cared for by Central Bedfordshire Council under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 have been in care for 12 months or more. The majority of these children are unaccompanied asylum seeking children.”

Parent unable to get confirmation date for a safe place for their child

A concerned parent worried about the safety of their child contacted the Chronicle. They said that staff at CBC’s Children Services were unable to give dates for when suitable care and accommodation would be provided.

After following The Chronicle’s suggestion of who to contact at CBC, the parent said that emergency foster care was found later that day. The Chronicle asked CBC why a desperate parent felt that they had to contact a local newspaper to find out how to get the care that their child needs. CBC said:

“Our multi-disciplinary Access & Referral Hub prioritises all requests and referrals to Children’s Services within 24 hours of receipt, backed up by three specialist Assessment teams focussed on assessing children in need and undertaking child protection enquiries.”

When asked if Children’s Services resources were being concentrated on the Council’s Schools for the Future project, the CBC spokesperson said:

“While we can’t comment on individual cases, safeguarding vulnerable children and young people is managed by a different team within Children’s Services to the one that manages the Schools for the Future programme.”