2nd October 2020
2nd October 2020
If Children’s Services are worried about your children, there are a number of ways in which they can be involved without issuing care proceedings.
If the Local Authority receive an allegation that your children are at risk they are obliged to investigate. If they believe that there is no need to be involved they will then close the file on the children.
If they do feel that the family requires further support they may work with your children under Child in Need so that they can assist you to parent your children safely.
If the concerns are more serious then they will hold a formal meeting called a Child Protection Conference. At this meeting a number of professionals involved with the family will attend and provide reports to you before the meeting. An Independent Reviewing Officer will chair the meeting and the professionals will give their views as to their concerns, and whether they feel a Child Protection Plan is necessary. If the children are placed on a Child Protection Plan the different categories are neglect, emotional harm, physical harm or sexual harm. What actions are needed and who are to carry these out will be agreed as part of the plan. Depending on your income, you may be able to access legal advice at this stage, however lawyers are not allowed to contribute to these types of meetings and no public funding is available to enable them to attend with you.
If the Local Authority is so concerned that they are considering issuing care proceedings, they will provide a Letter Before Proceedings. This stage may also be called Public Law Outline or PLO. In the letter they will invite you to a meeting, set out their concerns and the work they require you to do to address the concerns, and also advise you to seek legal advice. You will be able to take a legal representative with you to the meeting and the costs of the legal representative can be covered by Legal Aid, so you do not need to worry that this will cost you anything. We do recommend that you instruct a legal representative at this stage. At the meeting you will talk about the concerns and the Local Authority will give you a reasonable amount of time to address the issues to avoid care proceedings.
If the Local Authority are worried about the children remaining in your care, they may ask you to sign a Section 20 Agreement, which is a voluntary agreement by parents to allow the Local Authority to take children into their care without issuing urgent Court proceedings. This is a voluntary agreement and you can withdraw your agreement at any point and the Local Authority are obliged to return your children, although in reality, withdrawing a Section 20 agreement will often trigger the Local Authority to issue urgent care proceedings if they feel the children will not be safe in your care. Section 20 agreements should not be a long-term solution and should not continue for too long.
As an alternative, if a family member has been assessed as being able to safely care for the children if you cannot, a voluntary family arrangement may be put in place.
Sometimes, the concerns are so serious that if your children are felt to be at immediate risk of harm they may issue Care Proceedings. As a parent in care proceedings you will be entitled to Legal Aid to be legally represented in those proceedings. The children will be appointed a Guardian through CAFCASS who will in turn also appoint a Solicitor for the Children. It is the Guardian’s role to safeguard the children’s best interests and they are independent from the Local Authority. If care proceedings are issued we recommend that you seek immediate legal advice.
Most importantly, it is our advice that you work with the Local Authority openly and honestly and carry out any work required to reduce their level of involvement and avoid care proceedings.
We understand that this can be difficult when you feel that you are being criticised, feel the Local Authority are trying to take your children away from you, or if you have a difficult relationship with the Social Worker, but the parents who successfully navigate working with Children’s Services are the ones who are completely open and honest as to what has gone on, acknowledge what has gone wrong and who work with the Local Authority to put things right for the children.
If you are in any way unsure we do recommend that you contact us for a free half hour advice session and if the Local Authority are involved at Child Protection level, and certainly at Letter Before Proceedings/PLO or Care Proceedings stage, Legal Aid will likely be available for you to receive legal advice.