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Social Services Legal Advice

There may be times when parents struggle to provide proper care for their children and they may need some support and guidance. Often this is linked with other problems, for example with mental health, alcohol or drugs. In these circumstances social services may decide that they need to intervene in the family. There will be a number of options available and it is important that parents have independent legal advice at the earliest opportunity.

Social services may ask parents to consider entering into a formal agreement with them so that they may look after the child in foster care. They may wish parents sign an agreement that they will follow a list of specific rules. Parents should always seek legal advice before entering into a formal agreement. It may be that this is the best option for parents and their children, but it is important that parents understand all the implications before finalising an agreement.

If there is a risk that social services may go to court to seek an order to remove children from parents’ care, it is important for parents to have independent legal advice and representation at court. Social services cannot take children away unless they have the parents’ consent or a court order. If court proceedings are issued, a parent or someone else with parental responsibility will be entitled to legal aid and Fisher Jones Greenwood are able to help in these circumstances.

Fisher Jones Greenwood have independently accredited solicitors, who are members of the Law Society’s Adult and Children panel. We have dedicated solicitors who deal with disputes with social services on a daily basis and who are recognised as having a high level of skill, knowledge, experience and practice within this specialised area of law. They can also act on behalf of children in these types of cases.

Fisher Jones Greenwood can help parents decide what is the best course of action and advise them on their rights and the rights of their children. We have considerable experience of dealing with families from different backgrounds and cultures, as well families who have mental health, drug and alcohol problems and those with special needs. We recognise that involvement of social services is a difficult and stressful time and our solicitors are experienced in supporting and advising parents through this.

How FJG can help?

The following free legal information pages will give you further details and information but if social services are involved in your family’s life or have expressed concern for a child in your care, the faster you act the better. Please contact our Public Law Specialists – call 01206 835320 or email [email protected] for further information.

If Social Services or the Police are seeking to remove your child on an emergency basis outside normal office hours, please contact our emergency child removal hotline which is open from 5:15pm until 8:00pm weekdays and 7:00am until 8:00pm weekends on 01206 835205.

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With over 40 years’ experience, Fisher Jones Greenwood is a long-established Essex Solicitors. With nine offices around Essex, Suffolk and London. Phone us on 08455 435 700 or email us and we’ll call you back to arrange a meeting with a solicitor or lawyer.

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Disputes with Social Services

Adoption

Social Services and Adoption

At the conclusion of care proceedings, the court may make a care order placing the child in the care of the local authority.

At the same time, the court may make a placement order where the court authorises the local authority to place the child for adoption with prospective adopters.

A placement order can be made without the parent’s consent, only if the child is subject to a care order.

At the outset of the court proceedings, the local authority are required to consider all of the possible outcomes for the child. This is known as ‘parallel planning’ and in practise means that whilst undertaking assessments of the parents, the local authority will also be preparing the necessary paperwork should it become necessary to propose a plan for the child to be placed for adoption.

Once a child has lived with the prospective adopters for a specified amount of time, then the prospective adopters can apply for an adoption order.

Click here for further information on Adoption.

If you have any questions regarding social services and adoption, please contact our Public Law Specialists – call 01206 835320 or email [email protected].

Child Protection Conferences

Child Protection Conferences

If social services receive information that a child may be at risk of harm, they will carry out an investigation. As part of this investigation, the parents will meet with the social worker to discuss the concerns.

If the conclusion of the investigation is that the child may be at risk of significant harm, which can include physical, neglect, sexual, emotional or online abuse, a child protection conference may be held.

If the child protection conference considers that the child is at risk of significant harm it will formulate a plan detailing what must happen to reduce the risks to the child and to protect them from risk of future significant harm.

Prior to the conference, the social worker will prepare a report setting out his/her concerns. The report will be shared with the parents in advance of the conference.

It is very important that the parents attend the conference so that they are able to share their views on the concerns which are being raised. Parents may ask one adult to come with them to support them. This could be a friend, relative, solicitor, or advocate but it is important that the parents inform the chairperson in advance that they will be bringing someone with them. That person may listen and observe, but not contribute to the conference.

The conference will be chaired by an independent chairperson and representatives from all agencies involved with the child will be invited to attend, for example, the Police, the GP, the Health Visitor, Probation, and the School.

At the conference, those in attendance will share what information and concerns they have in respect of the child.

After everyone has shared their concerns, the representatives from the various agencies will be asked to decide and vote as to whether they consider that the child is at risk of significant harm and as such should be the subject of a child protection plan. The parents will not be able to vote on the decision.

If it is decided that the child is at risk of significant harm, the representatives will need to agree the type of risk, for example, physical, sexual, emotional abuse, or neglect.

The contents of the child protection plan will then be agreed between the representatives, ensuring that it is clear who is responsible for the various actions considered necessary to protect the child from risk of future significant harm.

A date for a review conference will then be fixed within the next 3 months and interim reviews will then be held (if necessary) within every 6 months.

Child protection conferences are regulated by law. Please note that each local authority has its own procedures.

If you have been invited to a child protection conference, please contact our Public Law Specialists – call 01206 835320 or email [email protected].

Accommodation & Support

The Local Authority’s Duty to Provide Accommodation and Support

Children in Need

It is a local authority’s duty to protect and promote the welfare of children in need.

Children in need are defined as:-

  1. Children who need local authority services to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development.
  2. Children who need local authority services to prevent significant or further harm to health or development.
  3. Children who are disabled.

In many cases, the local authority can work with the family, providing support services to enable the child to remain in the care of their parents.

The support which the local authority can provide can take many forms and can include (amongst many other things) the following:-

  1. Advice, guidance and counselling.
  2. Financial assistance (in exceptional circumstances).
  3. Respite care.

Duty to Provide Accommodation

Sometimes the local authority will need to make arrangements for a child to live somewhere other than their home.

There can be a variety of reasons as to why this need arises, for example, a parent may need an operation or have serious health needs which prevents him/her from being able to care for the child.

When the local authority makes such arrangements, the child will be referred to as “looked after”.

There are two ways in which a child can be ‘looked after’ by the local authority:-

  1. On a voluntary basis, or;
  2. Where the child is made the subject of a court order within care proceedings.

Where the child is ‘looked after’ on a voluntary basis, the parents retain all the rights and responsibilities for the child and can remove them from the accommodation at any time.

A local authority has a duty to provide accommodation for a child in need who requires accommodation if:-

  1. There is no one with legal responsibility for the child; or
  2. The child is lost or has been abandoned; or
  3. The person who has been caring for the child cannot continue to provide suitable care and accommodation for whatever reason; or
  4. The child has reached 16 and the child’s welfare is likely to be placed seriously at risk if the local authority does not provide the child with accommodation.

If the local authority is providing accommodation for a child, then it must hold regular review meetings and draw up a plan, in writing, setting out the arrangements that will be made for the child.

The child may be accommodated with foster carers or in a children’s home. Foster carers can, in certain circumstances and subject to certain assessments, include someone from within the home, relatives or friends of the family.

Where the court has made a care order in relation to the child, the local authority will take on responsibility for the child. In these circumstances, the local authority will make arrangements for where the child should live. The parents will have input in this but will not be able to remove the child if they do not agree with the placement.

Agreeing for a child to be accommodated may help parents through a particularly tough time and may help avoid care proceedings. In certain circumstances, the local authority will ask parents to sign a written agreement to consent to the child being accommodated by the local authority. It is important that parents seek legal advice before agreeing to, or signing anything.

If you have any further questions about the duties of your local authority in your family’s life, please contact our Public Law Specialists – call 01206 835320 or email [email protected].

Assessments

Social Services Parenting Assessments

Prior to commencing care proceedings, social services are required to undertake an assessment of the child’s parents to consider their ability to care for and safeguard them from risk of harm.

If a social services assessment is being undertaken, it is important that parents seek independent legal advice at the earliest possible opportunity.

As part of social services further investigations and within care proceedings further assessments may be ordered, if considered necessary, to give further consideration to a person’s ability to care for a child.

Some typical assessments that the court may order are as follows:-

  1. Parenting assessment.
  2. Psychiatric assessment.
  3. Psychological assessment.
  4. Paediatric assessment.

Information from drug agencies, mental health agencies and others may be called upon within the context of the care proceedings.

If a child has suffered an injury which may be non-accidental, the court may order several assessments and list a “fact-finding” hearing in order to determine how the injuries were caused.

If a family member is putting themselves forward as a prospective carer for the child, an assessment will be undertaken of his/her ability to care for them. It is important that the family member understands the implications of this and he/she should seek independent legal advice at an early stage.

If a child has particular needs and/or if there are particular concerns about the child, an assessment may be undertaken on the child.

If there are concerns about children being placed together, an assessment may be undertaken to determine what, if any, risks there are in doing this and to consider the effects of separating children from their brothers/sisters.

If you have any queries relating to social services assessments, please contact our Public Law Specialists – call 01206 835320 or email [email protected].

Care Proceedings

Child Care Proceedings

Should a social services department believe that the child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm in its current environment, it may initiate care proceedings.

Removing a child from his or her parents without their agreement has serious and important implications and therefore only a court can authorise this. The initiation of care proceedings may follow a recommendation from a child protection case conference or review, or in an emergency the social services department would seek something called an ’emergency protection order’.

An emergency protection order is initially limited to eight days, to protect a child in an emergency where he or she is otherwise likely to suffer significant harm. It is granted by a court who will usually ask that the parents give their views before making the order. Social services might ask the police to take the child concerned into ‘police protection’ if they consider that harm, or further harm, was imminent.

If an emergency protection order is granted, this will be reviewed by the court within one or two weeks, when an application for an interim care order may be considered. If an interim care order is granted, then the social services department will take over the major decisions for the child, as it is granted overriding parental responsibility at this time.  It will then have the power to place the child in foster care, if approved by the court, while the court proceedings last. During this time, the local authority is still under a duty to promote and to support contact between the parents and their children (contact with children in care). Even if the children are placed in foster care at the start of proceedings, it is still possible for them to be returned home at the end of proceedings.

Once care proceedings have been started, the court (either the family proceedings court or the county court in more difficult cases) will take control. The court will make any orders considered necessary in the interim and will fix a timetable which will be reviewed at each subsequent court hearing, and which will set out the procedure and timescales for any assessments, reports, or statements.

These proceedings have a fixed limit of 26 weeks. If necessary the limit can be extended by a further 26 weeks in 8 week stages.

If the child is made subject to a final care order then a care plan will be put in place (see Care Plan and Reviews tab below).

If you are told by a social worker that they intend to issue care proceedings in respect of a child in your care, you should seek advice from a solicitor urgently. If you have any further questions regarding care proceedings, please contact our Public Law Specialists – call 01206 835320 or email [email protected].

If Social Services or the Police are seeking to remove your child on an emergency basis outside normal office hours, please contact our emergency child removal hotline which is open from 5:15pm until 8:00pm weekdays and 7:00am until 8:00pm weekends on 01206 835205.

Children’s Guardian

The Role of the Children’s Guardian in Care Proceedings

If care proceedings are issued, a guardian will be appointed on behalf of the child.

Children’s guardians are extremely experienced and may previously have been social workers or probation officers. However, they do not work for the local authority. They are independent welfare officers who have the responsibility of representing the child and ensuring that the child’s views are made known to the court.

Once appointed by the court, a children’s guardian will:-

  1. Instruct a solicitor to represent the child. This solicitor must be a member of the children’s panel, approved by the law society.
  2. Meet with and provide advice to the child.
  3. Provide the court with a written report advising what he/she considers to be in the best interests of the child, even if it does not coincide with the child’s views.

In their role, the children’s guardian must have regard for the welfare checklist.

The children’s guardian will attend all of the court hearings (unless they have been excused by the court).

The independence of the children’s guardian is very important.

Their experience is vital to the care proceedings and the children’s guardian will frequently take an active role, pressing the local authority into action and the parent(s) into response.

The guardian’s report is one of the most important documents before the court.

A children’s guardian may also be appointed in court proceedings concerning a child but not involving the local authority. For example, where there is a fixed dispute between the parents.

If you have any further questions regarding the role of the children’s guardian, please contact our Public Law Specialists – call 01206 835320 or email [email protected].

Contact with Children in Childcare

Contact With Children In Care

Before making an interim or final care order, the court must give consideration to the local authority’s arrangements for the parents to have contact with the child.

If a care order is made (interim or final), any previous court orders regarding where the child is to live and/or the time which a child is to spend with a parent are discharged.

The local authority must promote and allow reasonable contact between a child who is either subject to a care order or looked after by the local authority and his/her parents (and certain others) unless it is not reasonably practical or consistent with the child’s welfare to do so. ‘Reasonable contact’ means that which is agreed between the local authority and the parents, or in the absence of agreement, what is ‘objectively reasonable’.

‘Contact’ covers all forms of contact with a child from sending and receiving letters to telephone contact to face to face contact.

Sometimes parents do not agree the arrangements made by the local authority for them to have contact with the child. In certain circumstances, the Court can be asked to make a decision on the arrangements.

The negotiation of the arrangements is a detailed process and parents should seek independent legal advice in relation to the same.

In some long-term placements, the arrangements for the family to have contact with the child can be severely restricted. Parents should seek independent legal advice in relation to these arrangements if they are not happy with them.

If you have any questions regarding contact with a child in care, please contact our Public Law Specialists – call 01206 835320 or email [email protected].

Court orders

Children’s Court Orders

The court can only make an order, at the end of the care proceedings, if it considers that the ‘threshold criteria’ have been met.

Threshold criteria means:

  1. The child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and
  2. The harm or likelihood of harm is attributable to:
  • The care given to the child, or likely to be given to him/her if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or
  • The child’s being beyond parental control.

The court will then consider whether an order should be made and if so, what type of order. In doing this, the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration, and the court will have regard to the welfare checklist. The court will not make an order unless it is better for the child for an order to be made. The court will also consider the proposed arrangements for contact with the child (contact with a child in care), invite comment on these arrangements, and scrutinise the care plan.

If the problems have been resolved during the proceedings the court may decide to make no order at all.

Interim Orders

An emergency protection order

An emergency protection order gives the local authority/social services parental responsibility for the child named in the order. That parental responsibility, is in addition to the parental responsibility that the child’s parents or any other person has. The order is initially limited to eight days and is to protect a child in an emergency, where he or she is otherwise likely to suffer significant harm.

While the order is in force, it authorises:

  1. The applicant to remove and accommodate the child
  2. The prevention of the child’s removal from hospital, or other place where he was accommodated before the order was made. It also operates as a direction for any person, in a position to do so, to comply with any request to produce the child to the applicant

Child assessment order
This is an order for the assessment of the child’s health or development, or of the way in which he has been treated.

Interim Care Order
The court has the power to make ‘interim care orders’, these are care orders made during the life of the care proceedings and they are temporary until the next interim care order is made, or discharged, or the Final Care Order is made.

A care order is an order placing the child in the care of a designated local authority. The local authority must receive the child into its care and provide accommodation and maintain the child for the duration of the order. Effectively, the court is handing over responsibility for the child to the local authority.

No proceedings can be brought with regard to a child who has reached the age of 17. A care order lasts until a child is 18 years old unless it is brought to an end earlier.

Final Orders

Care Order
A care order will give the authority to social services to make decisions about the children, and this may involve plans for the long-term care for the children, education, health, long-term foster care, or a planned return of the children to their parents after a set period. The local authority will be given parental responsibility on the making of a care order, jointly with the other people who hold parental responsibility. However, the local authority’s parental responsibility is overriding. Before making any decisions the authority should take into account the wishes and feelings of the child and parents.

The court has the power to order, along with a care order provision for contact with the child (contact with a child in care), a parental responsibility order, and orders with respect to guardians.

Once a final order has been made, the court will no longer be involved with the care plan or reviews. This will be a matter for the independent reviewing officer.

Supervision order
This is an order which places the child under the supervision of the local authority. The grounds under which the court may make a supervision order are the same for that of a care order. However, the child will return home with the parents or whoever the child is to live with, but under the supervision of the local authority. In this case, the local authority (as supervisor) does not acquire parental responsibility.

Once care proceedings have started, the court also has the power to make ‘interim supervision order’ throughout the duration of the proceedings. The court has the power to make a supervision order on an application for a care order and vice versa.

The basic duties of the supervisor are to advise, assist, and befriend the child and to take steps to give effect to the order. Other powers of the supervisor will depend on the contents of the order.

A supervision order may contain the following requirements:

  1. a requirement for the child to comply with the directions of the supervisor on certain specific matters;
  2. with the consent of any person with parental responsibility for the child and with whom the child lives, a requirement for this person to take certain steps or to comply with the supervisor’s directions;
  3. a requirement that the supervised child submits to specified medical or psychiatric examination;
  4. provided certain conditions are satisfied, a requirement that the supervised child shall submit for such treatment concerning his mental health as may be specified.

The broad structure is approved by the court, but implementation is left to the supervisor. If the supervisor’s directions are not complied with, the supervisor can only seek a variation or discharge of the order. The directions cannot be directly enforced either by the supervisor, or by the court.

Unless it is ordered for a period of less than a year, a supervision order will come to an end after one year from the date it was made. The supervisor can apply to the court for the order to be extended, or further extended, beyond the period set by the court or the first year.

Along with a supervision order the court can award a parental responsibility order, orders with respect to the guardians, a child arrangements order, prohibited steps order, specific issue order, and financial relief.

Child Arrangements Order

The court may also make a child arrangements order setting out where, and with whom a child is to live, and the arrangements for a parent to spend time with the child. An order of this kind could be made along with a supervision order.

Special guardianship order

See Special Guardianship Orders.

If you have any further questions regarding the orders which courts can make within care proceedings, please contact our Public Law Specialists – call 01206 835320 or email [email protected].

Care Plan & Reviews

Care Plans and Reviews for Children in Care

Care plans

In situations where the local authority is looking after a child within care proceedings the local authority has a duty to provide a care plan.

In care proceedings, this plan will be considered and will need to be approved by the court.

The care plan will be reviewed regularly and will outline what has been decided on a temporary basis as well as the current long term arrangements for the child.

The care plan should have been the subject of detailed discussions between the local authority and the parents, the children’s guardian, and any other parties. The court can not impose it’s own care plan. It can only approve or reject the plan put forward by the local authority.

The care plan should include (amongst other things) details of:-

  1. The long term plan for the child, including timescales, and
  2. A summary of the child’s needs and how these are to be met, and
  3. The arrangements for the parents to spend time with the child, and
  4. The wishes and feelings of the parents and any relevant others.

The local authority should always have an alternative plan in mind should the care plan not be achieved, this is often referred to as parallel planning.

The care plan is a very important document and is often the main subject of dispute within care proceedings.

Reviews

As long as a child is in local authority care, be it on a voluntary basis or in situations where there is a court order in place, the local authority have to carry regular, statutory reviews.

These are called ‘looked after child reviews’ (LAC reviews). The reviews are carried out by an independent reviewing officer and parents and other relevant parties will be invited along to the same. It is very important that parents attend these meetings during which the arrangements for the child will be considered and decisions made.

If you have any questions regarding care plans or reviews, please contact our Public Law Specialists – call 01206 835320 or email [email protected].

Social Services Intervention

Intervention by Social Services

The protection of children from harm is the responsibility of their parents, but sometimes, this doesn’t work out.  One or both parents may have problems that mean they cannot look after the children, for instance, with mental health, alcohol or drugs, or it could be that a single parent cannot cope with the responsibilities of looking after a child or children on their own.

Each local authority has a social services department (social services) who have a duty to step in and help parents look after their children to promote the children’s interests.  As a last resort, social services are under an obligation to consider removing the children, either temporarily or long term.

Initial Investigation

It can be difficult when a social worker contacts someone in relation to the care of their children.  It is important to remember that it is their legal duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area.  If they have received a referral which raises concerns, then it is their legal duty to investigate.  If you are contacted by a social worker you should seek legal advice as soon as possible.  Legal aid may be available to help pay for legal costs.

Social services involvement with a family may begin in a number of ways.  Possibly the family has had problems over a long period of time during which social services have provided help and support, but things have now gone out of control.  It may be that a child has been injured and no one is sure how it happened or a family home has been raided by the police and the children removed in an emergency.

The first stage is an initial investigation and this may sometimes be carried out jointly with the police.

In many cases, social services will discover from their investigation that the child is not at risk and will take no further action.  On occasions, social services may believe that the family would benefit from support and may deem the child “in need”. In other circumstances, social services may take a view that the child concerned is at risk of significant harm, and hold a child protection conference.

Social workers are required to work with families, to try to keep the family together, and to provide services in order to achieve this.  Only as the last resort should they consider removing the child.  In Essex for instance, eligible families may receive the assistance of DBIT (Divisional Based Intervention Teams) who work positively with families in the hope of preventing any future local authority intervention.

If parents cannot look after a child, for whatever reason, social services must, in the first instance, look at the possibility of other family members looking after the child.

Social services can only remove a child from its parents with the parents’ consent, or with a court order.  Court proceedings are there to ensure that the parents have a fair and proper hearing of their case, so that a child is not removed without due process of the law.

Sometimes social workers will ask parents to sign an agreement that social services can take their children.  It is important that you seek legal advice as soon as social workers contact you and before signing anything.

There is an established children’s panel of solicitors qualified to act for parents and children in these types of court proceedings.  At Fisher Jones Greenwood we have a number of solicitors who are members of the Law Society’s Children Panel.

If you have been contacted by the social services department, or if you have any further questions about the duty of your local authority taking a role in your family life, please contact our Public Law Specialists – call 01206 835320 or email [email protected].

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