FAQs on foster care and family options if a mother cannot continue to care for her child

I am working with a mother who is terrified that her child may be placed in foster care because of the domestic violence. How can I help her understand more about this?

Many mothers are very fearful that a social worker will remove their child if there are serious worries about domestic violence or other difficulties. It may be helpful to explain that most children remain with their families during child protection processes and afterwards and that social workers should work with families to make things better and safer for the child at home. However, where there are very serious concerns or the situation is not improving, despite support, Children’s Services may have to consider what action is necessary to protect a child.

Social workers do not have the power to remove a child from their mother’s care unless this is ordered by the court or unless their mother (or another person with parental responsibility) agrees. If a child is in immediate danger and needs to be protected straight away police can take a child into police protection which lasts up to 72 hours.

If there is any suggestion that a child should not remain in their mother’s care she should seek immediate advice from a solicitor specialising in children’s law or contact Family Rights Group advice line.

How can I advocate for her when she is worried her child will be removed?

You can best help a mother who is concerned about her child being removed by supporting her to understand what process she is in, what Children’s Services’ expectations of her are and what support is being/should be offered. By working alongside her, you may be able to encourage her to work with the professionals involved and also ensure that the professionals have a realistic understanding of the context for women and children living with domestic violence. If you can help her to engage as quickly and as fully as possible she will have a better chance of successfully caring for her child.

If you are able to attend meetings with her as her advocate then you will be better able to help her understand what is happening and make more informed decisions.

Encourage her to seek independent advice and legal advice as needed.

If she has additional needs such as alcohol or drug misuse which are compounding her difficulties try to make sure that she is getting extra support to address them. You may find some helpful services in FRG useful links.

Also encourage her to think about asking for a family group conference as a way of finding solutions which will keep her child safe within the family unless this would pose a risk.

I am supporting a mother who has been asked to agree to a section 20 placement. What does this mean and how does this affect both mother and child?

Sometimes, when social workers are concerned that it is unsafe for a child to remain at home in their mother’s care they will ask her to agree to a section 20 placement .

This is the part of the law (Section 20 of the Children Act 1989) that gives Children’s Services the power to look after a child when the person caring for them is prevented from caring for them (this could be because it is thought not to be safe) for whatever reason or when there is no-one with parental responsibility for the child. It is also known as voluntary accommodation. This can lead to a child being placed in foster care or residential care.

When a child is accommodated under section 20 their mother (and any other person with parental responsibility) retains parental responsibility for them. Although Children’s Services are looking after the child they do not have parental responsibility – Children’s Services only obtain parental responsibility if they have a court order giving them this.

If the mother or another person with parental responsibility does not give consent to a section 20 placement then it cannot lawfully go ahead. However, if consent to a section 20 placement is refused and Children’s Services believe that her child needs urgent protection, they could apply to court for an emergency protection order or ask the police to take the child into police protection.

Always support the mother to get legal advice before agreeing to her child being voluntarily accommodated under section 20 or if she is considering withdrawing her consent and asking for her child to return home. For more information please see where to get further help.

If the child is looked after in section 20 accommodation, their mother should be fully involved in drawing up their written care plan which Children’s Services should agree with her, as far as is reasonably practical. She should receive a written copy of each of the child’s plans and be told the name of the child’s Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) who is the person who will review the child’s care plan. She should also be involved in the child’s Looked After Review meetings where the child’s care and future plans are discussed.

You will find helpful information about section 20 in FRG’s advice sheets on family support and Duties on Children’s Services when children are in the care system. FRG’s advice sheet on contact with children accommodated by Children’s Services provides lots of relevant information about contact (attach link to advice sheet 13).

What can a mother ask for if she agrees, or the court decides, that her child cannot continue living with her?

She can ask Children’s Services to place her child with any willing relatives or friends, instead of going to live with foster carers the child doesn’t know. They would have to be assessed first to see if they are suitable. If they are, they will be a family and friends foster carer. This could be temporary if Children’s Services are satisfied, having completed basic checks, that the placement is appropriate and in the child’s best interests or long term if Children’s Services has carried out a full assessment of them. See FRG advice sheet on Relatives and friends taking on the care of a vulnerable child in an emergency and also Family and friends care: becoming a foster carer.

What other family options might there be if the mother I am supporting is not able to safely care for her child?

It is really important that the mother thinks about involving her wider family or friends as soon as possible when she begins to struggle or when professionals are concerned about her ability to keep her child safe, as long as doing this would not increase the level of risk.

A family group conference is a useful way of bringing a family network together to try to find safe solutions for a child, including how the mother can be supported to care for her child as well as whether someone else in the family can care for them. An FGC can be convened at different stages of a family’s involvement with Children’s Services whether a child is in need, if they have a child protection plan or if the court is likely to become involved in making decisions for the child. See FRG advice sheet on family group conferences for more information.

The mother can ask that a relative or connected person can be assessed as a foster carer for her child if alternative care is needed. See FRG advice sheet on family and friends care: becoming a foster carer.

A family member can apply for a court order to care for the child. The main orders are child arrangement orders (CAO) stating with whom the child should live and special guardianship orders (SGO). Neither breaks the legal relationship between a mother and her child. Both give parental responsibility to the person with the order. The mother does not lose her parental responsibility but in the case of a SGO the guardian can override a mother’s wishes if they cannot agree. The mother needs the court’s permission to apply to end a SGO and she must be able to prove a significant change in circumstances. The mother is not restricted from applying to end a CAO unless the court order says so.

Children’s Services do not have to remain involved with a child if they live with a carer under a CAO or a SGO although they can if a court order or the child’s needs require this.