Knowledge Inquiry: Children who come into the care system under a voluntary arrangement

Your Family, Your Voice, is an alliance of families and practitioners that has been developed by Family Rights Group to counter the stigma and negative presumptions about families whose children are subject to, or at risk of, state intervention. The Alliance is leading a Knowledge Inquiry to look in detail at one part of our child welfare system - the powers and duties which exist under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. The inquiry was launched on 8th December 2016 at a national meeting of Your Family, Your Voice held in London.

The Children Act 1989 is the leading source of child welfare law in England & Wales and explains that children who are cared for within the care system are known as ‘looked after’ children. Some children are ‘looked after’ because a court has decided that it is in their best interests for that to happen. Other children become ‘looked after’ without the court being involved. It is because of the powers and duties that are in section 20 of the Children Act 1989 that children’s services (previously called ‘social services’) can in specific circumstances provide and arrange care for children without the oversight of the court. The power to do this under section 20 is called the ‘provision of accommodation for children’ and children provided with accommodation in this way become ‘looked after’ children.

Children’s services can provide accommodation for a child when the person who has been caring for the child is prevented from providing suitable accommodation or care. Children’s services can also provide accommodation to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child, even though a parent can provide accommodation. The powers and duties in section 20 enable children’s services to make arrangements for children who are abandoned or separated from their parents without needing to ask a court (e.g. an unaccompanied refugee child). These powers and duties also require that, in certain situations, children’s services provides accommodation to young people who are homeless.

Section 20 perhaps attracts much interest and attention because it can allow children’s services to provide accommodation for a child with the agreement of a parent (or other person who has parental rights and responsibilities for the child). Children’s services may not provide accommodation for a child if a parent who is able to provide, or arrange for, accommodation for the child objects. Once a child is provided with accommodation and becomes looked after a parent may remove the child at any time. This is because the arrangement is a voluntary one and parental responsibility (PR) is not shared by local authority. Children who have reached the age of 16 years can themselves agree to be accommodated however.

Children who live in section 20 arrangements may be in different types of accommodation and placements. This could be with unrelated foster carers, including foster carers who could go on to adopt the child (this is called ‘foster for adoption’); in a residential placement; with a parent; or with a wider family member such as a grandparent or sibling.

We are keen to hear from practitioners and families in Wales too. Please note that the duties and powers equivalent to those under section 20 Children Act 1989 voluntary arrangements are provided for in Wales under section 76 of the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014.

In addition to the information on this page, our briefing note will tell you more about Family Rights Group, the Alliance, section 20 Children Act 1989 and the Knowledge Inquiry.