The way in which any child or children are brought up and cared for rests with those who have “parental responsibility” for him or her.
“Parental responsibility” (“PR”) is the legal term used to describe all the rights and duties that parents (and sometimes other people) have towards their children.
Local Authorities will often seek to share parental responsibility if it obtains a care order from the court. Ultimately the birth parents and anyone else who had parental responsibility lose it when a child is freed for adoption and thereafter adopted.
The Children’s Services department of a Local Authority (also sometimes referred to as Social Service) are responsible for making sure that children are safe and are well cared for by their parents or the people looking after them.
What action can Children’s Services take?
Sometimes Children’s Services receive information that makes them worried about a child’s welfare. If it believes that a child may be harmed, it will carry out an investigation and decide whether action is necessary to protect that child from harm. This investigation and work is known as ‘child protection’.
The Local Authority and Children’s Services department must get the Family Court’s permission to take any action those with parental responsibility disagree with.
Here ‘Family Court’ means judges or magistrates who make decisions about children.
If Children’s Services believe that a child is suffering serious harm or is likely to suffer serious harm, it can apply to the Family Court for a care order and that application to the court is known as ‘care proceedings’.
If Children’s Services believe that a child is in immediate danger and needs to be made safe straight away, it can take certain steps to protect the child. It can:
- ask the person it believes is a danger to a child to leave the home or keep away from that child
- discuss with you having a child looked after by the Local Authority in a way you agree to (known as ‘voluntary accommodation’)
- ask the police to take your child into ‘police protection’ for up to 72 hours (three days)
- apply to the family court for an ‘emergency protection order’ or ‘interim care order’
Unless Children’s Services take the view that the child is in immediate danger, it should normally take other steps before it decides to apply for a care order. Under the new legal system known as the Public Law Outline, Children’s Services should do all it can to support you in caring for a child without the need to go to court.
If you are struggling to cope as a parent…
If you feel you can’t cope, Children’s Services are responsible for trying to find out whether anyone in your child’s wider family is willing and suitable to care for them, as an alternative to the child being cared for by a foster carer, for instance.
To investigate the issues, Children’s Services will usually undertake the following pre-proceedings work:
- It may hold a meeting called a ‘Child Protection Case Conference’ to see if your child could be properly protected without any interim care order – for example, by providing you and your family with additional help as well as referrals being made to other support services. All the professionals, organisations, and agencies involved with your child or children, such as doctors and schools, will be invited to the meeting. You would normally be invited too. Where appropriate, plans will be made for your child or children to be kept safe and well cared for by remaining at home, subject to further review.
- It may refer you to a Family Group Conference (FGC). This is a meeting where the whole family gets together to make plans and decisions for children who, because of difficulties in the family, need a plan that will keep them safe and promote their welfare. Parents and other family members lead the meeting and the children themselves may come if they wish. The professionals are only involved in part of the meeting. FGCs are still quite new but the government is encouraging their use. Many courts now expect that families will have been offered an FGC before court action starts. So if the Local Authority have concerns about your children and you think it may be considering taking legal action, you could ask whether it can refer you for an FGC.
- Before it makes any application to the Family Court, the Local Authority should also send the parents (and others with parental responsibility) a ‘letter before proceedings’. This tells you why it is concerned about your child and what you can do to improve things and so avoid a court case. This letter will normally invite you to a meeting to discuss this. You can bring a solicitor with you to this meeting and this is highly recommended.
- If the council doesn’t send you a ‘letter before proceedings’, you will find out about the proceedings when you receive a notice from the court. If you are a parent with parental responsibility, you will be a ‘party’ to the proceedings, so you will receive a copy of the application and will be told the date, time and place of the first hearing (called the ‘First Appointment’).
If the person who the council believes is a danger to a child agrees to leave the home for the time being while further enquiries and plans are made, then the council can help that person to find somewhere else to stay, including providing them with money to pay for temporary accommodation.