Nigel Priestley Discusses Section 20 Agreements – Provision for the Accomodation of Children
We were in Douglas on the Isle of Man in April. A friend of mine’s daughter was getting married. The office was temporarily left behind. Then my mobile phone rang! Could I speak to an adopter whose world had collapsed, the person on the other end of the phone asked. I agreed – but said time was limited.
His was a story sadly all too familiar – he and his wife were both professionals. They had adopted two children in hope. Both children had increasingly challenging behaviour. Two years ago his wife had died of cancer. The children’s behaviour continued to deteriorate. He was a sole carer trying to keep his business afloat. There was no package of support to help with the increasing violence from his teenage son.
Then in April his son attacked him. Restraining him lead to his son having bruising. Inevitably the police and social services became involved. The children were removed from his home– but without a court order or any care proceedings. They were “accommodated” by the local authority.
How can this happen? Is this a “one-off?” In my experience where teenage children in particular are concerned, local authorities are hesitant to start care proceedings. They want a section 20 agreement.
Just how “voluntary” is voluntary accommodation? The courts have made it clear that it can’t be on the basis of “I need two volunteers – you and you!” This has to be genuine consent from a parent who understands the implications of their decision
There are exceptions – If the young person is 16 or 17 years old, they do not need the consent of those with parental responsibility in order to be accommodated by the local authority.
In other situations, I have spoken to parents whose children are beyond their control. Some parents who are deeply frustrated. They feel that if the local authority had only given them the support they needed, they wouldn’t be in this position. They know their child needs help. But they know they simply can’t carry on and feel they have to ask for their child to be accommodated under section 20.
Many adoptive parents don’t understand that if they agree to their child being accommodated, they haven’t lost parental responsibility. And the local authority hasn’t gained it. Any person who has parental responsibility for a child may at any time remove the child from accommodation provided by or on behalf of the local authority.
In theory, Section 20 is based on co-operative working between the local authority, the young person and the parents because the court is not forcing the child or young person to be looked after. It ought to be a partnership.
In practice many social workers act as if they have a care order.
Before making any decision with respect to a child whom they are looking after, “a local authority shall, so far as is reasonably practicable, ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child having regard to his or her age and understanding.” They should consider the child’s “religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background.”
This can be a two edged sword! The children are damaged. The placement has broken down to such an extent that they have been accommodated. The situation can be made worse by a view from social workers that somehow the adoptive parents have failed the child. They often seem to believe the child rather than the parents. This can be because the social workers are from the child protection team. Their experience of dealing with children who have been adopted may be nil. The child’s behaviour must therefore be the parents’ fault.
So children who have always gone to church or synagogue suddenly aren’t encouraged to. Children who ran for their county or had the opportunity of representing England are allowed to pack these activities in. Music lessons go out of the window. Coming to contact sessions becomes an optional extra.
Some parents want their children accommodated so that they can get the specialist help they need. Some find that in foster care, the specialist schooling or therapy they desperately needed is then provided!
Local authorities will act illegally – six months on my client has still not signed a section 20 agreement but the children remain in foster care. The police and social services have been unable to sort out contact and bail conditions.
This can’t go on.
Parents facing these dilemmas must get legal advice before they agree to their child being accomodated – even at the risk of interrupting wedding preparations!
Nigel Priestley heads up our Kinship Department. He is the senior partner at Ridley & Hall Solicitors, is also a member of the Children’s Panel and regularly represents children, parents and grandparents in care proceedings. At the Adoption Legal Centre we have a specialist team who can help with all types of adoption matters including; adoption applications, support and breakdown. Click here to get in touch via our Contact form or call us on 0843 8866386.