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Family judge pushes for change when children are placed in temporary care

View profile for Sam Miles
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Parents are being urged to realise their rights should their children need to be taken into temporary foster care. This follows a recent family law case in which the most senior family judge in the UK accused the local authority involved of abusing the process and holding the children in temporary care for too long. Sam Miles, Family Partner at Hampshire law firm Warner Goodman LLP, here highlights the correct procedure in matters such as these and advises what parents should do if faced with what’s called a section 20.

“This case revolves around the use of what is known as section 20 of the Children Act 1989,” explains Sam. “In the situation that a child or children need to be placed into temporary foster care while permanent arrangements are made, the parents will be asked to sign a form under section 20 which gives consent for their children to be taken. This form is voluntary and the children should only be placed on a temporary basis while local authority deals with the paperwork.”

In the recent case heard by Sir James Munby, a section 20 form was signed and the children were placed with local authority in May 2013, however the proceedings were not issued until January 2014. “Seven months in temporary care is too long, however the length of time these children were held under section 20 highlights only one concern that can arise from the use of section 20,” continues Sam. “It’s crucial that at the time of signing a section 20 form, the parents are aware of exactly what they are signing and the terms of that form, including that they can withdraw consent at any time and their children should then be returned immediately. This is a time of extreme stress for the parents and so it’s important it’s clearly explained what they are signing and why, and far too often this is not the case. This is particularly prevalent in cases of international parents when English is not their first language.”

Sir Munby, who is also President of the Family Division, has given guidance on how local authorities should act in future in these cases, which parents should be aware of.

“The first rule is that any agreement under section 20 should be properly recorded in writing with the parent’s signature, confirming that they have understood the terms and can remove their child at any time from the local authority care,” explains Sam. “In the cases where English is not their first language, the form will be translated into their native language to ensure understanding. It has also been emphasized that keeping the children in care for a significant period of time will be unacceptable and any misuse of Sir Munby’s regulations will leave the local authority concerned subject to strict questioning and could leave them open to possible claims for damages from parents.”

Sam concludes, “It’s important in any case such as this to remember that doing what is right for the children is at the heart of any proceedings, and the impact of a prolonged stay in what is meant to be temporary care can have significant damage to their mental state. The purpose of a section 20 is to make a child as safe as they can be with, rather than without, their parents consent, and so parents need to feel as though their children will be looked after when they are not be in the position to do so. We would advise that if you are presented with a section 20 form, take the time to read it through thoroughly and to get advice before you sign. These proceedings are rarely straight forward so signing a section 20 may not be the right step for you, and that’s where proper advice could make a real difference.”

If you’re looking for advice about your children being taken into care, contact Sam or the Family team on 02380 717431 or visit their section of the website here.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.