On July 10th the Family Rights Group launched their report on the use of section 20 accommodation in England (section 76 in Wales – I will refer to section 20 throughout this post). We heard from Caroline Lynch, the author of the report and the Principal Legal Adviser of the Family Rights Group. The inquiry into the use of section 20 came about following growing unease about the impact of supposed ‘voluntary’ arrangements on parents, many of whom had no idea about the consequences or reach of a ‘section 20’.

[For further information about the law and practice governing the current use of section 20, please see The Transparency Project guidance note. EDIT – I have commented further about the legal framework governing making a placement order and discussed my concerns about why his needs to form part of the debate]

The report poses 4 central questions – What was the original purpose behind section 20? Is that purpose valid today? How is it being used? And what needs to change? Caroline’s  fundamental message was that we all must be better equipped to work in partnership – parents should not feel afraid of asking for help or that a few days respite care could lead to their baby being adopted.

Section 20 accommodation is used for a very wide range of circumstances – short respite care, long term care of disabled children, to house unaccompanied minors or as a precursor to care proceedings. As Caroline said “its breadth is as challenging as it is valuable”.

We heard from a parent and a foster carer about their experiences of working with social workers under the umbrella of section 20 and their experiences were sadly similar.  They echoed the Report’s findings of ‘soft coercion’ and pressure being applied and no one explaining what was happening (Louise Tickle has written more about one parent’s experiences in the Guardian today).

This is particularly worrying when considering ‘foster to adopt’ placements and the concern expressed by Cathy Ashley that this could lead to ‘adoption by stealth’ when parents are pressured into agreeing placements for babies which may be very hard to ‘unpick’ down the line. This is the key problem with section 20 – unlike parents facing care proceedings, there is no legal aid available to give advice to parents being asked to accommodate their children ‘voluntarily’.

We then heard from Alisdair Smith of the London Borough of Southwark, which has 477 children in its care. 165 (34%) are accommodated under section 20. His LA had reviewed its practice after the judgment in Re N [2015] where the President had made it clear the ‘misuse’ of section 20 would no longer be tolerated. The use of section 20 was ultimately ‘about the values and principles of our practitioners and how they are supported by managers…. we need an ethical approach’. He agreed a ‘national template’ for section 20 agreements would be useful; making it clear to parents that they still kept their parental responsibility and could remove their children from section 20 accommodation without notice.

Finally we heard from the President, who pulled no punches.

He commented on the seemingly inexorable rise in the number of care cases, landing in a system with no corresponding increase in resources or judges. No one seems to know WHY this is happening but the President speculated that one possible cause was LAs ‘reacting’ to what they thought judges were saying. Further research is desperately needed to try and find out the root causes for this worrying increase in the number of children subject to care proceedings.

The President made it clear he did not disparage the long term use of section 20 in cases where it was needed. What was unacceptable was using section 20 for long periods of time as a precursor to care proceedings or to attempt to side step court scrutiny.

The President had nothing but praise for the work of the FRG and the efforts it made to mitigate the lack of formal state help for the parents in such circumstances.

But it is not a comfortable thought that we are relying upon a charity to fill such a serious gap in state provision. As the President commented – the real safeguard for parents against arbitrary interference from the State are ‘tough lawyers’ who are prepared to argue cases.

Where next?

Caroline set out the Report’s recommendations in light of their findings

  • the Government urgently needs to address the financial pressures on child welfare services and the lack of support for families
  • LAs need to review what data they collect about looked after children. They need to KNOW this cohort and in particular at what stage did they become subject to section 20 accommodation
  • The Government needs to commission research to help us understand how section 20 is used
  • We need a ‘national template’ for a section 20 agreement which sets out clearly the legal consequences of such arrangements, and that parents retain their PR throughout.
  • Parents with learning difficulties should not be excluded from working in partnership but should be given the tools and support necessary to allow them to take part in the process
  • With regard to ‘foster to adopt’ placements, they must be subject to court scrutiny and parents must be properly informed.