When social services are involved with children their parents or extended family are often asked to sign up to a document which is often called a “written agreement“, a “contract of expectations”, a “working agreement” or a “partnership agreement”. Parents are not always able to access legal advice at the time they are being asked to sign these documents, and there can be misunderstanding about the status of such agreements, and about the consequences of refusing to sign or of doing something the document says the parent mustn’t do.
This post is an attempt to explain in very general terms what these agreements are and what they are all about : It is not legal advice about your case. Every case is unique.
For ease, we are going to use the single term “contract of expectations” in the rest of this post.
Not a contract
The first thing to understand is that, whatever it’s called, a contract of expectations is not in fact a contract. A contract is a binding agreement between two or more parties (persons or legal bodies), which can be enforced by a court. This is not a contract law lecture, but put very simply, there are three basic components of a contract, and without all three it isn’t a contract :
- Each of the parties to an agreement must give something (this is called ‘consideration’) – there must be an exchange. A typical example is where you buy something online – if you pay me $20, I will send you this new toaster. But consideration doesn’t have to be in money, it just has to be an exchange of something of value.
- There must be an ‘intention to create legal relations’ on the part of all those involved. That is, everyone signing the agreement must be doing so in the expectation that if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain the other could take it to court to make them comply with the agreement or pay damages for breaching the agreement.
- There must be clarity of terms – everyone must know what they are signing up to
One or more of these will usually be absent when the document is agreed (often all 3). Many but not all of such documents will say ‘this agreement is not legally binding’ – which certainly makes clear that there is no intention on the part of the local authority to create legal relations. And there is rarely any real exchange of value – a parent is asked to sign promising to do x or to not do y – although a parent might hope that sticking to the agreement will lead to the local authority feeling it can end its involvement there is very unlikely to be any clear promise that if the parents do x, y and z they can have their children back (for example). Any local authority has an ongoing duty to safeguard children in its area, and there are times when – even though parents have done everything they’ve been asked to do and ‘ticked all the boxes’ – some other risk has become apparent which means that the local authority still needs to take action (imagine a parent agrees to stop using drugs and go to rehab, and they do this – but in the meantime they become involved in a relationship with someone they know is a sex offender, exposing their children to risk – social services might still need to take some action or remain involved because of the new risk). It would be contrary to public policy for social services to tie themselves to a contract that might mean they were unable to fulfil their duty to safeguard a child.
So what’s the point? And why would I sign one?
Just because a contract of expectations isn’t a contract, doesn’t mean its a waste of time. In fact they are important – and if you are being asked to sign one you it means that social services are worried about your children and trying to find ways to manage or assess the risk they are worried about. The best way to think about one of these agreements is that their purpose is fivefold:
- to safeguard
- to support
- to test
- to set expectations
- as a record (evidence)
We will take each in turn. But first, a word about honesty.
One of the things social workers will need to get a handle on is how far a parent can be relied upon to be honest with them – including about things that aren’t going well and things they are struggling with. It’s harder for a social worker to feel that a child can be kept safe at home if they don’t feel that the parent is being frank with them (and don’t know what is really going on in the home or the parent’s / child’s life), so often an agreement will specifically say that one of the expectations is that the parent will be open and honest, or it might list specific things that social workers expect a parent to let them know about (drug relapses, a violent ex turning up at the door, decline in mental health). This is partly so that they can offer more appropriate support or adjust the agreement based if they understand what’s happening on the ground, and partly so they can be confident that things are safe at home.
The idea of ‘working in partnership’ (partnership agreement) is a fancy way of talking about trust and working as a team, and it is meant to convey the idea that social services are there to support families, even if it does not always feel that way to a parent who is under the microscope. Well drafted contracts of expectations will set out not only what is expected of the parents, but what the parents can expect of the social workers, including practical support. The primary focus of such agreements however is more often keeping children safe through the parents agreements about their own behaviour.
If social services can rely upon a parents’ promise that they will not take drugs whilst caring for their child, that they will attend regular drug agency appointments, or that they will permit unannounced visits to the home to see the children and the home conditions, or not to allow unsupervised contact with a risky person, social services may assess any risks as manageable at home, meaning that children that they might otherwise have felt they needed to remove can stay at home. Sometimes an agreement will be put in place in the period when social services are assessing a family (before or during proceedings), and it may be part of a package put in place temporarily to hold the position whilst an assessment is completed or until the court can make a decision.
If social services are assessing whether or not a child can remain at home – or even sometimes if a child can come home after being in care – they may ask a parent to agree to stick to various routines or techniques – for example to communicate problems with managing behaviour or boundaries, to keep to a bedtime routine, to clean on a regular basis, not to allow drinking at the home, to report any drugs relapses – in order to test out whether the parent is able to consistently do these things and to work with the local authority. Whether a parent can stick to the agreement is likely to be an important consideration when the social worker makes their recommendation.
Sometimes social services will ask parents to sign an agreement even whilst the children are in foster care to help give them a framework for work to be done and changes to be made during a period of assessment (go to appointments with substance abuse agency, keep home conditions up, notify of relapses etc).
To set expectations
The other side of the coin here is that a contract of expectations can give parents a framework or guide for the sorts of things that they should be focussing on to help ensure they keep their children or that they get them back at the end of the process – but its important that parents understand that sticking to an agreement is no guarantee of a particular outcome. Sometimes parents will have ticked off everything on the list but concerns remain – for example it might be that the social workers form the view that the parents are just going through the motions without really understanding why they need to make changes in the first place, or perhaps when they don’t really think they were necessary. This is often called ‘disguised compliance’ (don’t blame us we didn’t make up the term) and in this situation social workers will be worried that although a parent can ‘talk the talk’ that things may go back to how they were once they step back, because the parent hasn’t made deep change. It’s important for parents to think about why they’ve been asked to make practical changes or take particular steps, so that they can demonstrate that they understand why the social workers were worried in the first place and keep the children safe in the future, rather than just thinking – if I do these five things I’ll get the kids back.
When parents sign an agreement it will usually be clear that if they don’t stick to it there may be consequences. Sometimes those consequences will be spelt out really clearly : for example if the parents resume their relationship or if substances are found at the home the local authority will seek to remove the children (usually by asking the family court to make an order). It’s to everyone’s advantage that this is a clear expectation, because a parent who knows the local authority is serious is more likely to stick to their agreement, and this in turn will reassure the social workers that they don’t need to act now.
It is also important a parent knows what they are expected to do off their own back, and what they can expect support to achieve.
As a record (evidence)
The agreement and any evidence that a parent has stuck to or not stuck to it will be potentially important information in any family court case about the children. It can be relied upon by a social worker who says children should be removed because the parents can’t be relied upon as they’ve broken promises before, or to show that they’ve told the parent what they were worried about and what needed to change, the support they’ve offered and the clear guidance they’ve given. It can be relied upon by a parent who says they’ve done everything they were asked to and they should keep (or recover) their children. It can be relied upon by a parent who says the local authority hasn’t offered sufficient support or that they haven’t made it clear enough what they needed to do. It is also a good record of what was actually worrying social services at a particular point in time – and by implication what wasn’t enough of a worry to include. These documents, alongside evidence of what has actually happened since, can be really helpful to courts trying to work out if parents have been given a fair shot.
It is not uncommon for lawyers representing parents at a ‘removal hearing’ (a hearing where social services are asking the court to approve the removal of children into temporary foster care usually at the start of a case) to secure their client’s agreement to a proposed written agreement and to argue that the existence of a commitment from the parent to stick to certain ground rules means that it is safe enough for children to remain at home, with monitoring to make sure the agreement is being stuck to, that it is therefore not necessary or proportionate to make a care order or to remove the children, and that the period whilst the case is ongoing can be used as a test period to see if the parent can keep things together as spelt out in the agreement. If the parent does stick to the agreement this will be useful evidence in support of their position at any final hearing (or may even persuade social services that they don’t need to seek removal at the end of the case).
What sort of things might social services agree to do?
Not all agreements spell this out, and sadly social services are not always brilliant at offering support. But a well drafted and balanced agreement should make clear what the social worker will do with and for the family. This might be :
- making referrals to outside services for the children or parent, or asking a funding panel to approve some in house service or cost – things like drug agencies, or a youth worker or mentor to spend time with a child, or a family support worker to work with a parent around boundaries or routines
- supporting a parent with rehousing or accessing mental health support via a GP
- carrying out an assessment
- frequency and terms of visiting (announced / unannounced)
- practical support such as support with travel costs or supervision of contact
Should I sign?
We can’t advise whether a particular parent should sign a particular agreement. But we can offer some general guidance :
- If you aren’t sure what you are signing up to or if you don’t understand a word or phrase – ask for an explanation or clearer wording.
- If you don’t think you can stick to a particular promise don’t agree to it. if you think you will need support to be able to do what is asked of you say so (for example if you are being asked to get all the children to school every day on time but you’ve broken your leg and can’t drive you may need some help to get them there. Discuss with the social worker who else could take them to school or if there is any help that can be provided).
- If the local authority has promised particular support or services, you can ask for that to be written down.
- If you do find you’ve not been able to stick to a part of the agreement it is generally better to let the social worker know what has happened and why, and if necessary to ask for a rethink of what would work better next time. If circumstances change let the social worker know. If appropriate an agreement can be adjusted or updated.
- If you want to run an agreement past your lawyer ask for time to do so (but bear in mind if its really urgent social workers may feel they need to make a decision – you could ask them to record your agreement as being without legal advice or that you agree only until you’ve received legal advice – but we can’t say whether that is likely to be a good idea or not – if you have a lawyer and can ring them for urgent advice that is better). If you do have a lawyer instructed already (for example because you are in court or in pre-proceedings) any non-urgent agreement should be sent to them anyway.
If you are a victim of domestic abuse it’s worth paying some attention to what you’re being expected to do around communication and contact with your ex partner / reporting abuse from a current partner. Are you being asked to sign up to something that it’s not realistic or safe to expect you to do? Some contracts of expectations unfortunately do place responsibilities upon an abused parent which are in fact really difficult to stick to. If you are worried about this ask to talk privately with the social worker, or discuss the proposed wording with your IDVA or ISVA (See here for more on this topic).
The decision about whether to sign an agreement will depend on your children, your circumstances and the detail of what you’re being asked to sign up to. Before you decide, ask yourself : how reassured will the social worker be if you stick to fingers up to their proposed agreement and refuse to sign? And what will they likely do if you don’t? Nobody can make you sign an agreement – you are entitled to say no – but it is sensible to weigh up the risks and disadvantages of signing and the risks and disadvantages of not signing before you decide. Simply refusing to sign an agreement doesn’t mean that social services will or can take your children – they would still have apply to court and then satisfy the court removal was justified (except in very urgent cases where the police might temporarily step in and remove) – but it does mean that social workers are likely to assess the risk as higher (rightly or wrongly) than if you agreed to their requests, which could prolong involvement under child protection, and could contribute to a decision to go to court or to seek removal – which the court might agree with.
Of course in some cases social workers will be barking up against the wrong tree, worrying about things that aren’t actually happening (or that they can’t prove are happening). As a standalone, refusing to sign an agreement isn’t going to get your children removed, but if social services are later able to demonstrate that their worries were justified a refusal to sign will add to the level of concern and might make it harder to persuade the court its safe for the children to be at home.
Featured image: Newspaper, by Silke Remmery, via Flickr.
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