Voluntary accommodation placements under Section 20 (s.20) of the Children Act 1989 are being increasingly used by local authorities to avoid care proceedings. This is the findings of the Your Family, Your Voice Alliance in their recently published report.
The entirety of the report can be found at this link
We have seen more and more families being faced with increased pressure to sign a s.20 agreement.
The relevant section under the Children Act states that:
1) Every local authority shall provide accommodation for any child in need within their area who appears to them to require accommodation as a result of:
a. There being no person who has parental responsibility for the child;
b. The child being lost or having been abandoned; or
c. The person who has been caring for the child being prevented (where not permanently, and for whatever reason from providing them with suitable accommodation or care).
In practice, this means a parent of a child in need, agreeing with the council that their child should be taken out of their care on a temporary basis.
Each case should be judged on a case by case basis and the reasons for a s.20 agreement being sought by the local authority will differ each time. However, we are hearing more instances from our clients where parents are effectively coerced into signing an agreement, simply to obtain local authority support.
Whilst the parents will retain their parental responsibility (PR) for the child – indeed the local authority can never acquire PR through a s.20 placement, we question whether local authorities are routinely using s.20 agreements in wholly inappropriate circumstances.
We are seeing more and more cases of vulnerable children with severe disabilities (in cases where there is no reason for child protection proceedings) where there has been a complete failure by the local authority to meet care needs such that the only option is a residential placement. In those circumstances families are being given little choice but to enter into a s.20 agreement to secure the care and support their child needs.
It is clear from the Act itself as well as the original intention of the legislation that s.20 agreements were only designed for short term measures, to actively encourage a return home for that child when it was safe to do so. It was never intended to be used for long term care.
It comes as no surprise that the Alliance have called for the government to intervene. Recommendations include additional guidance over the use of s.20, especially in light of the severe financial pressures that social services are facing.
We welcome and endorse the report and hope for greater clarification over this complex and muddy area of law.