When a Local Authority (LA) is concerned about the welfare of a child or children it will commence child protection procedures. The LA will be worried about a child if for example a child is missing school for no good reason or is being neglected or abused at home. The local authority through its Social Services Department (SSD) will start by making a child or children the subject of a Child in Need Plan.
If there is no improvement in the children’s welfare then the SSD will convene a Child Protection Conference Meeting. The conference will invite the key people who are involved with the children and action points will arise from the conference if the children are made the subject of a Child Protection Plan. Children will be placed on the Child Protection Register under one or more categories the most usual are risk of physical and/or emotional neglect. A Social Worker will be required to make announced and unannounced visits every 10 working days.
If there is no improvement in a child’s welfare and the action points are not being met then the SSD may then issue a Letter Before Action to the parents. This will detail the concerns/worries the SSD have and what they want to happen. You will be entitled to a type of preliminary legal aid which will be free to you provided you are the biological parent of the child and/or have parental responsibility. The LA may require that you co-operate in one or more assessments such as a risk and parenting assessment or a psychiatric assessment. You will be advised to co-operate with any assessments and work with professionals to try and avoid court proceedings being issued.
If the LA are very worried about the welfare of a child, or pre-proceedings work by SSD has not brought about (in the view of the SSD) the necessary change then the LA will issue proceedings under Section 31 of the Children Act 1989. These proceedings will be for either a care or supervision order and the LA will allege that a child or children are at risk of significant harm or likely to suffer future harm. Significant harm has a wide meaning and includes physical harm, emotional harm and sexual abuse. The proceedings usually have to be completed with 26 weeks and expert evidence can only be called if it is considered by the Judge to be necessary. A biological parent will automatically be entitled to free legal aid.
If a care order is made then the children will be removed from the care of their parents and placed either with extended family; approved foster carers; or adopted. If a child is adopted then the biological parents lose all parental rights to that child. Adoption is considered to be an order which should only be made if there is no other way of looking after the children. If a supervision order is made then usually the children remain in the care of their family but the SSD remains involved with the family to offer support and guidance for a period of 12 months after the order is made.
A Special Guardianship Order is an alternative to adoption where placement is being considered outside the immediate family to extended family members or friends. A Special Guardianship Order has the effect of giving enhanced parental responsibility to the Special Guardians. The birth parents retain some parental responsibility. The important difference between adoption and special guardianship is that with the latter, the children do not legally become the child of the Special Guardians.