Caring for children by the local authority
The local authority has a duty to safeguard the interests of children and promote their welfare. When a local authority becomes involved with a family in which the children are at risk, the local authority will work with the family and involve relevant agencies and professionals.
The local authority may apply to the court for an order giving them additional powers to carry out their duty. There is a range of orders that the court may grant. Before any order is granted, the court will consider all the facts and the way in which the interest of the child may best be served.
A person who has wide experience in social work will represent the child. That person will put the child's perspective to the court. It may be that the child will not agree with the opinion of the person representing them. If the child is old enough to understand the issues, they may represent themselves or instruct a solicitor to represent them. This will only happen very rarely.
The person representing the child will instruct a solicitor to speak on behalf of both the person representing the child and the child. The solicitor must ensure that the person representing the child is actually putting the child's point of view to the court. There should be at least one meeting between the solicitor and the child at which the person representing the child does not attend.
Protection of children
The care of children and protection of their interests is of prime importance. The local authority has a duty to safeguard the interests of children and promote their welfare. When the local authority becomes involved with a family in which children are at risk, they will work with the family. They will consult with other relevant agencies and professionals.
Any assessment of a child or investigation into alleged harm should be done in consultation with the family. All those involved with the child's welfare will attend a child protection conference. The parent/s will be invited to attend. All relevant information about the child will be used to plan any action necessary to protect the child.
The only decision the conference will take is whether to place the child on the child protection register. Following its investigation, the local authority may decide that it is necessary to commence proceedings for a care or supervision order.
A care order is an order placing the child in the care of a local authority. A supervision order is an order putting the child under the supervision of a designated local authority or of a probation officer.
A court may make a care order or a supervision order in respect of a child if it is satisfied that:
- The child concerned is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm, and that the harm or likelihood of harm is attributable to the manner in which the child is treated by his or her parents or
- The child is beyond parental control.
These conditions have become known as the threshold criteria. They are not in themselves grounds for making a care or supervision order but must exist before the court can make an order. If the court is satisfied that the threshold criteria have been met, an order may be made. The welfare of the child is the paramount consideration for the court in deciding whether to make an order. The local authority will prepare a care plan that will be carefully considered by the court.
The role of the local authority and NSPC
The local authority or National Society for the Protection of Children (NSPC) may apply to the court for either a care order or a supervision order.
A care order will give parental responsibility to the local authority. They will share parental responsibility jointly with everybody else who has parental responsibility.
A supervision order gives the local authority or the NSPC a duty to oversee the child. They will generally remain living in their home.
The court may also make an emergency protection order. The local authority will usually make the application. The application will be made in urgent situations. If the court makes the order and a child needs protection from some neglect or abuse, the local authority may remove the child from their home immediately.
Finally, the court may make child assessment orders. The court will grant an order so that the local authority can ensure that the child undergoes an essential examination or assessment. The most common type will be a medical examination or assessment. An application will usually be made if the parents are being uncooperative or where the local authority suspects some harm is being done to the child, but does not have enough evidence to bring care proceedings.
Protection of a child by the local authority
The local authority or the NSPCC may apply to the court for a care order or supervision order. If the court makes a care order, parental responsibility passes to the local authority. Parental responsibility is the rights and duties of a parent in respect of a child.
If a care order is made in respect of a child, the local authority will decide where the child lives and with whom. The local authority will also decide who sees the child. If the local authority refuses to let a parent or other person see the child, an application can be made to the court. If the person wishing to see the child is not a parent, permission from the court is required to make the application.
If the court makes a supervision order, the local authority will be given the duty to oversee the child and ensure that there is proper care. The task will usually be carried out by a social worker. The local authority will make sure that the child lives at home, attends school, and medical appointments.
In urgent cases, the local authority may apply to the court for an emergency protection order. These will usually be made when there is abuse or neglect and the child needs to be removed from the home environment urgently. They will also be made when the child's parents are not co-operating in ensuring that the child attends essential medical appointments and other assessments. The local authority will tend to make an application when there is insufficient evidence to justify making an application to the court for a care order.
Effect of a care order
Unless the court ends a care order, it will remain in force until the child reaches 18. The care order gives the local authority parental responsibility jointly with the mother and possibly the father. The local authority has the power to determine the extent to which a parent may exercise their parental responsibility.
A care order automatically discharges all other orders made by the court in respect of the child except any parental responsibility order. On the making of the order, the court is effectively giving all responsibility for the child to the local authority. The court cannot impose any condition on the local authority or seek to keep its management of the care of the child under review.
There is a general duty to promote contact between a child and their parents. The court will consider the local authority's arrangements for contact and invite comment before making the care order.
A care order may be brought to an end by:
- The making of a residence order
- The substitution of the care order by a supervision order
- By the making of an adoption order
- The discharge of the order.
Application for a discharge can be made by:
- Anyone with parental responsibility
- By the child
- By the local authority.
There is no requirement for a child to ask permission before making an application. If the care order is discharged without any other order being made, care of the child reverts to those having parental responsibility.
Although the criteria are the same as for a care order, the effect of a supervision order is very different. The order places the child under the supervision of a local authority. They do not acquire parental responsibility. The basic duty of the local authority is to advise, assist, and befriend the child.
The order could also include a requirement for the child to:
- Live at a specified place;
- Participate in specified activities;
- Submit to specified medical treatment or psychiatric examination; or
- Require that a responsible person take all reasonable steps to ensure the child complies with any direction of the court.
Once care proceedings have started, the court may make an interim care order, or an interim supervision order. In appropriate circumstances, the court may make a residence order. Before an interim care order is made, the court must be satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the threshold criteria are satisfied. At this stage, suspicion is sufficient.
An interim care or supervision order imposes the same power and duties on the local authority as a final care or supervision order. An interim order will have a limited duration. While it is in force, the court will require that there be medical examinations and psychiatric assessment of the child. Following the examinations and assessments, reports will be prepared. The reports will enable the court to determine the most appropriate order to make to safeguard the child.
It is common for a number of interim orders to be made pending a final hearing. On each renewal, the court must be satisfied that the criteria are still met. The interim care order is essentially an impartial step to preserve this status quo pending the final hearing.
An interim care order does not give a tactical advantage to the local authority. It may be appropriate to delay making a final decision pending the outcome of an assessment of the child or a parent or until the court is in possession of all material facts.
The court must be satisfied the local authority care plan is in the child's best interest. Such an interim care order may require that a specific person be excluded from the child's home. It is possible for a child to continue to live with either or both parents while there is a care order. Until the final care order, the court will expect that the child sees their parents regularly unless that would pose a significant risk.
Guardian ad litem and court welfare officers
A guardian ad litem is appointed by the court to represent the interest of a child in proceeding. The court will always appoint a guardian ad litem if the local authority is seeking an order that the child be placed into care. In other proceedings, the court will generally not appoint a guardian ad litem.
If the court is hearing an application for an order that a child lives with or sees a specific person, a court welfare officer will be appointed and they will prepare a report. It is the role of the court welfare officer to put the views of the child to the court provided the child is old enough to form a view.
The court will not appoint both a guardian ad litem and a court welfare officer. The guardian ad litem's only role is to represent the interest of the child. Part of the role of the court welfare officer is to represent the child but also to give the court a wider picture of the circumstances of the child and their family. A court welfare officer will usually make recommendations to the court whereas the guardian ad litem will not. The court welfare officer can be described as the eyes and the ears of the court.
A court welfare officer is usually a specially trained probation officer. They are officers of the court and their prime duty is to the court. Guardian ad litems are generally self-employed social workers providing a specific service. Each court maintains a panel of guardian ad litems. The court does not have to appoint a guardian ad litem from the panel but invariably does.
If the police reasonably believe that a child is likely to suffer significant harm, they may take the child into police protection for up to 72 hours. The police are likely to use this power if a child is abandoned or a runaway. It would also be used if a child is found living in unsuitable accommodation.
It could also be used if a child's parents removed the child from hospital without them having been discharged by the doctors.
During this time, the police do not acquire parental responsibility. Nevertheless they must do what is reasonable to safeguard or promote the child's welfare.
If the court is satisfied that there is reasonable cause to believe that a child is likely to suffer significant harm, it will make an emergency protection order. Any person may apply to the court for a protection order. However, if the local authority suspects that a child is suffering significant harm and they are being unreasonably refused access to see the child, they will usually make an application.
If an emergency protection order is granted, a guardian will be appointed to act on behalf of the child. The guardian is known as a guardian ad litem. The prime purpose of the guardian ad litem is to put the child's views to the court and protect their interests. A report or statement will be prepared for the court. The court will consider the details before reaching a decision.
The court may give directions for a medical examination and psychiatric or other assessment of the child.
An emergency protection order may authorise a person to enter premises and search for the child. If entry is refused, the court may issue a warrant that instructs the police to give assistance. If necessary, the police may use reasonable force.
While the emergency protection order is in existence, the court may direct that a child has access with their parents or other members of their family.
Any emergency protection order will last for a period of eight days.