This article has relevance for people who live throughout the UK, however, please note that references made to legislation and procedures are for England only. Legislation, procedure and terminology will vary between all UK nations and you can find out more information about the UK’s child protection systems on the NSPCC website.
If your child is in the care system (whether with your agreement or after a court order has been made) being able to stay in touch and have a positive relationship with their family is recognised as very important for their development and sense of identity. Obviously, their safety and wellbeing are paramount and any risk in doing this is assessed before contact arrangements are agreed.
If a care or emergency protection order is in place, then the child’s local authority’s children’s services (social services) will be involved and their processes and procedures can seem quite complicated. Having the support of a friend or support worker who can go through them with you can sometimes help to provide clarification or a solicitor will be able to help if you need legal advice.
If you have parental responsibility and there are ongoing care proceedings, you are eligible for non-means tested legal aid, and it is really important for you to consult a solicitor as soon as possible so that you understand your rights and discuss possible contact arrangements if your child does go into care. If there are not ongoing care proceedings, you will not automatically qualify for legal aid support and will need to check your eligibility. For more information about legal aid, please see Child Law Advice.
Parents, guardians or people who held a legal order for residence of the child prior to them going into care have a right to have reasonable contact with the child whilst they are in care. This is unless children’s services have court permission to stop this because of safeguarding and welfare concerns. Also, in an emergency they have the power to suspend contact for up to seven days but must give a written explanation for why they have done this. To refuse contact for more than seven days, they need to seek a court order.
When decisions are made about contact, the court will start from the presumption of granting reasonable contact and it will take a balanced approach to consider the impact contact will have on the child. This will also consider the long-term plan for the child’s living arrangements, including if the parent or person who the child was removed from can show a change in circumstances enabling the child to return home.
Each child who is being ‘looked after’ by the Local Authority will have a ‘care plan’ setting out the details of meeting the child’s needs and arrangements for their current and future care. A ‘placement plan’ is part of the care plan and sets out the arrangements of the child’s placement including details about contact, and parents must be consulted about these. Once the plans have been agreed, the written plans, including explaining the reason for the contact decisions and other arrangements, should go to the parent(s).
Care plans are reviewed regularly at ‘looked after child’ review meetings (also known as LAC meetings), which are chaired by an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO). This checks if the care plan is working well and if any changes need to be made. It is an opportunity for parents or the child to raise any concerns, however, you do not need to wait for a meeting to do this and you can contact the IRO at any time. In exceptional circumstances, a parent may not be included in a review meeting if it is not considered in the interests of the child, but their views will be sought so that they are included in the meeting’s discussions.
A key part to the care plan is looking for permanence for the child, to give them stability and security, and a ‘permanence plan’ needs to be in place by the second time the care plan is reviewed. There are different options that can be considered in a permanence plan including returning home, long-term foster care, kinship care (living with a family member or close family friend), a residential or children’s home, or adoption. If the permanence plan identifies your child is to be adopted, it will be important for you to seek support from a solicitor or advocate to ensure your views are heard, along with the views of any of the child’s siblings. Once your child is adopted, you will no longer have parental responsibility for them but depending on the child’s situation, contact may continue in the form of letters, photographs and/or meetings.
Whatever your situation, talking to your children’s social worker is usually your first port of call for information and advice on contact, and to ensure that your views and those of your child are being fully considered. Ask for an appointment to talk about your concerns for your child and find out if there are things you could do differently or change to make contact more likely to work well for your child and fit in with your own situation. Speak to a solicitor specialising in children’s law, Family Rights Group or There For You Advisory Service for clarification and further information.
If you are not having the level of contact you hoped because of decisions made by social services, we appreciate how distressing this situation could be and how isolated it could make you feel. It may help to chat to other parents on our forum to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at email@example.com or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker. There is also support for mothers from MATCH, who offer non-judgemental support and information to mothers apart from their children whatever the circumstances.