Care orders

This advice applies to England. See advice for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales

When a child is made the subject of a care order, the local authority has legal responsibility for the child. 

As parents you continue to have parental responsibility. However, the local authority can limit your parental responsibility if this is necessary in the interests of the child's welfare.

The local authority will decide where your child should live - this will normally be away from home.

When will a local authority seek a care order

A local authority might apply to the court for a care order if your child is not receiving the sort of care it would be reasonable to expect from a parent. They must also show the court the lack of care is causing or risking significant harm to the child. The court will decide whether or not a child is suffering or at risk of suffering harm in this way.

Where will a child in care live

If the local authority has a care order for a child, they have to decide where the child should live.

The local authority must place the child with on of the following people:

  • a parent

  • someone who is not the child's parent but has parental responsibility for them

  • someone who already has a child arrangements order granting them residence for the child before the care order was made

However, if it's not practical or in the best interest of the child to live with one of these people, they must look at other suitable arrangements for the child's care. This person must also be a local authority foster parent and be one of the following people:

  • a relative

  • friend

  • another person who the child knows

If they can't place the child with one of these people, the local authority will then look at one of the following options:

  • a placement with a local authority foster parent who is not a relative, friend or other person who the child knows

  • a placement in a children's home

  • another suitable arrangement for the child's care

If a local authority makes a placement for the child they must try to ensure the following needs are met:

  • the child can live near their home

  • the child's education or training is not disrupted

  • siblings can live together if they are all in care

  • the placement is suitable for the child's needs if they are disabled

When a local authority decides where a child is going to live they must:

  • look after the child's welfare and progress in school

  • try to consider the wishes and feelings of people who are important in the child's life, including parents or people with parental responsibility

  • try to consider the child's wishes, taking into account their age and level of understanding

  • consider the child's religion, race, cultural background and first language

The local authority will try to agree the placement with the social worker, parents and child, unless the child needs secure accommodation.

If it isn't possible to agree, the local authority has the right to decide where the child should live without the consent of the parents or child.

Ofsted inspects children's homes and other accommodation for children in England. You can see Ofsted inspection reports on their website.

Foster carers

Fostering means that the local authority arranges for a child to live with foster carers. It enables a child to be cared for in a family environment. A child can be placed with foster carers long term, for example, when you are permanently unable to look after your child, or short term, for example when you are temporarily unable to look after your child because of illness in the family, or your child is in care but it is planned that they will return to you, relatives or friends. Foster carers can be:

  • a married couple

  • a same-sex couple, whether civil partners or cohabiting

  • an unmarried heterosexual couple

  • a single man

  • a single woman

The local authority recruits and selects foster carers. It decides whether or not a person is suitable to be a foster carer. Some people will not be considered suitable, for example, most people who have committed an offence against a child. No one has the right to be a foster carer. The local authority will make a decision in the interests of the child. Relatives and friends of children looked after by the local authority can be approved as foster carers for the children.

Children's homes

Children’s homes can either be administered by local authorities, or by private or charitable organisations such as Barnados. They are run by paid staff. In general, children in children’s homes tend to be older. Younger children are placed wherever possible in foster homes.

The way in which the home is organised varies considerably between authorities and according to the attitude of the head of the home. However, children will certainly be encouraged to participate in normal day to day activities within the community. They will usually attend local schools (although some children may go to special schools) and be able to join youth clubs and sports clubs etc.

Some children are placed in children’s homes with education provided on the premises. This might be for a variety of reasons such as a problem of persistent truanting or difficult behaviour in school or criminal offences. These homes tend to be larger than children’s homes and provide a more structured and disciplined environment, similar to that of a boarding school.

How will the decision be made

When deciding where your child should live the local authority will take into account a number of points including:

  • your wishes as parents

  • your child's wishes

  • the need to place your child near your home so that your child can keep in touch with friends and relatives, if this will be good for your child

  • whether or not brothers and sisters should be kept together

How is a care order made

The local authority applies to the court for a care order. However, before the local authority applies for a court order it will investigate the child’s circumstances. The local authority might start these investigations for any of the following reasons:

  • when directed to do so by the court

  • when the child has persistently failed to comply with an education supervision order

  • when it suspects that a child in its area is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm

  • when a child is in police protection

  • when a child assessment order has been made

  • when an emergency protection order has been made. This is an order to protect the child from harm by removal from a place or the requirement to stay in a specific place

The local authority's primary duty is to work with you as parents and with your child to prevent the child being made the subject of a care order, or to return your child home as quickly as possible. When the local authority has investigated your child’s circumstances, it will work with your family to resolve the problems. They'll provide support services to the child and you as a family. This could include a plan of what your family should and shouldn’t do - it might also include professional assessments. 

If you and your child agree, the local authority might offer to accommodate your child. This would be for a limited time until the problems can be resolved.

For more information about local authority services and accommodating children, see Local authority services for children in need.

If, having tried to resolve the problems in the ways outlined above, the local authority believes that the child is still at risk, it might apply to the court for a care order.

The application is made to the family proceedings court of the magistrates court. The court will appoint a person to look after the child’s interest during the court proceedings. This person is known as the children’s guardian.

The court might want to see reports about you and your child. These reports will be prepared by a social worker and the children’s guardian. The court might temporarily place your child under the care of the local authority until it makes its final decision. This is called making an interim care order. They’d do this if they think the child is suffering or at risk of suffering harm. 

Once the court has considered all the evidence it might decide the child is at risk and make a final care order or a supervision order. A supervision order requires a child to be supervised by a social worker for up to a year.

It could also make a child arrangements order instead of a care order. A child arrangements order says who the child should live with, spend time with and have other types of contact with, for example, visiting, telephoning or writing letters. You can find out more about the different orders a court can make

Anyone involved in care proceedings should seek legal advice from a specialist in child law. You can each apply for help with legal costs. If you're the child's parent you'll be entitled to get it without meeting the usual conditions. Find out how to get help with legal costs.

Appealing against a care order

You must appeal against a care order within 21 days of the order being made. 

If you want to appeal against a care order, you should get expert advice first. You should also talk to a solicitor. You can start by speaking to one of our advisers - they’ll be able to help you get specialist advice and details of solicitors in your area. Talk to an adviser

Ending a care order

If you want to apply to end a care order, you’ll need to show there’s been a significant change in circumstances since the care order was made. You can’t apply to end or change a care order if a placement order for adoption has been made.

If you want to end a care order, you should get expert advice first. You should also talk to a solicitor. You can start by speaking to one of our advisers - they’ll be able to help you get specialist advice and details of solicitors in your area. Talk to an adviser.

What happens once a care order has been made

Your child and the local authority must agree a written plan to meet your child’s needs. The local authority will include you in agreeing the plan if it’s possible. A child or young person who has been looked after by the local authority for a period of at least 13 weeks, at some time between the ages of 14 and 17, will be given a personal adviser. The personal adviser will assist in drawing up a plan called a Pathway Plan.

Contact with a child in care

The local authority must encourage contact between a child in care and parents, relatives and friends. It must also allow reasonable contact between the child and you as parents.

Arrangements for contact will normally be agreed between the local authority, you and your child. However, if it is not possible to reach an agreement, the court can make a court order detailing what contact your child should have with other people.

You’ll usually be able to contact your child during an interim care order or if they’re placed in foster care. If your child is a baby or very young and a placement order is made for adoption, you won’t be able to have ongoing contact with your child. 

If the local authority wants to change the arrangements for contact, the social worker must discuss the proposed changes with all the people involved. The local authority cannot stop contact between you and your child without a court order unless it considers the situation is urgent, when it can stop contact for up to 7 days.

Anyone can appeal against a decision of the court to refuse or to grant a contact order, including the child.

Reviewing the child’s circumstances

The local authority is required by law to review the circumstances of a child in its care within 4 weeks of the child first being looked after. The local authority must conduct a second review within 3 months of the first review, and it must conduct subsequent reviews every 6 months. The review will discuss the plan which has been drawn up for the child. The local authority will consider what progress has been made in implementing the plan, and whether there needs to be any changes made to it.

Children and young people leaving care and accommodation

The local authority must prepare a young person or child who has been looked after by a local authority for a period of at least 13 weeks, some time between the ages of 14 and 17, for leaving care and keeping in touch afterwards.

The local authority must also provide support to children leaving care until the age of 25 if they’re still in training or education. The child will have a personal adviser who will give them practical and emotional support as they move into adulthood. The child and personal adviser will decide what type of support they need together.

The duty of the local authority to keep in touch applies even if a child or young person moves to another part of the country. Most care leavers are entitled to help with accommodation, education and training, and if necessary, to other forms of help that the local authority has the power to provide.

Local authorities are primarily responsible for the financial support of certain 16 and 17 year olds leaving local authority accommodation or care.

If you're a young person who has left, or is about to leave, local authority accommodation or care and want to know what support you can expect from the local authority - talk to an adviser

Complaints about the local authority

If you are not happy with the way that the local authority has treated a child or young person, you can make a complaint. Children and young people can make complaints as well as adults. You can also complain if the local authority does not do something it should. Each local authority has a complaints procedure. You can get a copy of it from your local authority. Examples of things you can complain about include:

  • delays in looking at a child's needs

  • the quality of a service the local authority offers, for example, poor standards of foster care

  • the non-delivery of a service. For example, a local authority may have failed to provide an interpreter if you need one or to take your cultural background into account

  • the attitude or behaviour of local authority staff

Also it is against the law for a local authority to discriminate against you because of your race or sex or because you have a disability. Most local authorities have policies which say they must not discriminate against you for other reasons for example, because of your sexuality or because you have HIV. If you feel you have been discriminated against, you can make a complaint about this.

If you are not happy with the outcome of a complaint, you have the right to ask for the outcome to be reviewed by a review panel. There is a time limit for this.

For more information about the complaints procedure, see NHS and local authority social services complaints

Complaining to an Ombudsman

If you are not happy with the outcome after you have used the local authority complaints procedure, you can ask an Ombudsman to investigate.

In England, the Local Government Ombudsman's office has a team of specially-trained investigators who look into complaints made by children and young people.

You can find out how to complain to an ombudsman.

Depending on the nature of the complaint, you may be able to take legal action against the local authority. For example, if you were injured whilst in care and the local authority was negligent, you might be able to take legal action and get compensation. You might be able to take legal action if you were discriminated against because of your race, sex or disability. You might get help with legal costs to take legal action. You have to take legal action within a certain time limit. You will need to consult a specialist solicitor.

If you think you might need to take legal action against the local authority, you should talk to an adviser.

Organisations that can help

There are a number of organisations that can support young people who are in the care system.

Family Rights Group

Family Rights Group can advise you if you are a parent, friend or relative and social workers are involved in your child’s life, or you need extra support from Children’s Services. 

Family Rights Group (England and Wales)

Second Floor

The Print House

18 Ashwin Street

London

E8 3DL

Helpline: 0808 801 0366 

Relay UK - if you can't hear or speak on the phone, you can type what you want to say: 18001 then 0808 801 0366

You can use Relay UK with an app or a textphone. There’s no extra charge to use it. Find out how to use Relay UK on the Relay UK website.

The helpline is available 9.30am to 3pm, Monday to Friday.

Email: office@frg.org.uk (admin only - no advice available by email)

Website: www.frg.org.uk

Become

Become provides information and advice for young people in care or those who have recently left care.

Become 

15-18 White Lion Street

London

N1 9PG

Helpline: 0800 023 2033

Relay UK - if you can't hear or speak on the phone, you can type what you want to say: 18001 then 0800 023 2033

You can use Relay UK with an app or a textphone. There’s no extra charge to use it. Find out how to use Relay UK on the Relay UK website.

The helpline is available 10.30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Email: advice@becomecharity.org.uk

Website: www.becomecharity.org.uk

Coram Voice

Coram Voice provides advocacy services for children and young people in care, needing care or leaving care. 

Coram Voice (England)

Coram Campus

41 Brunswick Square

London

WC1N 1AZ

Advocacy Helpline: 0808 800 5792

Relay UK - if you can't hear or speak on the phone, you can type what you want to say: 18001 then 0808 800 5792

You can use Relay UK with an app or a textphone. There’s no extra charge to use it. Find out how to use Relay UK on the Relay UK website.

Admin line: 020 7520 0300

Email: info@coramvoice.org.uk

Website: www.coramvoice.org.uk

Page last reviewed on 24 March 2021