This advice applies to Northern Ireland. Change country
Children and local authority care
When a child is made the subject of a care order, the local authority has legal responsibility for the child. This is called parental responsibility. 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 but this will normally be away from home.
When will a local authority seek a care order
A local authority will seek a court order if your child is not receiving the sort of care it would be reasonable to expect from a parent, and this lack of care is causing the child significant harm. The court will decide whether or not a child is suffering harm in this way.
How does the local authority in Northern Ireland decide where to place a child
Health and Social Care Trusts in Northern Ireland have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need in their area. In fulfilling its duty, the HSCT must make the welfare of the child its paramount consideration.
Fostering means that the social services department 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 s/he 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.
My brother and I have been living with foster carers for three years. My brother started to get in trouble at school and social services have taken him away to another foster family. I don't even know where he is and I'm very upset because we can't live together any more.
There are procedures that the local authority should have followed before they split up you and your brother. They should have explained their decision properly and they should have considered the emotional effect on you of taking your brother away. They should try to make sure you keep in touch with your brother. You have the right to make a complaint. You have the right to have someone speak on your behalf to the council. Get in touch with an experienced adviser, for example, at your local Citizens Advice Bureau. They will help you to try and make this situation better.
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.
The local authority applies to the court for a care order. However, before the local authority, (in Northern Ireland, this includes a person authorised by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, or the NSPCC), applies for a court order it will investigate the child’s circumstances. The local authority may 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 social services department’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 by providing support services to the child and you as a family in the community. It will also discuss with you and your child the possibility of accommodating the child for a limited period 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 will 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, or guardian ad litem in Northern Ireland.
The court may want to see reports about you and your child. These reports will be prepared by a social worker and the children’s guardian or guardian ad litem in Northern Ireland.
If the court decides that the child is at risk it may make a 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 (in Northern Ireland, a residence or contact order) instead of a care order.
A residence order says who the child should live with. This could be with just one parent or with both parents. If it's with both parents, the residence order will say how much time the child should live with each one.
A contact order says who the child should have contact with and what sort of contact this should be, for example, visiting, telephoning or writing letters. A contact order might include other conditions, and can be made to allow contact between the child and other relatives or friends.
Getting legal advice
Anyone involved in care proceedings should seek legal advice from a specialist in child law. You and your child can each apply for help with legal costs, and will be entitled to get it without meeting the usual conditions.
For more information about free and affordable legal help in England and Wales, see Help with legal costs - free or affordable help.
For more information about finding a specialist solicitor in England and Wales, see Using a legal adviser, and in Northern Ireland, see Using a solicitor.
Appealing against or ending a care order
You or your child must appeal against a care order within 21 days of the order being made. You, your child or the local authority can apply to end the order or change it to a supervision order at any time.
Anyone wanting to appeal against or end a care order will need expert advice and should consult a solicitor. Contact details of solicitors can be obtained from a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
In England and Wales, your child (with you where possible) and the local authority must agree a written plan to meet your child’s needs. 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.
In Northern Ireland, the local authority must agree with you a written plan to meet your child's needs. This will include details of where your child will live, who your child will have contact with, other local authority services you and your child will receive, how disagreements and complaints will be dealt with and when reviews will take place.
How long will the care order last
The care order can last until a child is 18.
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.
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 seven 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 four weeks of the child first being looked after. The local authority must conduct a second review within three months of the first review, and it must conduct subsequent reviews every six 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 keep in touch afterwards.
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 are 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, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
The local authority complaints procedure
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 in England, see NHS and local authority social services complaints. In Northern Ireland, see HSC complaints in Northern Ireland.
In Wales, you can find information about how to complain about the local authority on the Welsh Government website at: new.wales.gov.uk.
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. They produce a guide for young people which you can get through their website at www.lgo.org.uk.
For more information about the Local Government Ombudsman in England, see How to use an ombudsman in England, in Wales, see How to use an ombudsman in Wales, or in Northern Ireland, see How to use an ombudsman in Northern Ireland.
Taking legal action against the local authority
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 consult an experienced adviser, for example, a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
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. Their contact details are:
Family Rights Group (England and Wales)
The Print House
18 Ashwin Street
Who Cares? Trust
The Who Cares? Trust aims to help children and young people who are in the care system or looked after by the local authority to manage their lives more constructively in the absence of family support. The Trust answers requests for information and advice from young people, foster carers and professionals. Their contact details are:
Voice provides advocacy services for children and young people in care, needing care or leaving care. Their contact details are:
Voices from Care (Cymru)
Voices from Care (Cymru) provides advice and support to anyone who is, or has been, in local authority care within Wales. The service is run by people who have themselves been in care. Their contact details are:
Voices from Care (Cymru)
39 The Parade
Voice of Young People In Care
Voice of Young People in Care provides advocacy, mentoring and participation programmes for children and young people who are or have been in care. It works across Northern Ireland from offices in Ballymena, Belfast, Londonderry and Lurgan. Their contact details are:
Voice of Young People In Care
9-11 Botanic Avenue
Tel: 028 9024 4888
Fax: 028 9024 0679