Duties of the local authority
Every local authority must protect and promote the welfare of children in need in its area. To do this it must work with the family to provide support services that will enable children to be brought up within their own families. In Northern Ireland, the Health and Social Care Trusts (HSCT's) have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need in their area.
Who are ‘children in need’
Children in need are defined in law as children who are aged under 18 and:-
- need local authority services to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development
- need local authority services to prevent significant or further harm to health or development
- are disabled.
The local authority must keep a register of children with disabilities in its area but does not have to keep a register of all children in need.
What services can the local authority provide
The local authority can provide a range of services for children in need. These can include:-
- day care facilities for children under 5 and not yet at school
- after-school and holiday care or activities for school age children
- advice, guidance and counselling
- occupational, social, cultural or recreational activities
- home helps and laundry facilities
- assistance with travelling to and from home in order to use any services provided by the local authority
- assistance for the child and family to have a holiday
- family centres
- financial assistance usually in the form of a loan, see below
- respite care
- looking after the child, see below.
The local authority can also provide the following services to all children in its area, not just children in need:-
- day care facilities for children under five and not yet at school
- after-school and holiday care or activities for school age children.
In England, if a child is staying for at least three months away from family in a place of care, at for example a:
- NHS hospital
- residential school
- care home
- independent hospital
the local authority may be able to provide the following services:
- advice, guidance, counselling
- family visits to the place of care
- visits home
- help to organise a holiday for family members to be together.
The local authority must publish information about the services it provides for children in need and their families. This must be made available to the people who might benefit from the services.
In addition to the above services, the local authority, or, in Northern Ireland, a local Health and Social Services Trust, has a duty to provide services it considers appropriate for the following children:
- disabled children
- children who might otherwise be made subject to care proceedings
- children who are likely to be involved in crime.
In England, from 1 April 2011, local authorities must provide breaks from caring (respite care) for the parents of disabled children.
The local authority can give financial help in a wide range of circumstances, when a child is in need. The help may be in the form of a loan, a cash payment, or payment in kind, for example, vouchers for a particular shop, or an item of food, clothing or furniture.
In Northern Ireland, Health and Social Services Trusts have the discretionary power to provide financial assistance or assistance in kind to families in order to meet its duties. You must have a child who has been assessed as being in need.
If you want to apply to the local authority for financial assistance 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 email, click on nearest CAB.
Looking after children in need
A child is being ‘looked after’ by the local authority when the local authority arranges for the child to live somewhere other than at home.
There are two ways in which a child can be looked after by the local authority. One is called ‘being accommodated’, the other is where the child is the subject of a court order.
Children being accommodated
When a child is being accommodated by the local authority this is a voluntary arrangement between the local authority and the family. This means that you keep all your rights and responsibilities as parents for the child and the local authority does not take on any of those rights or responsibilities. If you are a parent, you can therefore remove your child from the accommodation at any time.
A local authority has a duty to accommodate a child in need if:-
- there is no one with legal responsibility for the child; or
- the child is lost or has been abandoned; or
- the person who has been caring for the child cannot continue to provide suitable care and accommodation for whatever reason; or
- the child has reached 16 and the child's welfare is likely to be placed seriously at risk if the local authority does not provide the child with accommodation.
If a local authority has a duty to accommodate a child in need, the children's services department must accommodate the child itself. It cannot refuse to do so and refer the child to the housing department as a homeless person instead.
If the local authority provides accommodation for a child it must draw up a plan with the family setting out the arrangements that will be made for the child. This must be in writing.
The child might live in a foster home or a children’s home. The foster home could be the home of relatives or friends of the family.
The local authority must ensure that a child who is being accommodated continues to have contact with family and friends.
Children who are the subject of a care order
When a court has made an order in relation to the child, known as a care order, this means that the local authority will take on responsibility for the child together with you as parents. The local authority will make arrangements for where the child should live, in discussion with you. However, you will not be able to remove the child if you do not agree with the local authority’s proposals.
In Northern Ireland, the local authority has the right to overrule the parent if it considers that it is necessary to safeguard or promote the child's welfare.
For more information about when a child is the subject of a care order, see Children and local authority care.
Complaints about a local authority
If you are dissatisfied by the service offered by your local authority social services department, you may be able to make a complaint. Ask them for a copy of their complaints procedure.