Children who are looked after by the local authority

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

Why are children looked after by the local authority

There are a number of reasons why a child may be 'looked after' by the local authority. Most often it is because the child's parents or the people who have parental responsibilities and rights to look after the child are unable to care for them, have been neglecting them or the child has committed an offence. The local authority has specific responsibilities and duties towards a child who is being looked after or who has been looked after.

The child may be:

  • in local authority accommodation under a voluntary arrangement, where the child’s parents agree to the child being accommodated, or

  • in local authority accommodation or at home, under compulsory measures decided by a children’s hearing or a court.

Assessment of wellbeing

The Scottish government has identified 8 indicators of wellbeing. When assessing a child's progress these indicators should be looked at involving any other agencies, the child and parents or other full time carers. The indicators of wellbeing relate to whether the child is Safe, Healthy, Achieving, Nurtured, Active, Respected, Responsible and Included.

A wellbeing assessment may be undertaken at any time when there are concerns for a child or young person under 18. The overall intention is that by identifying problems a child is having, and finding solutions, that may involve a number of agencies, the child or young person's development can progress without risk of any more harm. The outcome of an assessment of wellbeing should allow a child and parents or other carers to request the assistance that is needed. Using this process would certainly identify what services a 'looked after' child will need.

You can find out more in the leaflet 'Understanding wellbeing' on the Scottish government website.

Children's hearings and court orders

A child can be subject to an order from a children's hearing and an order from the sheriff court at the same time.

Children's hearing

A children's hearing is a formal meeting of three children's panel members who live or work in the local area, a Children's Reporter, and normally a social worker, who has visited the family and prepared a report. It is called to consider a child’s case and whether or not the child is 'at risk' and requires to be supervised and/or protected. A children's hearing may be called after a child has been removed from home to a safe place in an emergency. The other types of situations that may mean the Children's Reporter calls a hearing are when a child:

  • is beyond parental control

  • is suffering from lack of parental care

  • is a victim of a serious criminal offence

  • has a close connection with someone who has committed a serious criminal offence

  • is failing to attend school regularly

  • has committed an offence - this only applies if the child was 12 or over when the offence was committed

  • is suspected of misusing alcohol or any drug

  • is being exposed to people who may abuse or harm them.

A child can only be called to a children's hearing if they are under 16, or under 18 and already subject to an order from a children's hearing. In all cases if the child is old enough, they should be given the opportunity to give their view of the situation. Legal assistance, including representation, may be available for a child or an adult who needs advice or representation in connection with a children's hearing. More information about legal advice and assistance is available from a solicitor or from the Scottish Legal Aid Board website.

When the hearing has discussed the details of the child's situation, it can either discharge the case or make an order called a compulsory supervision order. In some cases, the order will have a condition attached to it that the child must live away from home, either with foster parents, in a children's home or at a special residence where the hearing believes the child will receive the right help or supervision.

A compulsory supervision order lasts for 1 year unless the hearing decides it should be reviewed earlier than this. At any time 3 months after the supervision begins a parent or a child can ask for the children's hearing to review the supervision order. A social worker can ask for a review at any time.

A child and any relevant person can appeal against any decision made by a children's hearing. This must be done within 21 days of the decision being made and the appeal is made to the sheriff court. Legal aid is available for an appeal.

More information about children's hearings is available from a Citizens Advice Bureau - where to get advice.

Children's Hearings Scotland also publishes useful information about children's hearings for children, young people and adults.

Court orders

The sheriff court can make a number of orders for the protection and supervision of children. The main orders that can be made are:

  • a child protection order - an application may be made by any person who is concerned for a child, or by the local authority. The order may state that the child should be removed to a safe place or that the child cannot be removed from the place where they are staying. A child protection order lasts for 8 days but must be reviewed within that period either by the court or a children’s hearing.

  • a child assessment order - an application can only be made by the local authority. It lasts for a maximum of 3 days. It may not involve the child being away from home but will mean that the child has to be taken to a particular place to be assessed.

  • an exclusion order - can only be applied for by the local authority. It can last for 6 months and may mean that a person who is suspected of abusing a child has to leave or stay away from the child and their home.

  • a permanence order - can only be applied for by the local authority. It can last until a child reaches the age of 18. It transfers the parental right to have the child living with the parent and to control where the child lives to the local authority. Other parental responsibilities and rights can be shared between the local authority, the birth parents and the carers of the child, for example, foster carers or kinship carers.

  • a parenting order – can by applied for by the local authority or by the Reporter to the Children’s Panel. It can last for up to 12 months and requires the parent(s) to undertake guidance and counselling and other activities as directed by the court to improve their parenting skills. Breach of a parenting order is a criminal offence.

Anyone whose child is the subject of a court order, or the child themselves, will need expert advice about their rights. They should contact a specialist organisation or a solicitor, or a Citizens Advice Bureau - where to get advice.

Rights when a child is being looked after

The child's rights

If you are a child being looked after by the local authority you have a right to be consulted about what is happening to you. This does not mean that you will always get what you want, but that your views should be taken seriously.

Some local authorities may appoint children's officers who are responsible for helping children to understand what is happening to them. Voluntary organisations may also be able to provide advice or representation direct to children. More information on useful organisations.

In formal legal procedures, such as children's hearings and courts, you have rights to be represented independently.

The Scottish government has produced a leaflet for young people about their rights when they are being looked after in secure accommodation.

The parents' rights

If you are the parent of a child who is being looked after by the local authority, what rights you have will depend on how the child came to be looked after.

If the child is being accommodated by the local authority under voluntary measures, as a parent you retain full parental rights.

If the child is subject to a compulsory supervision order or an order of the court, as a parent you retain full parental rights, although these may be limited by the children's hearing or the court.

If the local authority has a permanence order for your child, you do not have the parental right to have the child living with you or to control where the child lives. The permanence order will set out whether you still have any other parental responsibilities or rights or whether these have been given to the local authority or the carer of the child, for example, a foster carer.

The care plan

Every child who is being looked after by the local authority must have a care plan. The child, the parents and the prospective carers (if the child will be living away from home) should be involved in producing the care plan.

The care plan should include information about:

  • any services to be provided for you, including any special arrangements to meet any religious, linguistic, racial or cultural needs

  • your care, education and health needs

  • the local authority's responsibilities

  • your responsibilities

  • your parents' responsibilities

  • details of where you will be living, and who is responsible for the accommodation

  • the contribution that your parents will make to the child's day-to-day care

  • the arrangements for involving your parents in decision making

  • the arrangements for contact between you and your parents, and between you and your siblings

  • the arrangements for contact between you and other members of your family, like grandparents

  • how long the arrangement is likely to last and details of how the arrangement will come to an end

  • plans for how you will be helped to return to your parents or other arrangements that may be made for you at the end of the placement.

The care plan should be clear and easy to understand and the local authority should ensure that everyone affected by it understands what it means. You and your parents should be given copies of the plan.

Challenging decisions

If you are a parent or a child who is unhappy with some aspect of the way in which you or your child is being looked after you should consult an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau - where to get advice.

Where the child lives

Your rights as a child or parents to be consulted about where the child lives depends on whether the child is being looked after under compulsory measures or whether the arrangement is voluntary.

If you and your siblings are all looked after, you should be able to live together or in homes near each other. It will depend on what is best for your wellbeing.

If you are unhappy with any aspect of the accommodation provided for you or as a parent are unhappy, you should consult an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau - where to get advice.

Types of accommodation

Staying with your parents

Although you are being looked after by the local authority you might remain at home with your parents under a compulsory supervision order. The local authority has to visit regularly to ensure that the terms of the order are being met.

Kinship care

When you are being looked after by the local authority you might stay with close relatives or close friends until your parents are able to care for you. This is known as kinship care. Find out more about kinship care.


Fostering means that the local authority arranges for you to live with foster carers in their own home. It enables you to be cared for in a family environment. The fostering may be for a brief period, for example when your parents are temporarily unable to look after you because of illness in the family. The intention will be that you return to your parents as soon as possible. If it is not going to be possible for you to return to your parents you may remain with foster carers for a longer period.

Foster carers are recruited and selected by the social work authority. Relatives and friends of children can be used as foster carers but they will also have to be assessed and approved by the local authority. Find out more about fostering.

Children's homes

Children's homes can either be administered by local authorities or by private or voluntary organisations such as Barnardo's. They are run by paid staff. In general, children placed in children's homes tend to be older. If you are under 12 you will be placed wherever possible in foster homes.

Residential schools

You might be placed in a residential school 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.

Contact between the child and their family

What is contact

When you are living away from home the local authority has a duty to promote contact between you and your parents, your siblings and other members of your family like grandparents, so long as this is consistent with your welfare. Your parents also have a responsibility to maintain contact with you. Arrangements for contact must be included in the care plan.

Voluntary arrangements

If you are accommodated under voluntary arrangements, all the people involved should try to agree the terms of contact with you. The local authority cannot stop contact between you and your parents. If the local authority is concerned that contact should be restricted or stopped it must refer your case to the children’s hearing for consideration, or apply to court.

Compulsory measures

If you are being looked after away from home under compulsory measures, arrangements for contact may have been made by the children’s hearing or court. If arrangements for contact have not been made by the children's hearing or the court, the arrangements will have to be agreed between the local authority, and you and your parents.

Disputes about contact

Any arrangements for contact should only be changed, stopped, increased or restricted after they have been considered at a regular review meeting about you, unless the local authority considers that there is an emergency.

If, after a review, a local authority considers that arrangements for contact should be changed for whatever reason, it must refer the matter to the children's hearing or court for consideration.

If you or your parents are unhappy with the decision of the children's hearing or court, you can appeal.

If you are unhappy with any aspect of the contact arrangements you should consult an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau - where to get advice.

Practical problems with contact

Local authorities have a responsibility to encourage contact between you and your parents and your siblings. They have powers to help you to overcome difficulties with the practical arrangements, for example by making payments for travel expenses. A parent or sibling who needs practical help with keeping contact should ask their social worker for help.

Aftercare services and continuing care

Young people can leave care at 16 but, if it is in their best interests, they should not have to leave before they are 18.

There are special arrangements for young people leaving care. Most young people over school-leaving age are not entitled to benefits and instead are supported by the local authority. In some cases a young person who leaves care can stay in the same accommodation with the same carers until they are 21. This is called 'continuing care'. A young person is eligible to ask for this type of care from age 16 to 21 (from 1 April 2019).

The local authority should plan from the beginning of the placement for what will happen when the young person stops being a 'looked after' child.

As a young person leaving care you must be consulted about what will happen and should be given information and advice about making choices about your future. You can ask for aftercare support until you are 26. If you receive 'continuing care' you cannot have 'aftercare' support at the same time.

If you are not going to return to live with your parents the local authority should consider how you can plan for living independently, or in supported accommodation.

The local authority should draw up a Pathway Plan which draws up the support and guidance provision for you. This may include:

  • advice and information

  • assistance in cash or in kind

  • help with the costs of education and training

  • accommodation. The local authority may be able to help you find a place in supported accommodation.

  • help in making or maintaining contact with your family.

For more information on young people leaving care you should contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

Complaints about services for children in need

The local authority complaints procedure and the Care Inspectorate

A child or a parent may wish to complain about:

  • the local authority refusing to provide a service, or

  • the way that a decision was made about providing a service, or

  • problems which arise once a service has been provided, or

  • the standard of care provided, including a complaint about a particular member of staff.

It is also against the law for a local authority to discriminate against you because of your race, sex, sexual orientation or because you have a disability. If you feel you have been discriminated against you can make a complaint about this.

You have a choice about who to complain to about a social service provided by the local authority. You can either:

  • use the local authority complaints procedure. It has a duty to ensure that a child and their family know about the procedure and how to use it, or

  • make a complaint to the Care Inspectorate which is the body responsible for the regulation of care services and is independent of the local authority. Sometimes the Care Inspectorate may want you to use the local authority complaints procedure first, but you do not have to.

The Care Inspectorate

Compass House

11 Riverside Drive



Tel: 0345 600 9527 (Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm)



If you have a complaint about a particular member of staff you could complain first to the person's line manager or, if the member of staff is registered with the Scottish Social Services Council, directly to the Council.

Scottish Social Services Council

Compass House

11 Riverside Drive



Tel: 0345 60 30 891 (Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm)

Website: contact form


Further action

Within the local authority complaints procedure

If you are unhappy with the response from the local authority you can ask for a review of its decision. If you are still unhappy after the review you can take the complaint further in a number of ways outlined below.

The Care Inspectorate

If you did not complain to the Care Inspectorate in the first instance you can make the complaint to it after using the local authority complaints procedure. If you are unhappy with the Care Inspectorate's decision you can complain to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

You can complain to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman after the complaint has been through the normal complaint process.

You must put your complaint in writing to the Ombudsman and you should include any letters to and from the organisation you are complaining about. Send your letter to:

Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

Bridgeside House

99 McDonald Road



Freephone: 0800 377 7330

Fax: 0800 377 7331

Email: contact form on website


Complain to the Scottish Minister

You may want to complain to the relevant Scottish Minister about what you think is a failure of the local authority to comply with one of its legal duties, for example, under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. You will need the help of an experienced adviser to do this. You should consult your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

Depending on the nature of the complaint you may be able to take legal action in one of the following ways:

  • apply for judicial review

  • raise a court action because of discrimination on grounds of race, sex, sexual orientation, disability or religion

  • claim a breach of human rights.

You will need the help of a solicitor to take legal action and legal aid may be available to do this.

Useful organisations

Scottish Child Law Centre

Scottish Child Law Centre

91 George Street




Legal advice email: 


The centre provides free legal advice to children and young people, professionals or members of the public on any aspect of the law relating to children.

Who Cares? Scotland

Who Cares? Scotland

40 Wellington Street


G2 6HJ

Tel: 0330 107 7540



This organisation provides advocacy services for young people in care or leaving care.

Children's rights officer

Many local authorities have a children’s rights officer who can advise children and young people. Contact your local authority for details.

Childline – The Line

Childline provides a special help line for children living away from home, for example, in a local authority care home or with foster parents.

Tel: 0800 884444 (Weekdays 3:30-9:30pm, Weekends 2:00-8:00pm)



Become provides a care advice line for children in care, care leavers and people supporting them. 


15-18 White Lion Street


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.