More Councils Using Section 20 Arrangements To Keep Children In Care Illegally

A damning judgment has revealed that another council is using Section 20 Agreements – which are intended to be voluntary – to force children into care indefinitely. 

Herefordshire county council kept a boy in state care for his whole life without getting the consent of a court, which is required by law. The judge identified 14 other children in the council’s care who had been separated from their parents and placed in care for inappropriate periods of time.

In his judgment, Judge Keehan said he had never before come across a situation in which a council had “so seriously and serially failed to address the needs of the children in its care, and so seriously misused, and indeed abused” its statutory powers.

Unlike Judge Keehan, we have often seen Section 20 Agreements being used illegally, across a number of councils. The practice is so common that in 2015, President of the Family Division James Munby, issued a Guidance Note, explicitly forbidding councils from using S.20s to unlawfully detain children in state care.  And in April of last year, the malpractice had become so severe, that a collective of child welfare professionals launched an investigation into how Section 20 Agreements were being misused.

The investigation concluded that in many cases featuring a S.20 Agreement, the parents did not have access to free, independent legal advice and there was no court scrutiny of the decision.

Section 20 agreements are meant to be voluntary arrangements between the state, the family and their child, which allows a child to access temporary accommodation where the family are finding it hard to manage their relationship with their child, or take care of them. As these are voluntary arrangements, parents can remove their children any time they wish from the temporary accommodation offered, and children too have the right to leave whenever they want, without notice. However, councils have neglected to tell parents and children about their rights, and have even used these agreements to coerce parents into handing their children over to the state.

This abuse has been made possible because of a lax approach by government in regulating these agreements, and councils wilfully exploiting the loopholes in S.20 agreements to secure the number of children placed in their care. This is particularly beneficial to councils who work to adoption targets, which are financially incentivised.

Despite the obvious flaw surrounding the issue of consent – local authorities are just ignoring the fact that these agreements are voluntary, and failing to tell families this is the case – the Supreme Court ruled in February of last year that councils did not have a legal duty to inform parents that the agreements were not mandatory.  Had the judges overseeing this case understood that the duty existed – councils are providing accommodation which is fundamentally a temporary service – they could have stopped this illegal activity by ruling that there is in fact a duty on councils to share this information.

Exasperated with the court’s judgment, families going through the child welfare system decided to take matters into their own hands. Family activist, Michelle Simmons created her own S.20 Consent Forms, which have become so popular that they have been downloaded several thousand times since their publication.

This latest case is a sharp reminder that S.20 Agreements are still in desperate need of regulation. If the courts won’t commit to protecting vulnerable families under these arrangements, perhaps the government will consider issuing legislation that ensures all councils must tell parents, and children where possible, their rights under Section 20.

Further Reading:

Many thanks to Maggie Tuttle for alerting us to this case.





Independent Inquiry Into Telford Child Abuse Confirmed.

Telford’s MP, Lucy Allan, has confirmed that an independent inquiry into alleged child sexual abuse in the town, will be held, after calls from Allan and other politicians to establish an investigation. The abuse, which took place during the 1980’s up to the present day, may have led to as many as 1,000 children being groomed and sexually exploited. 

The investigation is likely to be paid for by affected local authorities in the area, after the Home Office declined to fund the inquiry.

It’s not yet clear what form the inquiry will take, though it could be similar in style to Rotherham’s pioneering child abuse investigation produced by Professor Alexis Jay, the current chair of the nation’s independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. Miss Allan is keen to use Rotherham’s model as a jumping off point for Telford’s own investigation:

“All parties are now agreed that an inquiry is necessary and this can now go ahead… While it would be expected that such an inquiry will take the form of a ‘Rotherham style’ inquiry, as this is a tried and tested model, there may well be alternative models that would work just as well… What really matters is that an independent inquiry is going to take place. This is vital for the victims, their families and our community. It will enable us to find out why this happened.”

Telford’s MP says that since the abuse hit the headlines, she has been inundated with calls from victims.  The scale of abuse in the town has led to the media calling it Britain’s worst ever child grooming scandal.


Image: ITV News



Poppi Worthington Case Ignites Debate On Defendants’ Right To Remain Silent

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has confirmed that it will not be reopening the investigation into toddler Poppi Worthington’s death. The decision comes after the CPS could not find enough new evidence to press charges.

Poppi suffered multiple injuries, and was sexually assaulted shortly before she died in 2012. The case hit the headlines after a serious catalogue of blunders was exposed, resulting in important evidence being lost or ignored. Justice Jackson ruled that Poppi’s father was almost certainly responsible for her fatal injuries, though he is now unlikely to ever be charged, in large part because of the serious local authority and police failings.

Poppi’s mother wanted to have the case reopened, after three separate judgments confirmed that Poppi had been sexually assaulted before she died. She has also called out the right to remain silent rule, which she says was responsible for frustrating the coroner’s inquiry into Poppi’s case. Under the right to remain silent rule, an individual has the right to not answer a question or specific questions put to them during criminal proceedings, which include coroners’ inquests. The lawyer acting for Poppi’s mother told Sky News:

“[Poppi’s mother] was… left disappointed that Poppi’s father chose to rely on his right not to answer many questions which may incriminate him at the inquest… While she understands he was entitled to do this, she considers that the coroner’s inquiry was frustrated by this.”

The case raises important questions about evidence gathering and getting the balance right between individuals’ and defendants rights as set against the rights of victims. Whilst the right to remain silent protects another concept – innocent until proven guilty – adverse inferences can be drawn if an individual chooses not to answer a question during a hearing. There are specific instances where this applies, and certain conditions need to be met before an adverse or negative inference can be drawn.

The right to remain silent becomes even more contentious within the context of cases which have to rely heavily on verbal evidence from witnesses because other forms of evidence are either severely limited or nonexistent, like Poppi’s case.

Our heart goes out to Poppi’s mother.





MPs Debate Social Workers’ Contribution To Society, And Child Abuse.

Yesterday in the House of Commons, Members of Parliament met to discuss child welfare topics, including the contributions social workers make to society, and the rights of victims of crime.

The first debate looked at the ways in which the rights of victims of crime could be better protected. Whilst this was a general debate about different types of crime and those affected, child witnesses in court were mentioned. The recommendations made included offering children in court trained intermediaries and ensuring that children were not obliged in the first instance to enter a court building to give evidence. Other suggestions included be pre-trial therapy for all victims of sexual crimes, and a national strategy for victims with mental health difficulties.

Lucy Allan MP, who represents Telford, the town recently rocked by serious child sexual abuse allegations, went on to discuss victims of child exploitation. This is what Lucy had to say:

“I particularly want to talk about the victims of child exploitation, following revelations in newspapers over the weekend in my constituency. These victims have more difficulties than most in getting heard, and in identifying that they are indeed victims, as my hon. Friend Kevin Foster identified. Child sexual exploitation is not just any crime. It affects whole communities up and down the country; it is not just Telford. It is a crime about fear, manipulation, coercion, shame, control, and sometimes blame. All too often, the victims are ignored. They are victims who do not have a voice, and for whom very few people will stand up and speak. I pay tribute to Sarah Champion for the amazing work that she has done in this field over so many years. She has given a voice to victims, and has set a precedent for us to follow in this House.

These young girls are too often white and working-class, and have multiple vulnerabilities. That is why the perpetrators are targeting them, and why they are so often miscast as bringing it on themselves, as indulging in risky behaviour, as being promiscuous and as somehow being to blame for what is happening to them. In their own minds, they often internalise the sense that they are somehow at fault.

When a 13 or 14-year-old girl is befriended by a 35-year-old man who gives her affection and cigarettes, tops up her phone, and tells her that she is beautiful and that he loves her, sometimes she feels affection for him. She does not realise that when he asks her to share a sexual image of herself, that will lead to something worse—something that she will not want to do. The coercion begins when he says, “If you don’t have sex with me”—or, “If you don’t have sex with my friend”—“I’m going to out you as promiscuous,” or as a “sket”, as they say in Telford. That is when it becomes a crime, but at that point, a 13 or 14-year-old does not know that what is happening is rape and child sexual exploitation. If she goes to the police, what does she say? She does not say, “I am a victim of statutory rape.” She says, “I’m being harassed by this person. He’s threatened to take a picture and put it on Facebook. He’s threatened to tell my mum that I’m a prostitute.”

Too often, victims of such terrible crimes do not articulate what is happening to them, so we have to be incredibly sensitive with them. Too often, they are not heard because of their vulnerabilities. I worry that a difficult family background or drugs and alcohol or mental health issues at home mean that victims are thought of as troublemakers and just a bit too difficult. Perhaps that is why these crimes were not identified for so long. Had the girls been from a different background and able to articulate more clearly what was happening to them, or able to identify that it was a crime, perhaps we would not have the cases that we see in Telford, Rotherham and Oxford.”

There follows an extended discussion with MPs from Rotherham and other constituencies which have experienced serious sexual abuse within its borders, which is worth reading.

The second debate invites the House of Commons to reflect on the contribution social workers make to society. MPs discuss their views on social work and social workers. Tim Loughton MP mentions that he is a patron of the Social Worker Of The Year Awards, and that this year there will be a reception for all the winners on the Terrace, in the Commons.

The group go on to discuss national social worker day, or World Social Work Day as it is called, which falls on the 20th March. 

There is also some debate about the difficulties of working with other agencies when processing child protection cases, the problems with having time scales when dealing with such complex cases and how best to support vulnerable children and families.

Alex Burghart MP, who chaired the debate offered these thoughts:

“We have to remember that children themselves are part of the system, and it is through hearing their voices, and their views of the services and support they and their parents are receiving, that we can make the improvements that are so necessary.”

Some of the thoughts in this debate are a little naive, even overly optimistic, and also indicative of not having a depth of experience needed to really understand the issues and how they affect children and families, but the discussion is still worth a read.





Question It!

Welcome to another week.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has asked every territory to compensate victims of non recent child sexual abuse, in a bid to address the horrors faced by survivors who were abused as children within state and religious institutions. The move comes after Australia’s own inquiry into child sexual abuse recommended that the country implement a nationwide redress scheme.

Under Australia’s initiative, territories can sign up to the scheme, which then automatically allows churches, charities and other institutions to sign up. As you might imagine, some organisations, like the Catholic Church in Melbourne, are dragging their heels over the sign up process. Turnbull and the Attorney-General have been pressuring the church to join the scheme. Australia’s PM says he will publicly shame those institutions that fail to sign up.

Our question this week, then, is this: would you like our own independent inquiry into child sexual abuse to make the same recommendation?



Australia Rolls Out National Child Abuse Compensation Scheme, Tells Catholic Church It Must Pay

In a groundbreaking move, Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, has asked every state and territory in the country to compensate victims of child sexual abuse – and the Catholic Church must pay up, too.

The scheme was one of the central recommendations made by the Royal Commission investigation into tens of thousands of children sexually abused between 1960 and 2015 in Australian institutions.

The scheme is not compulsory though, which means that organisations like the Catholic Church, which is considered to be largely responsible for non recent child sexual abuse in Australia, will not be required to sign up. The inquiry found that 7% of all priests between 1960 and 2015 had allegedly abused children.

New South Wales and Victoria, two of the country’s most populated states, will start paying survivors of abuse up to 150,000 Australian dollars (£84,719) from July, 2018. This means that every institution within these states is now able to join the scheme, including churches. Politician and Australian Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews is urging parishioners to pressure their churches into signing up to the scheme.

It’s claimed that as of 2016, the Vatican has already paid almost $4 billion US dollars in compensation to victims of child sexual abuse, since 1950.

The announcement covers 9,000 people abused in New South Wales government institutions and 5,000 people abused in Victoria. The deal caps payments at 150,000 dollars for each person (£84,719), which is lower than the 200,000 (£112,958) maximum payment recommended by the commission.

Closer to home, we have no nationwide redress scheme in place, however some councils are now offering compensation to survivors of abuse. Lambeth Council has just launched its own redress scheme, with payments capped at £10,000.

We wrote to Lambeth Council to ask them a question about their redress scheme on 26th February, but have not yet heard back. This was our email to the council:

Dear Lambeth Council,

I’m a legal researcher who has come across your redress scheme and wondered if you could answer a query I have about the scheme?
If an individual makes a successful application which leads to an award through your scheme, but believes afterwards that he or she may have been able to claim a higher amount of compensation through the court process, may they launch a claim in court or does an award through the Redress Scheme bar them from launching such a claim?
With many thanks,


The scheme only covers Lambeth Children’s Homes and/or Shirley Oaks Primary School within the borough, and some foster care placements.

At present there is no redress scheme in the UK inviting councils and organisations to sign up and pay out. This may though, become one of the key recommendations our own independent inquiry into child sexual abuse makes, once it has completed its investigations.

Vatican 2


Government Explains Reason Behind Blocking Duty To Report Abuse

The Home Office made a statement yesterday in The House of Commons, explaining its decision not to go ahead with a legal duty to report child abuse for professionals working with children.

Whilst media outlets are suggesting that the majority of respondents didn’t want to see a duty to report implemented, this is incorrect. What the consultation actually tells us, is that of the 768 responses it received, 63% were in favour of allowing the Government’s existing programme of reforms time to be implemented before considering additional statutory measures. What this effectively means, is that any one of those individuals within that 63% could potentially be in favour of a duty to report. The consultation also tells us that 12% of those who took part in the consultation wanted to see a mandatory duty to report, right away.

The backdrop to this consultation, particularly those who submitted evidence it, is important. Most child welfare sectors would be unlikely to want to see a legal duty to report, as it could lead to individuals within those sectors being penalised and fired for a failure to log any suspected abuse. So asking a group of people who are unlikely to benefit from legislation – and could even be harmed by it – is very silly indeed. The 12% who did want a legal duty to report, was probably not made up of social workers, police men or psychiatrists, but abuse survivors and child welfare charities who work with victims of child abuse.

There is also the problem of handing complex consultations like this one to junior ministers to manage. The end result is the poor logic inside the consultation, coupled with odd soundbites about children’s best interests.

Victoria Atkins, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, and Minister for Women, made the statement on behalf of the Home Office:

“The Minister for Children and Families at the Department for Education and I have today published the Government’s response to the consultation exercise on reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect.

The consultation, which ran from 21 July 2016 to 13 October 2016, sought views on key issues relating to the child protection system and on the possible introduction of one of two new statutory measures, namely:

  • a mandatory reporting duty, which would require certain practitioners or organisations to report child abuse or neglect if they knew, or had reasonable cause to suspect, it was taking place; or
  • a duty to act, which would require certain practitioners or organisations to take appropriate action in relation to child abuse or neglect if they knew, or had reasonable cause to suspect, it was taking place.
    All children have the right to be safe from harm. Keeping children safe is the responsibility of everyone who comes into contact with children and families, and we all have a role to play in protecting children and young people from child abuse and neglect.

The legal duties the Government consulted on would involve a particular focus on practitioners: across children’s social care, the police, health, education, and other sectors. The vast majority of such practitioners are committed to doing all they can to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, through recognising children’s needs early and taking action so that children receive the right support at the right time.

We are absolutely clear that practitioners should make an immediate referral to local authority children’s social care if they believe that a child has suffered harm or is likely to do so, as set out in statutory guidance already. We know, however, that despite the best efforts of practitioners working with children and families, some abuse and neglect continues to go undetected by statutory agencies. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including failures to report or share information properly and failure to perceive abuse or understand the nature and level of the risk of harm faced by children.

In circumstances where professionals fail to identify or fail to report the signs of abuse and neglect, the consequences can be catastrophic. However, triennial analysis of serious case reviews demonstrates that in most cases the significant harm or death of children occurs despite their being known to children’s social care. So the issues are complex and challenging and introducing a new statutory duty is not a simple, straightforward solution, as some argue.

We received 768 responses to the consultation exercise, from a wide range of interests including practitioners and others in the education, health, social care and local government sectors, children’s charities, survivors’ groups, the police and members of the public. We have considered all the responses and relevant issues carefully.

The majority of respondents (63%) were in favour of allowing the Government’s existing programme of reforms time to be implemented before considering additional statutory measures. Only a quarter (25%) of respondents favoured introducing a duty to act, with less than half of that number (12%) favouring the introduction of a mandatory reporting duty.

Given the consultation outcome and after careful consideration, we have concluded that the case for the introduction of a mandatory reporting duty or a duty to act has not been made, and would not, against the landscape of our current arrangements, deliver better protection for children. Therefore, neither of these proposals will be taken forward at this time. We will implement the reforms set out in the Government’s response and evaluate whether this is having the intended impact once these are embedded, in addition to continuing to assess any new or different evidence supporting the need for further changes.

We remain committed to examining all options to improve further the children’s social care system and tackle abuse in all its forms. In addition to our already wide-ranging programme of reforms, we will therefore focus on taking steps to address the key issues raised by respondents to the consultation. This action includes:

  • improving multi-agency working, in particular through strengthening information sharing for safeguarding purposes, including better local arrangements;
  • publishing our revised Working Together to Safeguard Children statutory guidance and launching a further phase of the communications campaign, Together, we can tackle child abuse ahead of its publication;
  • looking at the current legislative framework to assess whether it is able to deal appropriately with concerns about concealment of child abuse and neglect; and
    continuing our work to improve the training, accreditation and regulation of practitioners, so that they can better safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
  • To repeat, every child deserves to, and must be protected from abuse and neglect. We are determined to do all that we can to strengthen our child protection system in ways which we expect will bring real benefits to children.”

Copies of the Government’s response have been placed in the House Library and are available on the Government’s website. 





Department For Education Blocks Mandatory Reporting Of Abuse – And Survivors From Suing Councils

In a predictable move, government ministers have shut down the idea of implementing legislation that would make it compulsory for child welfare professionals to report suspected child abuse, after reviewing a consultation on the issue.

The consultation was published today, though unusually, no formal announcement was made.

The Department For Education, which currently oversees all child protection matters, says in its summary that the government, “has considered the issues objectively and from the point of view of what would likely be best for children – informed by, but not bound by the result of the consultation.” 

An article in Care Appointments (linked to above), tells us that the consultation received “over 760 responses from social workers, police officers, local government, children’s charities, educators and health professionals, victim support groups, and other members of the public,” and that “the majority of responses disagreed with the concept of introducing new statutory requirements.”

The NSPCC, which made a submission, has been anti mandatory reporting since 2016, but as a government arm (it literally manages almost every aspect of child welfare policy for the government), that’s to be expected. And whilst our social work sector remains ultra defensive about implementing this duty –  see chief social worker for children and families, Isabelle Trowler’s statement on the government’s response, the decision not to implement compulsory reporting has nothing to do with the evidence submitted to the consultation, and everything to do with the impact it would have on some survivors’ abilities to sue councils for child sexual abuse, which is part of a wider move by the government to stem claims, which are crippling the social care sector.

A legal duty to report suspected child abuse would mean that if a professional failed to report a suspicion, a visible line between state and survivor could be drawn, allowing the victim to sue, and claim substantial damages.

The Department For Education, and The Home Office, which also oversaw the consultation, are well aware of this.

The decision though, flies in the face of a growing trend towards mandatory reporting.

In 2016, we wrote a piece for Lexis Nexis, in which we outlined the growing number of countries implementing the duty, and the body of research which highlights clearly the positive impact of such a duty.  In America, around 48 states enjoy this legal duty, with some extending their lists to include even more professionals bound to report suspected abuse – a new Bill in Ohio is being considered this month which wants to include police officers, and California, which has also implemented the duty to report, continues to encourage reporting, off the back of its success in reducing child abuse.

Always ahead of England these days when it comes to enacting excellent child welfare legislation, Ireland made the duty to report abuse compulsory, in December of last year. 

Calls to make reporting abuse a legal responsibility have come from several corners of the UK. Survivors abused by priests have backed the duty, which would be particularly effective in safeguarding children in this context, as religious organisations have been notoriously poor at protecting children from paedophiles within their ranks. The duty would also prevent the Church and other religious groups from claiming that confidentiality remains a god given privilege for abusers within a religious setting.

A BBC documentary about girls who were sexually abused in Rochdale also led to some social workers exploring the idea of a duty to report, and an ITV expose last month about abuse within boarding schools called on the government to make reporting a legal requirement within schools.

And the research in favour of a duty to report is overwhelming. Research produced in 2016 by researchers based in the State of Western Australia, which currently has a duty to report too, looked at the impact of the legislation over a seven year period. The study concluded that after a short adjustment period, not only did the duty to report not create an added strain on the state’s child welfare sector and police force, but it actively helped to detect and prevent genuine cases of child abuse.

The government summary on the consultation tells us that the system already has everything it needs in place to protect children from abuse and that it’s doing just fine.

Who do they think they’re kidding.

legal duty to report child abuse