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, Michele 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.

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