There’s a perception that children who are placed for adoption are removed from their birth family without warning. The reality is far from this. There may be rare cases where an incident occurs which requires instant removal, but that is the exception, not the rule.

I thought it would be helpful to highlight the steps that have to be taken if there are concerns about a child’s welfare. Social worker Kate Asprey from Gateshead MBC has written two articles about what’s involved. The first looks at what happens after an initial referral is made. The second looks at court proceedings.

Initial referral about the welfare of a child

If someone has concerns about the welfare of a child, they can ask the local authority responsible to have a look at things. The person makes a referral which is received by the initial response duty team in Children’s Services within that local authority. This referral can come from any professional or member of the public, expressing concern about a child’s welfare – including unborn babies. Most commonly, referrals are made by midwives, health visitors, police and schools.

The social workers and managers in an initial response team decide what to do about each referral. It might be no action is needed. The other end of the scale is that immediate action is needed to see if the child is safe. Or it might be that further investigations are needed. Any historical information held about the child is considered as well as the information contained in the referral.

Child in Need assessment

If further exploration is needed, a Child in Need assessment would be recommended. This assessment can take up to 45 days to give a better understanding of whether the family requires support and if the child’s needs are being met. Taking part in this is voluntary for families.

At any time, it might become apparent that a child or unborn baby could be at risk of significant harm. At this point, a strategy meeting would be held. This is a multi-agency meeting involving a social worker, social work team manager, police representative, health representative and where applicable, education, as well as any other professionals already working with the family.

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The family are not invited to this meeting but should be told about it. However, if there’s information to suggest that their knowledge about it would place the child at greater risk, then it’s held without their knowledge.

Section 47 enquiry

If the worries that led to the strategy meeting are felt to pose a risk of harm, a section 47 enquiry will be completed. This refers to section 47 of the Children Act 1989 which puts a duty to investigate on a local authority where they have ‘reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm’.

This enquiry can take up to 15 days. The social worker contacts all the agencies involved with the family and speaks to the adults and the children. After 10 days, the social worker and their manager decide whether there needs to be an initial child protection conference. This is a formal meeting with the family to decide whether a child protection plan is needed.

Child protection conference

At an initial child protection conference, the parents are given the chance to speak to the independent chair of the meeting first. Then the conference takes place, with everyone having the opportunity to read the social worker report as well as reports from the other attendees, including education and health. Police information and GP information about the whole family is also shared.

Then a decision is made on whether the child is at risk of significant harm. If they are, the category has to be determined from neglect, emotional harm, physical harm, or sexual harm. It could also be decided that the significant harm threshold is not met, and the family could instead benefit from social worker support via a child-in-need plan. This is where the child needs support to promote their health and development. This is usually recommended when parents/carers understand the risks and are working with the support around them already.

child protection
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Child protection plan

Once a child has a child protection plan, this details what needs to happen to improve things for the child and family. Child protection plans often include support services for parents and aim to make clear what needs to change. The plan is there to help parents improve their parenting skills to support the needs of their child.

Social workers and family support workers can provide interventions to support the changes in patterns of behaviour that have contributed to the risk for the child. A specialist piece of work might be commissioned around the area of concern such as substance misuse, mental health issues, domestic abuse or parenting skills.

If things on the plan are not progressing or it’s felt that the risks to the child are very high, legal advice will be sought. This is in a meeting between the social worker, the allocated manager, the service manager, the independent chair and a local authority solicitor. It will set out what the worries are and discuss whether the local authority should consider issuing court proceedings.

Meeting outcomes

The outcome of this meeting is to either:

  • continue with the plan as it is
  • go into ‘Public Law Outline’, detailing what needs to change to stop the local authority from needing to go to court or
  • to issue Care Proceedings immediately

Public Law Outline process

The Public Law Outline process involves the parents getting free, independent legal advice. They come to a meeting with the social worker, manager, local authority solicitor and their solicitor, where the worries are laid out clearly. They have the opportunity to get advice from their solicitor.

Timescales will vary depending on the situation, but this process means that immediate change is needed. The parents would also be asked who else could care for their child if they’re not able to. This is where they will put forward names of other carers such as grandparents, who may wish to be assessed.

As part of the Public Law Outline process, the local authority might ask the parents to sign section 20 consent for the child to be placed in local authority foster care. Section 20 is a voluntary arrangement whereby a parent consents to their child being in foster care but retains full parental responsibility. This would either be with local authority foster carers or an approved family member.

Police protection

A child could also be placed in foster care through police protection. This happens if the police feel that the child needs to be placed outside of the care of the parents immediately. However, this only lasts for 72 hours. After that time, either parental consent through section 20 or a court order is required to keep the child in foster care.

child protection
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If you’d like more information or advice about what happens when a child is taken into care, is a good starting point.

You can read Kate’s second article here. It picks up from the decision being made to issue court proceedings.


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