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What to Expect: Voluntary Care (Section 20)

Information for families about voluntary care of your child, also called a Section 20

When the Local Authority is worried that there is a risk to your child (or children) that cannot be managed safely at home, they may ask you to give permission for your child to become looked after under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

Legal Advice

If the Local Authority asks you to consider signing a Section 20 voluntary care agreement, you will be given a list of solicitors and advised that you should seek legal advice.

Please note that:

  • It is important that you do seek legal advice, so that you fully understand the decision that you are being asked to make
  • Being involved in care proceedings or pre-proceedings will also mean parents can get free legal advice and representation
  • The Local Authority will also seek their own legal advice at the same time

Section 20 care is a voluntary care arrangement, based on agreement between the person, or people, with Parental Responsibility (PR), the child, or children, (once they are old enough to express an opinion) and the local authority.

If you have PR and you refuse permission for your child (or children) to be looked after under Section 20 of the Children Act, your child can only be removed from your care by a Court Order or by the police, who can use special powers to do this.

Please also note that:

  • Once a young person reaches 16 or 17 they can sign themselves into care without parental consent, as long as they fully understand the decision they are making
  • If you have PR you can ask the Local Authority to take your child into voluntary care
  • Children can also become cared for by the local authority if they have no parent or are lost or abandoned

Under Section 20 voluntary care arrangements, the court is not involved in making the decision that a child or children should become looked after.

Because Section 20 care arrangements are voluntary, those with PR retain full parental responsibility for their child throughout the time the child is looked after.

When you agree for your child to become looked after, the social worker will ask you to sign a consent form which gives permission for the Local Authority or foster carer to make some agreed day to day decisions without asking you first (for example, making a dentist appointment). This is sometimes called delegated responsibility.


How long do Section 20 arrangements last?

In most cases Section 20 voluntary care arrangements are only expected to last for a short period of time.

It is important that everyone understands what responsibility they have for looking after your child (or children). This means that it is important to formalise a child's legal status quickly.


Withdrawing consent

If you have PR and your child (or children) are in voluntary care, you can withdraw your consent at any time.

Your decision to withdraw consent can only be challenged by someone who has a Child Arrangement Order that states a child should live with them (this used to be called a 'Residence Order'), or a Special Guardianship Order (SGO).

If you withdraw consent, your child (or children) must be returned to your care.

Young people aged 16 or 17 can sign themselves out of care without parental consent.


Children in Care

Every child who is cared for must have a Children in Care (CIC) review within 4 weeks of becoming looked after. A second CIC review must take place within 3 months of the first review. After this, CIC reviews must take place at least every six months.

CIC reviews are chaired by an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO).

You can find out more about Children in Care on our Caring for Children pages.

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