Childrens services involvement
What is an ‘Emergency Protection Order’?
The council can ask the court for an ‘emergency protection order’ or EPO. This gives it some parental responsibility, including the right to:
- take the child into its care;
- keep the child from returning to someone’s care – for example, by keeping him or her in a hospital or with foster carers; or
- see that child when, without a good reason, you or someone else with parental responsibility have refused to allow this.
An EPO lasts up to eight days, but the council can ask the court to extend this for up to seven more days.
However, if you are the parent and you were not present when the EPO was made, you can apply for it to be lifted (‘discharged’) 72 hours after it was made.
Under an EPO, the court can also make an ‘exclusion requirement’. This means that the court orders the person who the council believes is a danger to your child to leave the home, instead of your child having to leave their home. But this kind of order can be made only if you agree, and you must make sure that the person leaves and stays away.
Unless the council thinks the child is in immediate danger, it should normally take other steps before it decides to apply for a care order. Under the new legal system known as the Public Law Outline, the council should do all it can to support you in caring for a child without the need to go to court. If you can’t cope, the council should try to find out whether anyone in your child’s wider family is willing and suitable to care for them.
It can take these steps:
- It may hold a meeting called a ‘child protection case conference’ to see if your child could be properly protected without a care order – for example, by providing you and your family with support services. All the professionals, organisations, and agencies involved with your child or children, such as doctors and schools, will be invited to the meeting. You would normally be invited too. Where appropriate, plans will be made for your child to be kept safe and well- cared for.
- It may refer you to a Family Group Conference (FGC). This is a meeting where the whole family gets together to make plans and decisions for children who, because of difficulties in the family, need a plan that will keep them safe and promote their welfare. Parents and other family members lead the meeting and the children themselves may come if they want. The professionals are only involved in part of the meeting.
- FGCs are still quite new but the government is encouraging their use. Many courts now expect that families will have been offered an FGC before court action starts. So if the council has concerns about your children and you think it may be considering taking legal action, you could ask whether it can refer you for an FGC.
- Before it takes formal care proceedings (by applying to the court), the council should also send the parents (and others with parental responsibility) a ‘letter before proceedings’. This tells you why it is concerned about your child and what you can do to improve things and so avoid a court case. This letter will normally invite you to a meeting to discuss this. You can bring a solicitor with you to this meeting if you want.
- If the council doesn’t send you a ‘letter before proceedings’, you will find out about the proceedings when you receive a notice from the court. If you are a parent with parental responsibility, you will be a ‘party’ to the proceedings, so you will receive a copy of the application and will be told the date, time and place of the first hearing (called the ‘First Appointment’).
The court will want to be sure that the council has worked with you and your family to help you deal with its concerns about the child.
The court will want to see various documents, including a record of discussions with the family, such as notes from any meetings you have had with the council or any plan your family has made resulting from a Family Group Conference.
The court should manage the progress of the case, make sure there is no unnecessary delay, and set a timetable that best meets the needs of your child.
As soon as the council starts care proceedings, the court will:
- appoint a solicitor for your child and a ‘guardian’ to represent your child in the proceedings; and
- set a date for the first hearing, known as the First Appointment. This takes place within six days of the council applying for proceedings
- The court appoints an independent person, called a guardian, to give information and an opinion about what is best for your child. This person is from CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service). The guardian does not work for the council – they work for the court and represent your child in the case.
- The guardian’s job is to make sure that everyone works in the child’s best interests. They will find out why the council is concerned about your child and what steps it has taken to help you put things right. The guardian will talk to your child about the situation (if he or she is old enough), and what he or she would like to happen. The guardian will also read the council’s files on the case.
- The guardian will want to see you to find out what has happened. It is important to talk to your solicitor before you meet the guardian. You may want to make a list of all the important things you want to say. You may also want to ask a family member or friend to be with you at the meetings for support. You can ask the guardian to talk to other people who know you and your child.
- The guardian will prepare a written report for the court stating what action they believe would be in the child’s best interests. Your solicitor should receive a copy of this report at least 14 days before the final hearing. The court will normally follow the recommendations in the guardian’s report. If the court does not follow the guardian’s recommendations, it should explain why.
- The guardian will also help the court to choose a solicitor to act for your child in the proceedings. This solicitor is selected from a list of solicitors who are on the Law Society’s Children Panel because they specialise in representing children in care proceedings. The solicitor’s job is to present your child’s views to the court.
- If your child is very young, the solicitor will talk to him or her but will also work closely with the guardian about what your child wants and needs and how this should be presented to the court. However, if your child is old enough to understand what is happening, the solicitor will work with your child directly.
- Normally, the solicitor will take instructions from the guardian, but if your child does not agree with the guardian’s views, the solicitor must take instructions from your child directly. In these circumstances, the guardian will still report to the court, but will no longer be represented by the same solicitor as your child.
The court will not make a final decision on the council’s application at the First Appointment. But it is still very important that you attend this hearing because the court will make temporary arrangements for your child and explain what you need to do before the final hearing.
At this first hearing the court:
- makes orders (‘interim orders’) about where your child will live and who they will see from now until the final hearing of the case; and
- says what needs to happen and what evidence needs to be gathered for the case to proceed (known as ‘giving directions’).
The court can give directions about, among other things:
- whether the case should be transferred to a higher court;
- what statements, reports, and assessments it needs, and who should prepare them – this may include social workers, family centre workers, teachers and other school staff, doctors, health visitors and any other professionals working with the child or your family;
- when these statements should be filed (sent to the court) so that there is enough time for everyone involved to respond to them before the final hearing;
- which experts can see the child (for example doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists) and when their reports must be filed at court;
- asking the guardian to report on the child; and
- any other procedural steps that need to be taken before the final hearing.
The council will make proposals to the court about where your child should live and who they should see in the time until the final hearing of the case (known as an ‘interim care plan’). The court considers this and can then make an ‘interim order’ that says what should happen to your child for the time being. The court can make several types of interim order at the First Appointment:
Interim care order (ICO)
An ICO is an order which gives the council the power to say where your child will live, even if you don’t agree, and to remove your child from the family home.
Under an ICO, the council will share parental responsibility for your child with you.
The court can only make an ICO if it decides there are good reasons to believe your child has been seriously harmed or is likely to be seriously harmed, and that an ICO is the best thing for your child. The order can now last until the final hearing which should be within 26 weeks from the date of the issuing of care proceedings.
The court can also make an ‘exclusion requirement’ alongside the ICO, which can force an adult to leave your child’s home if the court believes this person is a danger to your child. However, this can happen only if you agree to make sure the person does leave and stays away. If you do not agree, the court may take another type of action to protect your child, such as removing him or her from home.
When the council applies for an ICO, it must have prepared a social work statement setting out its concerns and an interim care plan. It must show that it has discussed the care plan with you and your child (if this is possible) and that the plan properly pays attention to your child’s racial, cultural and religious heritage. The council will ask the court to agree to this plan.
Interim Supervision Order
An interim supervision order does not give the council parental responsibility or the right to remove your child from your care, but it does mean that the council must monitor how your child is being cared for, either by you or by someone else in the family who is looking after them. The court can make this type of order only if it decides that there are good reasons to believe your child has been seriously harmed or is likely to be seriously harmed and that this is the best thing for your child.
Interim Child Arrangements Order
The court can make an interim child arrangements order (previously known as a residence order) if it agrees that someone else, for example, a family member, can care for your child until the final hearing.
You would then share parental responsibility for your child with the person named in the order, and the council would not have parental responsibility.
Interim Child Arrangements Order – Contact
The court must consider what arrangements are proposed or have been made for your child to see members of their family if he or she is not living at home. The court must also invite the people involved to comment on the arrangements.
If there is any disagreement about these arrangements or the court is not satisfied that what is proposed is best for your child, then it can make a contact order setting out what the arrangements for contact should be. If you are not happy with the contact arrangements, then your solicitor can help present your case so that your views are made known to the court.
There will be other interim hearings after the First Appointment, where the court will continue to look at:
- where your child will live until the final hearing;
- who he or she will see;
- how the case is proceeding.
You should keep in close touch with your solicitor about what is likely to happen at these interim hearings and to learn what then you should be considering to do in order t help your case for the return of your child or children if they are no longer in your care.
Following the First Appointment, unless the court directs that there be a further ‘case management hearing, then the next hearing in your case will usually be some weeks later and this is the Issues Resolution Hearing.
The ‘issues resolution hearing’ (IRH) can usually be listed to take place about four to six months from the start of proceedings and in some instances can be listed a week or more before any final hearing which is to be listed. The IRH looks particularly at any issues that are still not agreed and that the court will need to decide at the final hearing. If everything is agreed, a final hearing may not be necessary.
All the way through the case, the court will be encouraging everyone involved to try to find and agree on safe solutions for your child without having to come back to court. There may be other ways of resolving any disagreement (known as ‘alternative dispute resolution’) – through a Family Group Conference, for example, or through family mediation, where an outsider acts as a go-between in disputes between members of the family.
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