The use of section 20 placements in CPV

This post follows on from a small discussion I took part in on twitter on June 2nd, itself emerging from a conference asking Is the Child Protection System Fit for Purpose? #CPConf2015 (Sadly one which I did not attend.) There are numerous write-ups of the conference available on line. The organisers have one here. You can read one from a parent who took part here.

This is about an issue that I would like to understand more as it effects real people (rather than in a theoretical way), and I’m relying on you all to help me: the use of section 20 placements (Children Act 1989) when parents seek support with an abusive child from Children’s Services.  It seems to me that this would be an important part of a tiered response, and yet I hear very negative comments about the implementation.  Through my own experience, through listening to people, particularly on twitter (but also “real life”) I have conjured up a series of statements and questions as a starter for debate. So here goes ….

  • Section 20 lays out the duty of an authority to accommodate a young person where – for our purposes – the person who has been caring for the child cannot provide him with a suitable home, with the consent of parents, unless the child or young person is deemed to be at risk of significant harm. In that case the local authority should seek a care order through the courts.
  • Parents experiencing abuse from their children frequently seek a solution from Children’s Services. This may include, as a last resort, and in order to protect themselves and other children, a request that the child be accommodated elsewhere for a period of respite, or for a more permanent solution.
  • Generally speaking, parents hope that the relationship will be repaired and the child return home.
  • I can’t have it both ways. I can’t argue that children hurting others are themselves at risk of significant harm; while at the same time advocating greater use of section 20.
  • I am told that “parents start off desperately asking for help, but then when a placement is offered decide they don’t want that after all”.
  • Social workers may be reluctant to accommodate older children, “because of the long-term costs accruing to the authority”.
  • Social workers may be not knowledgeable about the effects of trauma and how this might be played out within the home, so may misread behaviour and relationships.
  • Social workers may not be knowledgeable about child to parent violence.
  • Parents of adopted children find the idea of returning a child to care particularly difficult, because of what it means to the child and also the messages they receive about their own worth.
  • Sometimes parents and social workers have different ideas of what is happening, with diverging plans, which can sour relationships.
  • Section 20 can be very helpful when parents and social workers are working in partnership. We are all being urged to adopt the partnership model more – listening to the service user voice and adopting an approach less focused on rescuing the child.

So for the questions …

  • Is section 20 an appropriate tool to use when a parent seeks help in this situation?
  • Is the problem that the provision is being misused? Is this because the CP system has fundamentally shifted its focus?
  • Is the problem that social workers do not properly understand child to parent violence?
  • What else is going on?

I really hope we can get a discussion going here. It would be good to hear other people’s experiences. Thank you!

You can find a useful explanation of section 20 here.


Filed under Discussion, Law

17 responses to “The use of section 20 placements in CPV

  1. Interesting questions. Would suggest these are issues about safeguarding not simply child protection. A child or young person can be hurting others but be “in need” themselves. Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 defines a child as being in need if: He or she is unlikely to achieve or maintain or to have the opportunity to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development without provision of services from the LA;
    His or her health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision of services from the LA;
    He or she has a disability.
    Development can mean physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development. Health can be physical or mental health.

    So depending on the assessment those services might be provision of a placement. Section 20 should, when used as intended, allow parents and social workers to work in partnership. I don’t think it is the provision being misused but lack of training, all kinds of other pressures on social workers, some adoptive parents not wanting to work in partnership, etc etc. The new education, health and care plans (EHCP )may be a really positive way forward. At the moment these are only for children whose educational needs cannot be met within the mainstream provision. But parents ( and children when possible ) are involved in the making of the plan and the setting of goals. I’d hope that this model will trickle out to other areas of practice too.

  2. mothergfatherg

    OK – we reluctantly agreed to a Section 20 for our adopted daughter in the teenage years. It was meant to be for 2 weeks but she never returned home. Our experience was, even though we verbally agreed to a placement but never signed anything, that this was the start of the local authority deciding that we were not the ‘right’ parents and, therefore, starting to break links. Yes, she was accommodated – so they met their duty there. She was at risk, because of her Reactive Attachment Disorder and early years experiences, of absconding. Under S. 20 she absconded regularly and then didn’t have the support of our family. S. 20 led into the LA authority seeking a care order through the courts and a breakdown of the relationship with us, her adoptive parents.

    As parents we hoped, even after the LA’s actions that the relationship would be repaired and our daughter return home or at least have our contact and support, but the action of agreeing to the S. 20 was the start of the end. If I had my time again would we would never recommend agreeing to this, as it seems to signal that you don’t care rather than that there are difficulties.

    Social workers, in our case, were definitely not knowledgeable about the effects of trauma and how this might be played out within the home, so may misread behaviour and relationships.

    Section 20 SHOULD be an appropriate tool to use when a parent seeks help, but in reality it seems to be the start of the end and an ever increasing fight against the LA.

    This may be just our experience – but maybe not ?

  3. Thanks Helen for opening this discussion. In my own experience we got close to S20 after many years of asking for help with anger and violence and very little appropriate intervention taking place. There was a complete misunderstanding of need due to family and friends carers not being listened to properly. I felt the social workers involved were not trained to understand the complexity of issues. I refused to have my daughter accommodated with the LA but produced a workable care plan and risk assessment for us and fought for this which was based on gaining help at home. This eventually (far too late) came through direct payments. It’s not cheap and requires some formality not usual at home, but its cheaper than the alternatives and not nearly as brutal. With the right support my daughter has been able to manage her needs and development into a young adult at home where she feels safe. I have been able to take some time out in order to succeed at the specialist parenting required. The immense progress is proof that the right support is not only cost effective but also humane for all concerned. A lot of adopted children’s anger related behaviour comes from fear. Fear of abandonment, fear of uncertainty, fear of loss, fear of being triggered. Wherever possible resources should be put into families who very often know exactly what they need if listened to properly.
    One of the most disturbing things I have heard concerning S20 with adopted children is the lack of parental control after the order, in terms of contact and remaining a parent figure to be included at the forefront of care plans. Some who worked in partnership with LA’s wish they hadn’t.
    I also know of adopters who felt S20 was the right decision and have better relationships with their children after they have moved out. I would be interested to hear lots of experiences. Especially those of the children involved.

    • Thank you Amanda. It is important I think in this discussion to hear from as many people as possible and so I am very grateful for your input. It is by hearing from parents that we can achieve a better understanding and solution in future. If there are parents with positive experiences – or social workers – reading this, it would be good to hear from them too.

  4. I am seeking legal advice from Nigel Priestley tomorrow about s20 for my 14 yr old daughter. Left our family to live with birth sister 8 mths ago but sister now wants to move and daughter likes her new school and wants to stay in the area. I have been put under lots of pressure to take her back into our home but am refusing. My 2 boys deserve a normal family life and my daughter is violent and promiscuous. I cannot keep her safe as she absconds. I am interested to see what the lawyer says. There should be another way but s20 seems to be the only avenue to go down. I want the best for my beautiful wonky daughter. I believe she will be able to access the right support if we achieve this, tragic though that is.

    • Thank you for sharing your story. I am sorry to hear that it has been a difficult ride for you all. I hope you are able to find a solution that feels right and enables you to feel the needs of your family have been properly understood. Thinking of you all, in a very difficult situation.

  5. safeguardingsurvivor

    Hi there Helen,
    Thank you for opening this discussion – it is indeed a conversation long overdue.
    I cannot bring an awful lot to the table save my own experience. I asked the LA for help with my then 10 year old child who was having what we now know to be ASD meltdowns. He would often bang his head off the wall during these meltdowns, which then lead on to violence towards his younger siblings, a couple of runaways, and eventually suicide attempts. He only hit me once, but was regularly very verbally abusive. He was a “golden child” at school; all of his behaviours came out at home because he strived so hard to keep himself together throughout the school day. As such, the LA did very little to help, as school reported no concerns.
    Eventually, my son’s “cup runneth over” in terms of coping abilities, and he had a major meltdown at school. The LA offered a bit of family support, but before that could be implemented, my son attempted suicide on a number of occasions in one day and was violent to his siblings. I rang the out of hours service and said I did not know how to keep my child safe from himself. The SW on duty asked to speak to my son, who told her he didn’t want to live with his family any more. 10 days later he was under an S20. There was nothing I could do.
    On the back of that though, and perhaps relevant to your post, is that instead of being supported with this massive change as a family, we were investigated. A CAF was completed. I had to endure a SW coming out and asking me how often my bed sheets and towels were put through the washer, how many pieces of fruit and vegetables my children ate per day, and if I read to and with them. The justification for this course of action was, in the LA’s words “it is very rare for just one child to have a SW in a family”. My particular LA operate on the premise of mistrusting parents, and I have experienced nothing but that since. At that stage, we had asked for help with a child who clearly had issues. In return, we were treat as though we had caused them. How often my bed sheets were washed (weekly!), had no relevance whatsoever. As it happened, a few weeks after assessments were completed, I received a letter to say that, other than my child under an S20, the SW had concluded that there were no need for services or support for me as a parent, or my other children, who were all at home.
    That was five years ago. My child has never returned home since.

    In answer to your questions:
    Is section 20 an appropriate tool to use when a parent seeks help in this situation?
    I think in our situation, it concerns me that the LA simply accepted a 10 year old’s wishes and feelings without exploring any other options such as respite. It also concerns me that assessments were only completed after my child left his family home.
    Is the problem that the provision is being misused? Is this because the CP system has fundamentally shifted its focus?
    I don’t necessarily think the provision is being misused in scenarios like this. What I do think is that once you’re in the system, it is extremely difficult to get out. My experience is that the LA want to see that the “problem”; the reason you wanted their help in the first place, is gone. And life isn’t like that. It’s not as simple as that sometimes. I do think the CP process has entirely shifted its focus and that parents are now suffering the effects of the “big” mistakes SW’s have made (Baby P obviously being a case in point). SW’s now practice very defensively, no one wants to be “the one” to make a decision. S20 used to be about collaborative working, it feels a bit now like a stepping stone to Proceedings. And of course, I’ve experienced an S20 being used during Proceedings as a tool, also (“if you withdraw your consent, you are seen as uncooperative which adds weight to the LA case”)
    Is the problem that social workers do not properly understand child to parent violence?
    I think it’s possible. I don’t know enough to make an informed comment to be fair, but I certainly felt in our situation that it was both misunderstood and viewed with a suspicious eye.
    Hope that helps a wee bit!

    • Thank you for making the time for such a full comment.
      It is tragic that we are apparently getting things so badly wrong for so many families. I only hope we can do better in future as we hear from all concerned.

  6. hfbf16

    Thanks so much for bringing this important discussion to the table. As adopters we must deal with so much imported pathology from our beloved children. We help seek for them and for ourselves to be able to safely care for them. Instead of help and encouragement we recieve personalised criticisms of our parenting and character and offers of an S20. I didn’t even know what this was when it was offered. It just seemed an outrage that instead of providing me, a single parent mum, taking on an older hard to place child, with severe trauma having been in his birth family, where the abuse was on an incomprehensible scale, until he was six, with help and support, he was to be removed from my care against both our wishes. He was highest level DLA care but we could only be seen by child protection social workers rather than those from the disabilities team – attachment disorder not recognised as a disability. Recommendations for specialist advice and support from his therapist were ignored and a new ‘support’ regime kicked in that left my child feeling let down by the termination of therapy and unwilling to engage again with someone he did not feel comfortable with, from CAMHS. The social worker was always so patronising to me and so eager to find fault. Complaints went nowhere – the LGO does not challenge the opinions of professionals. I finally ended up in court with an EPO when I turned to the police for help – terrified about being in a position where I had no alternative but to agree to an S20 – as I was 200 miles away from home trying to complete a professional training and my child, who school refused, was not able to access any support from educational, care or health professionals to assist. Only an S20. I thought, foolishly, that because he school refused with someone else, a mentor to disabled adolescents employed by the local authority, the professionals would finally see it was not ‘my fault’. The problem was he was fine when he got to school, slipping under the radar because of his learned compliance – from years of abuse that he was terrified to disclose – it took him 2 years and being placed with me for adoption to talk about it. In court I found my own mental health called into question as well as questions raised about substance abuse. I worked as a therapist for the best part of a decade in drug and alcohol projects before adopting. I felt I had little alternative but to agree to an assessment of my mental health – a good thing as it turns out – as it meant I was potentially able to draw a line under these questions. Unfortunately my child was traumatised by his removal from my care and after he was reunified five months later, under a full care order, he never went to school again. Another incident against me, where I informed the police, hoping for specialist therapy, appropriate risk assessment and accessible respite – as by now he refused foster care ever again having been placed during the care proceedings with someone he called a religious nut – to begin. A suicide attempt in this person’s care was blamed on my son’s much longed for reunification with me by the carer. Instead of support there was removal and more assessments. My voice and his are crushed. He has felt suicidal for much of the time he is removed from my care – living in an institution. I hope for a better future – my child gave up hoping long ago – this is what he tells me. I am in court applying for discharge of the order. The MP supported an application to Barprobono after the Family Rights Group wrote in support of this. But no barrister is available so I am a litigant in person. I signed up to be a mum – not cross question a local authority in court. What do I think of S20? What would you think if you were me?
    There has to be a better way – and in my experience it is not parents unwilling to work in partnership – goodness knows how many meetings I attend – it is the local authority wanting control so they can redefine needs and minimise expenditure. Now they have spent lottery money and created a complete mess.
    The two things that I found most helpful in terms of understanding where it all went wrong are discussed in Eileen Monro’s excellent book: Effective Child Protection. They are Fundamental Attribution Error and Group Reasoning. The problems are cultural in my view. My child has paid the price of loss of family life at a critical stage in identity development because I sought help.

    • Thank you for such a full and – in the circumstances – measured comment. It does seem that some social workers have fundamentally misunderstood what parents are asking for and have failed to grasp the full situation. The way we understand and respond to family crises and needs changes over time and impacts on practice. The current position is certainly not helped by high thresholds and a tendency to “rescue” the child, but this is not the only factor. I hope that we can together work for a better culture, a more positive response and a more favourable outcome.

  7. hfbf16

    Thanks Helen. I am hoping for my son to be made a ward of court rather than S20 or full care order as a better legal framework to move forwards from here now. In court now so can’t say anything. Fingers crossed and anyone reading this post please send my child and I positive energy for next week in court for a positive outcome – where we can at last achieve the support, empathy and understanding we so badly need.

  8. My Violent Teenage Son

    I’ve come into this quite late but I have been searching this topic. My son has been subject to two ICO over this summer for violence to me. His last placement has been at a therapeutic crisis centre outside of London. It’s working well. However the ICO ended, but I signed a sect 20 for four further weeks as it’s been to short a time for him to return to me without violence. What worries me is that SS are indicating that he may not come back to me after the additional 4 weeks. The SW even suggested I may want to seek legal advice. They talk about working with him whilst he is under the S20 but very little is done from my view. He has improved towards me but that is purely from being cared for by a good team of experienced mainly male team. I agree his problems aren’t going away in the four weeks, but have they used the S20 simply to buy time to get a more formal care order? I really am not sure, but the objective is to get he and I back together surely?

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I am so pleased that you have been able to find some respite from the situation and that things have improved, even if only a little. Please do take up the suggestion of legal advice if you can. This is a distressing but all too common experience I have been told. It is important that services should understand that parents want to restore the family relationship. They are not trying to abandon a child! I hope it works out well for you.

  9. can someone tell me if a section 20 has to be in place for a child to get a therapeutic placement or can this be funded another way?

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