Social workers and local authorities should avoid using section 20 arrangements in cases involving unaccompanied asylum seeking children, an expert has warned.
Jon Fayle, an independent reviewing officer and vice chair of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers, told social workers at Community Care Live that setting up the voluntary care arrangements for children without parents in this country was “absolutely the wrong use”.
Fayle said, in his view, use of section 20 in such situations risked being “negligent and disgraceful” because the children do not have parents in this country to be involved in key decisions, and section 20 does not give the local authority parental responsibility.
He said: “[Unaccompanied asylum seeking children] have no-one available to make key decisions in their lives about health treatment or schools. Various important decisions about their life cannot be made by a local authority under a section 20 agreement – but they do.”
His comments were in contrast to recently published guidance by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Cafcass and Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru, which described the use of section 20 for unaccompanied children from abroad, including those seeking asylum, as positive.
Compulsion by disguise
In a wide-ranging session on section 20, Fayle addressed the practice implications of recent judicial criticism of local authorities’ use of the arrangements.
He referenced Re N, a case where family court chief James Munby identified widespread ‘misuse and abuse’ of the arrangement and issued new guidance. He also pointed to guidance from Judge Bellamy that section 20 consent should not be “used as compulsion by disguise”.
Fayle argued that in some circumstances it would be “reasonable” for local authorities to tell a parent “we hope we can work with you in trust and cooperation and we hope we don’t need to go to court, but we do have to sort this out. I hope we can do this on the basis of a voluntary agreement however you need to know that if we can’t get this agreement we may have to consider thinking about care proceedings”.
However he said it would be “unreasonable” to tell a parent that if they didn’t sign a section 20 agreement they would go to court.
Fayle said section 20 was “terribly susceptible to potential misuse”, adding: “The most common concern, the most common abuse, that I’ve come across in my time as an independent reviewing officer has been the misuse of section 20, sometimes the abuse of section 20, sometimes completely unlawful practice that I have observed”.