Social workers “face pressure” to use section 20 arrangements to avoid care proceedings and kinship care arrangements, according to a report published this week.
Research carried out by the Your Family, Your Voice Alliance said the partnership working that underpins voluntary care arrangements was under threat from “high levels of professional anxiety” in an environment of staff vacancies, turnover and high workloads.
“Struggling families are too often seen through the lens of ‘risk’, even if they are not formally subject to child protection enquiries,” the report said.
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“This hinders, if not actively prevents, effective cooperation between families and the state. Yet section 20 is predicated on partnership being in the interests of the child and on a system being in place with the intent, resources and culture to facilitate cooperation with families.”
The research was carried out amid growing concern over use of section 20 arrangements, a voluntary care agreement where parents give consent for a child to be placed in local authority care.
It identified various examples of families feeling “coerced” into undertaking section 20 arrangements, while social workers described pressure to use the arrangement to avoid proceedings.
“Practitioners may be aware of the risks and impacts of ‘soft’ or other coercive practices but [a] lack of tools and guidance as well as caseload and time pressures appear to impact adversely on their ability, or in some instances their willingness, to address this issue,” the report said.
It also raised concerns about local authorities using section 20 arrangements to achieve the placements of children in foster for adoption foster care, “notwithstanding government guidance identifying that to do so is ‘unusual’”.
A freedom of information request carried out by the researchers found 163 children in care under a section 20 arrangement had been placed with foster carers who were approved to adopt.
The report said there was “limited direction” for practitioners working with section 20 and patchwork guidance was likely to make variations in practice worse.
It recommended the government address “severe financial pressures” children’s services are under, and ensure families get free, independent legal advice around these arrangements.
It also called on the government to issue general guidance about the law and how it currently applies to social work practice in this area.