Being subjected to a care proceeding is enough to strike fear into the heart of any parent, and with so much misinformation floating around on the internet, it can be difficult to know where to turn for correct, relevant and easy to understand legal information.
Our experienced team regularly deals with care proceedings so, we’ve pulled together some of the most commonly asked questions we receive in order to dispel a few common myths and give you an insight into the legal process.
What happens when social services get called?
Social services will typically become involved with a family if a concern regarding the wellbeing of a child or children has been raised.
Care proceedings occur when social services make an application to the court asking a Judge to look at your child’s situation and make a decision as to whether the child or children require a legal order to keep them safe. Your child’s social worker will also ask the court to consider if it is safe for your child/ren to remain at home or whether they should live somewhere else whilst more information is gathered.
You may feel that the concerns are completely unjustified, but it is worth remembering that any social worker making this assessment is doing so in the best interest of the child or children involved.
That said, this can often be an emotional and upsetting experience for parents and any affected children. When care proceedings are initiated, it is important that you seek legal advice immediately as the initial hearing can be listed with very short notice; with very important decisions made at that first hearing.
What is the care proceedings legal process?
The care proceedings process follows many legal steps before a final decision is made, here it is in brief:
- Social services make an application asking the court look into your child’s case.
- Their application will be supported by a statement and reports detailing their concerns. If you have parental responsibility for the child, you are considered a party to these proceedings and will receive copies of all paperwork.
- If social services believe that your child needs to be removed from your care before the final hearing, they will ask the court to grant an Emergency Protection Order or an Interim Care Order and will file a document called a care plan setting out where they think the child/ren should live and what contact should be in place for each parent and other relevant persons.
- Your solicitor will be able to talk to the other solicitors involved in the case and discuss how the care plan might need to be changed.
- After the first hearing, you will usually need to attend a Case Management Hearing. That should take place within 12 days of the application being made. At that second hearing the court will consider what assessments, statements, reports and evidence should be before the court ahead of any final decision being made.
- Next, an Issues Resolution Hearing will take place where matters including the child’s living arrangements and contact can be agreed upon by all parties involved. If an agreement can be reached, there will be no need for a final hearing and proceedings may end here.
- Should an agreement not be made, then a final hearing will take place.
- The final hearing is where long term decisions about future plans for your child/ren will be made, including where they should live. You will be asked to provide a written statement to the court before the final hearing, so having a solicitor with expertise in care proceedings can be very beneficial.
There can be many more hearings than set out above, depending on the facts and circumstances of each case.
Five different court orders can be made at a final hearing, including:
- Care Orders
- Supervision Orders
- Child Arrangement Orders
- Special Guardianship Orders
- Placement Orders
- (No order)
The decision made by the courts at this point of the process is final. You will need to ask for advice on appeal if you are not happy with the outcome of the case.
How long does it take for a case to go to court?
The care proceedings process is expected to conclude within six months and this time limit can only be extended if there are circumstances that justify exceeding the 26-week timeframe.
This timeframe may be extended by no more than eight weeks at a time. The decision to extend proceedings lies with the Judge dealing with the case.
Can social services take my child away without any evidence?
Apart from when police use their emergency powers of protection, any removal of children from your care by social services must be either be agreed by you or approved by a court.
This means that there must be evidence that the child is at risk and that a court has ordered the child or children to be removed from your care.
Where no evidence has been presented or there is a need for further investigation, your child may sometimes remain with you until the court proceedings have been fully conducted. A written agreement may be put in place to set out some expectations around behaviour and contact, as well as any support to be put in place for your family.
In circumstances where evidence has been put to the court and the Judge decides that your child should be removed, the court can authorise the removal of children for up to eight days under an Emergency Protection Order or until the end of the court case, if under an Interim Care Order.
Reasons why social services would take a child
There are a wide variety of circumstances where the court may deem it necessary to remove a child in order to safeguard his or her wellbeing with formal input from social services. These circumstances include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
- Parental illness
- Suspected non accidental injury to a child
What happens if you do not comply with a court order?
If you have been served with a court order for care proceedings, then it is essential that you seek legal representation as soon as possible to ensure you receive the correct legal advice and can be legally represented in all court hearings.
Care proceedings do not go away on their own, so hoping that the problem will simply disappear or resolve itself will only serve to make matters worse in the long run. You are automatically entitled to Legal Aid if you have parental responsibility for any child/ren subject to the proceedings. We advise you to engage the services of an experienced family law solicitor as soon as you can as this will provide you with the support and legal advice necessary to present your case to the court.
Any failure to comply with rulings made by the court after the final hearing will result in further legal action, as well as increased stress and anxiety for the child or children in question.