A recent BBC News investigation has found that looked-after teenagers over the age of 16 are at risk of exploitation and abuse whilst residing in unregulated homes across England and Wales. Such accommodation avoids inspection and regulation due to its provision of ‘support’ opposed to ‘care’, despite the vulnerabilities of these young people. According to figures from the Department for Education, about 5,500 looked after children in England were living in this type of accommodation, up 70% from 10 years ago. This increase is attributable to the rise of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)- these are experiences in which children are exposed to domestic violence, neglect, abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and untreated mental illness. The recent BBC news article highlights cases at Centurion Care. One incident involves a resident who was not provided with sufficient care following incidents of self-harm, and another incident involved resident who absconded for a week despite being seen getting into a car with a large group of males. One of the primary issues that the report highlights is that vulnerable young people were typically placed in towns away from where they were brought up. The Association of Directors of Children's Services said: "There is a national shortage of foster carers and a growing disconnect between the location of residential children's homes and need." The Department for Education in England has described how local authorities have a legal duty to ensure there is suitable accommodation for these children. Local authorities are in breach of duty in allowing the existence of these unregulated care homes that enable young people to be exposed to exploitation. In a welcome move, the government has recently announced a £30 million funding boost that will assist law enforcement with pioneering new technologies to track down paedophiles operating online and help safeguard children who have been abused. [...]
An Emergency Protection Order (also called an EPO) is an urgent order granted by the Court if the local authority has satisfied the court that a child is in immediate need of protection from significant harm or a risk of significant harm. These types of applications are usually issued by a local authority.
They can follow situations where the police have exercised their powers to remove children under police protection (which is a temporary situation of up to 72 hours). If there is no immediate risk of harm, then the most likely application will be an application for a care or supervision order, sometimes on short notice if there is still an element of urgency to the facts of the case.
If an EPO is granted by the Court, the local authority/ children services then share Parental Responsibility for the child/ren and in support of their application they will have filed a proposed care plan detailing their views around the following issues:
It is a criminal offence to prevent someone from removing a child if an EPO has been granted. The child/ren are usually removed by a social worker and can be accompanied by police if it is felt necessary, depending on the situation.
An Emergency Protection Order usually lasts for up to eight days. However, an application may be made to extend this. This will be granted for up to 7 days if there is reasonable cause to believe that the child is at risk of significant harm.
The local authority is under a duty to allow reasonable contact between the child/ren and parent(s). However, what is reasonable depends entirely on the circumstances of the case and most often, any contact that is permitted by the local authority is supervised – usually in a children’s contact centre but sometimes other arrangements can be made to be supervised by family members although that usually comes much later on in proceedings.
You can apply to discharge (dismiss) the Emergency Protection Order within 72 hours only if:
However, if it was believed by Children’s Services that the child was at immediate risk of harm and/or in immediate danger, they have the right to apply for an EPO without giving notice to the parent(s).
More often than not, following any EPO application, the local authority will then apply for interim care orders (ICOs) to maintain the status quo of the children’s arrangements pending further assessments/investigation of the family. The parents (with parental responsibility) will be given notice of any ICO application listed before the family court and legal aid is available as it is not means or merits tested.
It is at that first hearing that the parents may wish to challenge the continuing separation from their child/ren and in reality, the ICO hearing may be listed sooner than an appeal can be prepared.
Head of Family, Kirsty Richards comments:-
Whenever the local authority is involved with a family, it is without doubt one of the most scariest times for the parent/s and child/ren as these decisions can be made very urgently after relatively little court time. There are some parents that I have helped in the past that have been working with social services for some time prior to the issue of court proceedings and when things then escalate to the family court arena, they do not always think it is necessary to get legal representation.
I would advise any parent/ carer with parental responsibility that it is crucial to get legal advice at the earliest opportunity when the local authority has given you notice of any court hearing. Most local authorities will have a list of specialist lawyers attached to any letter advising of imminent legal proceedings, otherwise you can search for a solicitor that is a Member of the Law Society’s Children Panel via the Law Society’s website. We have many accredited solicitors here at NLS and a team of junior lawyers that assist with this type of case. We have experience of this type of proceedings nationwide and are committed to providing a high quality of legal advice to all parent/s in this situation.
Our expert team of family solicitors are specialists in the area of Emergency Protection Order/Interim Care Order applications and are experienced in responding quickly in what is almost always a very rapidly developing situation.
Please call 0203 6015051 for specialist legal advice from one of our accredited solicitors. It is crucial to obtain legal advice as early as possible whenever the local authority is involved with your family and has taken the decision to issue court proceedings.
If a local authority is involved with your family, you will have a social worker assigned to do direct work with you and your child/ren. There are a few levels of social work intervention such as children in need plans, child protection plans, PLO intervention and court proceedings.
When social workers have been working with a family for some time and/or if serious concerns are highlighted as to the safety of any child/ren in the family, the local authority can decide to invite parents to a Public Law Outline Meeting (PLO) or a pre-proceedings meeting. A PLO meeting tends to be the last opportunity to try to resolve matters by agreement prior to the issue of care proceedings. If care proceedings are issued, you are entitled to free legal advice – legal aid – and you should not delay in securing representation ahead of the first hearing date.
The main reason for the meeting is to discuss the concerns the local authority has in respect of the perceived safeguarding concerns for the children, this could be due to neglect, suspected abuse, domestic abuse in the parents’ relationship or a child/ren that is beyond parental control. The local authority will discuss what needs to change and they will explore if an agreement can be reached to prevent the commencement of court proceedings.
Parents are advised to instruct their own Solicitor who can then attend the PLO meeting with them. Together with the social worker and the Local Authority’s Solicitor, they can then try and reach an agreement as to how to keep their child safe and well.
If an agreement can be reached, the local authority will draw up a written agreement which will need to be signed by the parents. A PLO meeting may also be used to inform the parents that care proceedings are being commenced if they feel the risk of harm to the child is too high.
If you receive a letter inviting you to a PLO Meeting it is vital that you seek urgent legal advice. If you are a parent you will be entitled to legal aid and will have representation at that meeting for free. If you are not a parent but are the main carer for the child, you may still be eligible for free legal advice.