Almost 6,000 ‘lost children’ in care are living in limbo


Across the UK, 39% of children who are placed in care without a court order by local authorities are still living in this state of uncertainty with no long-term solution within 12 months, a figure which has resulted in a leading family lawyer sounding the alarm.

Law firm Ridley & Hall recently called on all UK councils to reveal the number of children currently accommodated under Section 20 of the Children Act (14,284), and asked how many of these had in fact been in this situation for more than 12 months (5,592)*.

Local authorities can place children into care without a court order when they are deemed not to have somewhere suitable to live. This action can only be taken with a parent’s consent, and is intended to be a short-term measure while efforts are made to find a permanent solution. Unfortunately, the research shows that almost half of these children still do not have a permanent place to live a year later.

Now, an expert is calling for more resources for putting in place permanent care plans for Section 20 children who are already at risk of significant emotional harm.

The law

Originally introduced in an attempt to move child law away from the courts, the Section 20 provision of the Children Act 1989 was intended as a short-term measure. It enabled local authorities to quickly take over the responsibility of caring for children in a foster home or with another family member. However, there has been growing judicial concern that these particular looked-after children are being accommodated for unacceptably long periods of time before official care proceedings are initiated.

The research

Figures obtained from local authorities by Ridley and Hall Solicitors under Freedom of Information show that in the East of England, there were 1,416 children accommodated under Section 20 during summer 2019 of which 566 (40%) had been accommodated for over 12 months.**

“This legislation, which is designed to give local authorities the power to provide accommodation for children without a court order when they do not have somewhere suitable to live, can be productive and helpful in some circumstances,” explains James Cook, director and head of childcare law at Ridley and Hall. “It is, for example, helpful in situations where their parents might need temporary respite. However, in our experience, the law is now being misused and abused with large numbers of children being kept in temporary care for lengthy periods of time. This was never the intention of Section 20, and the potential implications for the children can be truly damaging.

“The primary concern has to be for the welfare of the children. The breakdown of family relationships due to prolonged separation, as well as the stigma of being in care and the anxiety caused by the uncertainty of where they will ultimately live, can be extremely harmful. There is no doubt that this can have real, detrimental long-term implications for the children.”

Mr Cook says: “There seems to be a lack of urgency in dealing with the long-term needs of Section 20 children; once they have been removed from the home, the local authority considers them to be less of a priority as they are out of immediate danger. No doubt, a lack of resources is partly to blame, but this needs to change.

“I want to urge local authorities to prioritise making longer-term plans via the courts in order to give these children the opportunity for their needs and wishes to be properly considered and represented.

“Despite ongoing pressure on public spending, the need to ensure that local authorities are adequately resourced is vital. We must ensure that they are able to effectively plan long-term care and so prevent more children from being lost in the system under Section 20.”