Jo’s weekly blog – What is a Section 20 Referral?

In fostering, you’ll always be learning about the wider world of social care.  This is a great thing, as such knowledge is invaluable in terms of best advocating for any child in your care.

One of the things I learned about a while back was something called a Section 20 referral.  So, what does this phrase refer to?

A ‘Section 20’ referral is when a parent (or parents) voluntarily place their child into the care of Social Services.  I didn’t actually know you could do this, but like I said – always learning.

A parent cannot simply drop their child off at Social Services and that’s the end of it – responsibility absolved.  I have several friends who would definitely take that opportunity if it was on offer!  Instead, a parent must approach Social Services and give them grounds for accepting the fact that they can no longer – either temporarily or longer term – care for their child and subsequently need help.  This might be for a number of reasons on the part of the parent, such as that of a medical condition (physical or mental), issues of drug or alcohol misuse, or that of being unable to provide a safe, stable and secure home for the child to thrive within.  It’s not an exhaustive list.

In the case of our referred Section 20 child, the parents could no longer cope with the boy’s increasingly challenging behaviour.  It wasn’t down to finance, neglect, abuse or a medical condition of any kind – they simply could not deal with their son’s behaviour; whereby his aggression and life choices were having significant detrimental effects on the family’s physical and emotional well-being.  How can they look after their child if they are struggling themselves?  It’s a fair question.

The aim of a Section 20 referral is that ultimately the family will be in a position to reunite, and so you as the Foster Carer have a key role to play in changing not just a child’s life for the better, but also the lives of their whole family.  It’s up to you how you view this – a wonderful chance to save a family, or a daunting amount of responsibility?

There are many positives to taking on a Section 20 referral, but there are also a fair few negatives:

On one hand, the temporary nature of a Section 20 referral means it’s an excellent type of placement to start with or to take in between longer term placements.  On the other hand, there is nothing to stop the parents saying they never want to take their child back and they should stay with you – sad, but true.

A Section 20 referral child’s parents have made the voluntary decision to give up their child in the hope that somebody such as yourself can help them to ultimately re-build their family by supporting their child in a way they presently cannot.  Whilst it’s a wonderful thought that you could be instrumental in solving a family’s problems and ultimately reunite them one day, there is no guarantee that the parents will be able to completely accept everything you’re doing to make that happen, and could actually make things difficult for you.  I know that I would personally feel a lot of resentment if I saw someone else doing a better job of raising my own child than I could do.

With a case of a Section 20 referral, the child’s parents retain PR (parental responsibility). This is a positive thing because it means you don’t have the stress and emotion of completely uprooting the child and re-building their life from scratch, but it’s also negative when the child in question plays both sets of parental figures off against each other and feels like they can storm out and run away to go ‘back home’ every time they’re not happy with something you’ve done.

Ultimately, I don’t think I’d personally choose to take on a Section 20 referral again.  I believe in fresh starts, and I don’t think you can have that, or the chance at gaining the fullest possible bond, with a child who will possibly see you as the reason they’re not with their parents right now.

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