Children in Need: Legal Framework, Values, and Case Examples


The law defines children in need as children less than 18 years and requiring local authority services for achievement or maintenance of reasonable health and development standards. These children also require the services of local authorities to be able to prevent significant and further harm to their development and health (HM Government, 2018). Disabled children also fall under this category. Whenever courts make orders concerning a child, otherwise known as care orders, the implication is that local authorities subsequently take on responsibility for the child together with the parent. Local authorities subsequently make arrangements regarding where the child is supposed to live. However, if a parent does not agree with the proposals of the local authority, they cannot remove the child. Local authorities have a duty to accommodate children in need, in the event, no one has legal responsibility for the child, the child has either been abandoned or is lost, the person who previously took care for the child is not capable of continuing with the provision of suitable care and also in those scenarios where a child has reached 16 and there is a likelihood that the welfare of the child would be at risk in the event the local authority failed in providing the child with accommodation. This essay explores the relevant laws, and values governing children in need. The values that underpin these laws that are identified are also outlined. Case examples are also presented to enrich the essay.



The Children Act 1989 closely investigated different child deaths considered to be high-profile, and the Cleveland Inquiry into remoing a child from their families when they were suspected of having fallen victim of sexual abuse. The legislation provided clarification on the intervention grounds where children were in situations of serious harm and clarified on the powers held by courts and local authorities in the protection of children’s welfare. In addition, a duty is placed by the Act on local authorities to carry out investigations whenever there was a reasonable cause to suspect that a child residing or who was found in their area was going through some form of abuse or was suffering, or was at risk of suffering. The Act subsequently introduced a duty that saw services provided to children in need and their families. Local authority social services are required by Section 17 of the Childrens act 1989 to go about safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children in need within their areas. This duty often includes the provision of accommodation. Section 20 of the Act provides a further duty for accommodation of certain children in need within their area. Childrens legislation does not make it a requirement that children have to be ordinarily resident so that these duties can be triggered, the mere presence of the child is sufficient.

There are specific requirements for assessing a child in need so as to determine the services that are to be provided to them under the Children act. Assessments have to take into account all the needs of the child, and this includes accommodation, and further assess the additional support needed by the child and additionally stay up-to-date whenever there are changes in circumstances regarding the child. Full and proper inquiries have to be carried out by the authority, and they must also show procedural fairness during the performance of reassessment (Holland, 2010). Challenging an assessment is possible in the event it never gave consideration to the impact of failing to provide services on the health and development of a child. In all applicable circumstances, the assessment has to consider needs that come about from the child being unaccompanied asylum-seeking children or victims of human trafficking. In addition, it is necessary that the risk to radicalisation is included among the factors that have a relation with children’s welfare and whether they qualify as children in need (Turney et al. 2011).

Timely assessment is stressed as a vital element for the achievement of quality outcomes for the child by the Statutory Guidance on accommodating 16 and 17 year olds. According to the guidance, in accordance to Childrens act request for services, only one working day is given to make decisions on the types of responses required and subsequently acknowledging the referral. After the request has been made, completion of the assessment has to happen within 45 working days from the point the referral was made and in those instances that this time is exceeded, there has to be a record of reasons. Local authorities have to comply with this guidance, with failure to do so being regarded as unlawful/ according to statutory guidance, all local authorities also have to publish threshold documents that set out the criteria and processes for assessment. Assessments are additionally considered as unlawful in the event the conclusions they reached could never have been reached by a reasonable authority.

Social service authorities where the child is present have the authority carry out child in need assessments. There are no requirements that they have to be ordinarily resident in the area. It is possible for a child to be present in multiple areas of authority, for instance if the areas they are resident and school in are different. The duty to carry out an assessment falls on both authorities. Presence in an area requires more than just visiting them briefly. After the completion of a child in need assessment, a multi-agency child in need plan is used to set down the services that are to be provided. Such care plans always have to be realistic enough and should be reviewed on a regular basis for purposes of analyzing whether there has been sufficient progress that has been made to meet the needs of the child and the level of risk faced by the child. Munro (2019), recommends the coming together of different departments under the same local authority and the subsequent development of joint working protocols for the children in need.

Section 17 places an ongoing duty on local authorities of safeguarding and additionally promoting children in needs welfare, such that it is consistent with those duties, for the promotion of the upbringing of the children by their families. The roles of local authorities as per the Children Act 1989 was reviewed following the outcomes of different judicial review cases that examined the roles played by local authorities. The case of R (on the application of G) v Barnet LBC [2001], that was concerned with the responsibility of local authority for children in need. The first and principal legal issue was related to the nature and extent of the duty that section 17 of the Children Act 1989 imposed on local authorities requiring them to go about assessing the needs of a child in need and subsequently meeting their need following the assessment. The ground for refusal to make an award in the case was that the applicant was not ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom, in the three years that preceded the case. The Children Act 2002 made an amendment of section 17 of the Children Act 1989, effectively making it clear that social services did not have a duty, but had the powers of providing housing assistance to families without homes and that had a child in need, whenever they were neither entitled not eligible for assistance under the set legislation on homelessness.

Under section 20, the duty of providing accommodation is only applicable to the children and there is an option to offer to only house the children. In the case of R (on the application of Jalal) v Greenwich RLBC [2016], where a family had adequate financial resources, it was held by the High Court that it was within the local authorities’ powers to accommodate the children in the event they never found accommodation by providing temporary accommodation for a period of up to ten months.

In the case of Poole BC v GV [2019], the Supreme Court held that the liability of local authorities to pay damages after failing in protecting children in need was dependent on whether the authority made a specific assumption of responsibility for their welfare and safety, effectively owing them a duty of care under common law for their protection from third party harm. These were children who had been accommodated with their family in accordance with section 17 of the Children Act of 2019 as a result of the harm that was inflicted by third party neighbors, who were known to the local authority as having perpetrated anti-social behavior against families over a period of time. There is a duty of care under common law that is owed to children who are under the care of local authorities. However, when there is no care duty, it is worth noting that local authorities do not merely owe a duty at common law because of the statutory powers they have and duties as stipulated by the Children Act 1989, even in those instances that exercising the powers and duties would prevent harm. However, local authorities and their social workers could owe a duty of care for protection from harm in similar circumstances in the event such duties were imposed by the applicable principles to private individuals and bodies, for instance where the source of danger had been created or responsibility has been assumed for purposes of preventing an individual from suffering harm.

After the Act was implemented, concerns came about related to cases that had not been allocated by some authorities and the rather slow progress in identifying children in need, and the further establishment and identification of appropriate services that would ensure the needs they had were met. Confirmation of the dominance of inquiries within practice at the expense of broader focus on need was provided by the Department of Health. The larger proportion of cases involved families to whom managing was hard, as a result of housing and finance related difficulties. An observation was made that the majority of the individuals who went through the stage of inquiry but did not make it beyond that to cross the threshold of placement of a child at risk, never received any service. This led to the development of the Framework for assessment of Children in Need and their Families, designed for purposes of covering all the assessments carried out under the Children Act 1989.

One of the long standing tenets of social work practice involving children’s services across England is the Framework for the assessment of Children in Need and their Families (AF). This is a systematic way used for purposes of analysis, understanding and recording children’s experiences and those of young people within their wider communities and their families to facilitate the development of a conceptual map that is subsequently used to develop an understanding of what happens to children in the different circumstances they grow up in. on a geographical basis, this is represented as an equilateral triangle where the three sides are representative of the development needs of a child, capacity to parent and environmental and family factors (Department of Health, 2000).

For the government, AF was considered as a major step towards evidence-based practice continued progress. Interviews of children, parents and wider families, coupled with of observations of children and their families through the use of practice tools that had been selected and designed purposefully to support the AF were to be used for collection of information. Through this ecological approach, practitioners were to be provided with the means of carrying out broad-based assessments. The design of the approach was such that it shifted assessments from focusing on risks to where the making of decisions was based on the belief of combining properly balanced professional judgment and evidence-based practice that was grounded in knowledge.

There were several challenges that were faced in the implementation of the AF. One of them is that increasingly in-depth assessments required that the knowledge base of practitioners also had to be deeper and many practitioners were found to either be inexperienced or did not have the appropriate confidence to work with families that had multiple needs (Vis and Lauritzen, 2020). Another observation that was made was that, while social workers claimed that the quality of assessments improved as a result of AF, they did not feel adequately prepared to effectively carry out data analysis of the data they collected. While there was training on the use of AF, it failed to match the expected complexity. The mismatch was continuously observed over the years.

AF had a holistic nature that was in contrast to the environment where it had been introduced, within which access to services had been determined by threshold criteria and where the pace was determined by a timescale tied to performance. Subsequently, these got absorbed into the criteria that got applied to the inspection of children’s services under local authorities and were further facilitated by the Integrated Children’s System. This was an electronic system which by design was meant to collect together information regarding children from multiple sources (Holmes, 2009). Through this, the emphasis was shifted to collecting mass information instead of the rather holistic approach that the developers of AF had intended.

Analysis of data reveals that in the majority of examined cases, it was relatively hard to identify the use of AF in assessing, on the basis of the Signs of Safety framework, was relatively hard (Baginsky et al. 2020). At times, it was possible to trace back to parts of narratives and also were there are hints that SoS mapping was informed by AF. While the majority of recording systems were designed in such a way that they captured information that had been collected through AF , that was in no way a guarantee of the presence of the information. Also, the SoS mappings presence and the additional organization of information under the three columns, did not provide assurance of the assessments fit for purpose. In the event, the goal turns to making sure there is a fit between headings and the information fit, then it appears that it is possible to lose relevant and significant information. This is an indication of the possibility of side-lining professional judgment by the drive towards the compartmentalization of knowledge that ends up bringing it into conflict with the idea behind holistic assessments.


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Evidence points to children in need, on average having poorer outcomes in the different stages of their life. While there has been extensive legislation on the area of children in need, without a doubt, more work is required to ensure the complete bridging of the gap between these children and other normal children. This paper also brings to the fore the important role that is played by local authorities in caring for children identified as in need. Whenever courts make orders related to a child, otherwise known as care orders, which implies that the local authority goes on ahead and takes responsibility for the child together as parents. Continuous support should be accorded to these local authorities to ensure that they effectively and efficiently provide care to children in need.


Baginsky, M., Manthorpe, J. and Moriarty, J., 2020. The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families and Signs of Safety: Competing or Complementary Frameworks?. The British Journal of Social Work.

Department of Health, 2000. Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families. Guidance Notes and Glossary for: Referral and Initial Information Record, Initial Assessment Record and Core Assessment Record. London: The Stationery Office.

HM Government, 2018. Working Together to Safeguard Children. [online] Available at:

Holland, S., 2010. Child and family assessment in social work practice. Sage.

Holmes, L., 2009. How social workers spend their time: an analysis of the key issues that impact on practice pre and post implementation of the Integrated Children's System.

Poole Borough Council v GN and Another [2019] UKSC 25

R (on the application of E) v Islington LBC [2017] EWHC 1440

R (on the application of Jalal) v Greenwich LBC [2016] EWHC 1846

Regina (on the application of G) v London Borough of Barnet [2001] EWCA Admin 540

The Children Act 1989

Turney, D., Platt, D., Selwyn, J. and Farmer, E., 2011. Improving child and family assessments: Turning research into practice. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Vis, S.A. and Lauritzen, C., 2020. Child Protection Managers’ Views on Frameworks for Assessment of Children in Need. Child Care in Practice, pp.1-14.

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