Navigating social workers’ use of voluntary care arrangements for families in Scotland

20 March 2024

Topic: Child protection, Corporate parenting
Author: Dr Robert Porter, Dr Brandi Lee Lough Dennell


In this second in a series of blog posts to highlight findings from research on voluntary care arrangements in Scotland, Dr Robert Porter, Research Lead at CELCIS, and Dr Brandi Lee Lough Dennell, Research Associate at CELCIS, explore what social workers have shared about their experiences with voluntary care arrangements.

Over the past 24 months, as part of a two-and-a-half-year project supported by the Nuffield Foundation, we’ve undertaken research on Section 25 arrangements (from the 1995 Children (Scotland) Act), which are sometimes called ‘voluntary care arrangements’. In Scotland, voluntary care arrangements place a duty on local authorities to care for a child or young person where it is necessary to respond their care and protection needs, and where their parents either agree, or are not present. To capture a more rounded view of how these are understood, used, and experienced, we've worked to speak to people who have experienced or been directly involved in voluntary care arrangements: children and young people, parents, social workers and social work managers, and legal representatives.

In this second of a series of blog posts exploring what we’ve heard so far, we’re focusing on the experiences and views of social workers and social work managers. Across 13 interviews and eight focus groups, we’ve met with nearly 60 social workers and social work managers working across Scotland to hear about their experiences of undertaking voluntary care arrangements with families, their views on when and how these should be used, and what individual, organisational, or external factors contribute to the decisions made around voluntary care arrangements.

Considering when to use voluntary care arrangements

In our conversations, social workers have shared experiences of supporting voluntary care arrangements for children and young people of all ages, and across a wide range of circumstances. Through these conversations it became clear that there was variation not only in how frequently voluntary care arrangements are used by different local authorities, but also differences in when these are used (perhaps in crisis situations, or as part of a planned move for a child or young person) by different social workers and social work teams.

Social workers across Scotland described many situations where they believed that voluntary care arrangements have been helpful for children and families. They noted that voluntary care arrangements could be the most appropriate option for unaccompanied children who had been trafficked or were seeking asylum, and for some children with significant disabilities who required support which was best provided in places other than their home.

An opportunity for many families

When asked about voluntary care arrangements overall, social workers felt that these were a useful resource that worked very well for many families. The social workers talked of how voluntary care arrangements could help to build relationships between social workers and parents, were flexible to individual circumstances, and could be used to support a parent until they were able to fully resume caring for their child.

Many social workers told us they felt that voluntary care arrangements were effective in facilitating a rapid response to families’ needs in a time of crisis, and that not having the same procedural requirements as compulsory measures, for example, a Child Protection Order, made this possible.

“I think that when I've seen a Section 25 been used well it has been incredible for family members and [they’ve] got into a much better, much stronger place. And that's always been when there's been a really strong team around the child, around the family, really strong relationships across the board. And generally when there's a good support network for the parents, that not all parents have.”

- Social worker

The challenges of voluntary care arrangements

Although it was felt that voluntary care arrangements can be positive for families, there were some contexts where social workers described how they could face difficulties or can feel uneasy with this approach.

Social workers emphasised how they strive to provide parents with clear, accurate information on which to base their decision on whether to agree to a voluntary care arrangement, but that it can sometimes be difficult to establish informed consent, or a parent’s capacity to consent may be impaired. Social workers also reflected that the emotional context of a voluntary care arrangement, particularly when this was being arranged at short notice, could make it difficult for parents to process the information given to them. The challenge of this emotional context was highlighted in our interviews with parents, which we shared in our first blog post for this series.

Discussions on consent and capacity are rooted in the real-world scenarios social workers faced, such working to obtain consent where a parent may have impaired capacity due to being under the influence of alcohol or other substances, or the difficulty and sensitivity around ensuring that parents with learning disabilities are provided with the information and support that meets their needs and enables them to understand the implications of their decisions.

Social workers also told us how they were acutely aware that in many cases they would feel obliged to seek a compulsory order if a parent did not agree to a voluntary care arrangement. They—and parents alike—questioned how this juxtaposition could lead to clear decision-making:


“You don't want a parent to feel coerced into Section 25 and to an extent they will be. Because they're like ‘Either way, you're going to remove my child, so you're not giving me choice in it’. And that's a difficult thing because [in] social work you try and go alongside people, but I think we have to recognise and own that there's times that we are going to do this to you, because we can’t do it alongside you. It’s not safe, it’s not possible, or there’s disagreement. So I think Section 25 is probably a bit more emotionally complex than I think people understand it to be, because you do worry about this parent just signing this because they’ve got no other choice. But at the same time you think, well, you still have to do your job and your job is ultimately to safeguard the child.”

- Social Work Manager

While it is clear that from the perspective of social workers, voluntary care arrangements worked well for some families, there were circumstances or aspects of these arrangements that they could find challenging, both personally and professionally. Above all, social workers were keen to support children and families by placing their rights and wellbeing at the centre of the discussions in relation to voluntary care arrangements. While it might not be possible to identify specific circumstances or contexts in which voluntary care arrangements would always be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the social workers we spoke to considered that additional guidance and support on the use of voluntary care arrangements would help them in ensuring the best interests of children and their families when these arrangements were being considered and discussed.

Do you have experience of a voluntary care arrangement?

Our work is ongoing and we would like to hear from more parents, children, and young people with any experiences of voluntary care arrangements.

If you are a social worker, please support the families you work with to engage with the research. We want to make sure all experiences and perspectives are heard, how voluntary care arrangements can support parents and young people effectively, as well as challenges like those outlined above. You can find information to help you talk about the research with families here.

If you are a parent with experience of voluntary care arrangements, find out how to take part here.

If you are a young person aged 8-25, find more information here.

For more information on the project and findings, visit


This project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit

The logo for the Nuffield Foundation


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of our funders.

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