"Nobody spoke those words to me”: Parental experiences of voluntary care arrangements in Scotland

30 November 2023

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

A generic image of a counsellor talking to a young person.In this first of a series of blog posts about 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, discuss what parents have shared so far about their experiences.

Over the past 18 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 often called ‘voluntary care arrangements’). To capture a 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, social work managers, and legal representatives. As we have now spoken to a large number of people, we've begun to analyse what has been shared with us during interviews and focus groups. In this first of a series of blog posts exploring what we’ve heard so far, we’ll be focusing on the experiences of parents.

What are voluntary care arrangements?

Voluntary care arrangements are one way that a child or young person can come to be ‘Looked After’ by a local authority when their parents are – for whatever reason – prevented from providing suitable care in their home. These arrangements can only be used if a parent does not object, and the local authority then has a duty to arrange this care for children and young people. This might be with a close family member or friend, a foster carer, or in residential accommodation. Voluntary care arrangements can also be used when someone with parental responsibilities cannot be identified, such as with unaccompanied minors.

Our initial research on voluntary care arrangements in Scotland in 2020 found wide variation in how they were used across the country. In our current research, we therefore wanted to learn more about how voluntary care arrangements are understood, used and experienced.

Learning more about the views and experiences of parents

We've been privileged to meet with a number of parents to hear about their experiences of voluntary care arrangements. Using open-ended questions in interviews, we’ve explored their understandings, feelings about, reflections on, and experiences of having their children cared for on voluntary care arrangements. Conversations covered the consent and information process, their interaction with their children during the arrangement, and the support they received, amongst other themes.

Although the parents that we spoke to told us about a range of experiences involving voluntary care arrangements, overall, their experiences were mainly poor.

When they spoke about consent, parents often told us that they were not given enough, or accurate enough, information about the voluntary care arrangement when they agreed to allow the local authority to care for their children away from their home. Parents had a varied understanding of the arrangements and sometimes felt that they had no choice but to agree due to a lack of alternative options presented to them.

“Nobody spoke those words to me [Section 25], so I didn't have the language or the concepts to even go out and seek more information on my own.”

Amy*, parent

Some parents told us that they did not receive written information after their initial discussion with a social worker. Other parents struggled to make sense of the information they received, such as understanding a carbon copy of a consent form where the details of the arrangement were no longer legible.

There were also many details of voluntary care arrangements that parents were unclear about, including that they retain their Parental Responsibilities and Rights; their right to maintain contact and relationships with their children, and their right to have their children returned to their care. For example, legally, once a Section 25 arrangement has been in place for six months, if parents want their children to be returned home, they are required to give the local authority two weeks’ written notice. A few parents told us that they only learned of the requirement for written notice when they tried to have their children returned to their care.

After six months, one parent, Alice*, tried to have her children returned to her care and was told she needed to provide written notice:

“And I’m thinking, well, again, where’s the voluntary...and that wasn’t something I knew. I felt anyway, I don’t remember being told anything about that. The forms I had, like the paperwork they give you, when I’m writing it and it’s one of these like triplicate [forms]. Well, the one I get, there’s no print on it by the time I [receive it]. You know, I’m thinking I cannae read that! Like you’ve not used it in a way that I can then read that sort of third copy.” 

Alice*, parent

Understandably, most parents felt emotional when sharing their stories. They recounted the heightened emotions they experienced at the time which affected their ability to process or remember information. Parents also told us they could feel invisible in the process, or that they felt that they had been intentionally misinformed or pressured into decisions and actions. They also highlighted that they could lose confidence in their ability to parent due to the time they spent separated from their children, and the higher degree of professional support that their children were receiving which they felt they might not be able to replicate.

“I did think that Section 25 had withdrawn my parental rights and responsibilities, and handed them over to the local authority.”

Caroline*, parent


“I was just told that, you know, your child remains to be your child. Like, so no one is going to take away your kid. You have the rights of being a parent.” 

German*, parent

We cannot know whether parents’ reported struggles to fully understand their rights was because they weren’t given sufficient information, or because the stress and emotions of the process affected what and how they remember the experience. Those who felt that they had understood the process at the time spoke of freely giving consent, yet it was clear from our interviews that even the parents who felt informed were not fully aware of their rights under a voluntary care arrangement.

Do you have experience of a voluntary care arrangement?

Our work is ongoing and we would love to hear from more parents with any experiences - whether they’re same as these or different – that they would like to share.

We’re also looking to speak to children to understand their experiences. Whether your experiences are the same or different, it is really important to us that we hear about them!

  • 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 out how to take part here.
  • 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 on our webpage for social workers.

Read more about this research project, including where to find support

Find out more about how to support children, young people and families to take part in the research

NOTE: Key information about voluntary care arrangements

  • In Scotland, a Section 25 arrangement can only be used if a parent doesn’t object. If the parent does object, the child or young person could then only be ‘Looked After’ away from parental care on compulsory grounds.
  • Parents retain their Parental Responsibilities and Rights (PRRs) when a Section 25 arrangement is used and should be involved in important decisions such as medical care and education.
  • Parents have the right to remove their children from the arrangement at any point. After six months, two weeks written notice is required.
  • Children who are ‘Looked After’ under a Section 25 arrangement are not involved in the Children’s Hearings System but are reviewed by social work reviewing processes, which should involve parents.

*The names of the parents in the blog post have been changed to a pseudonym of their choice to protect their privacy.

We would like to thank all the parents who took the time to speak with us and share their experiences. This research would not be possible without their open and honest contributions.

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

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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