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Applying social work law with children and families
Applying social work law with children and families

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5.2 Parental responsibility

Under both the Children’s Act (CA) 1989 and Children Northern Ireland Order (C(NI)O) 1995, parental responsibility refers to the legal rights, duties, powers and authority a parent has for a child and the child’s property. This same concept is referred to as ‘parental responsibilities and rights’ in Scotland, under the Children (Scotland) Act (C(S)A) 1995, where parental ‘rights’ enable parents to fulfil their parental responsibilities. Nonetheless, this concept is significant across the nations as it exists so that the child can be protected and nurtured until they reach independence or adulthood (Barton and Douglas, 1995).

A mother and her young female child seated at a desk and leaning in together to look at a children’s workbook.
Figure 5 Mother reading with child

The next activity will help you to understand what ‘parental responsibility’ means and who has this under the law of England and Wales.

Activity 4 Understanding parental responsibility

Timing: 20 minutes

Read the law resource ‘Parental responsibility in England and Wales’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   and make notes in answer to the following questions:

  • What does the term ‘parental responsibility’ mean?
  • Who has automatic parental responsibility?
  • Who may acquire parental responsibility and how?
  • How and when may parental responsibility be exercised?
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A range of decisions can be taken when exercising parental responsibility. However, determining whether the exercise of parental responsibility is to the benefit of the child may sometimes be difficult. One person’s interpretation of what is appropriate will vary from another’s and will reflect the different values and moral positions they hold. For example, some will see it as legitimate to seek to control a young person’s sexual activity; others will see this as an infringement of their privacy and their right to bodily integrity. Others will use parental responsibility to control a child’s religious upbringing, which school they attend or how they are disciplined. Strong feelings are aroused as the issues often form part of a person’s belief system about upbringing, and those views may be of a cultural or a religious nature, as well as being born out of an individual’s own life experiences. The idea of family privacy is very strong and society is often prepared to accept behaviour from parents that it would not accept from other people.

Who does or does not have parental responsibility is important for social workers when they become involved with a family – either as a result of a referral concerning the welfare of a child or a request for a court report or involvement in public law proceedings. Knowing who has parental responsibility will assist the social worker in knowing who they must liaise with and who is, or may be, involved in court proceedings. One way for social workers to ascertain who has parental responsibility, is to check the marital status of the parents. If they are unmarried, enquiries should be made as to whether the father is named on the birth certificate for children registered after 1 December 2003. If he is not, the next step is to find out whether an agreement or a court order has been made.

In the next activity you will explore the practice issues that may be raised by exercising parental responsibility.

Activity 5 Limits to parental rights

Timing: 20 minutes

Read the following case study and then, based on your learning from this course so far, answer the questions that follow it.

Imagine you are a social worker in this case. You receive a request from the head teacher of a local primary school to investigate the circumstances of a ten-year-old girl who she is concerned about. This girl appears very withdrawn and is unable to make relationships with the other children in the school. In your discussion with the parents, you discover that the child is taken to and from school each day by her mother and is not allowed out of the home unless she is in the company of one or other of her parents. Her parents explain that, in their view, the attitudes, values and behaviour of the local community are unsuitable for their daughter and therefore they do not want her to mix socially. They consider that the behaviour described by the school is a price worth paying to ensure their daughter’s well-being.

  • What arguments can you give for intervening in this situation?
  • What arguments can you give for non-intervention?
  • What assistance, if any, can you give?
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The law will not provide a solution to issues arising in relation to the exercise of parental responsibility. When working with children and families, there is a need for the key social work skills of partnership and communication. You have to take into account the themes of empowerment and valuing diversity, while also maintaining a focus on the law regarding parental responsibility.

It is generally at the discretion of a parent (or the holder of parental responsibility) how parental responsibility should be exercised. However, this is subject to the following limitations:

  • Minimum standards of care are imposed by criminal law, breach of which can result in a conviction – for example, for criminal neglect.
  • Civil law provides for the protection of a child’s welfare. Where this is not being met, there are provisions for state intervention. However, any intervention by a public body is subject to the Human Rights Act 1998 (which incorporates the European Convention of Human Rights). The state may only intervene to the extent that the intervention is necessary to the aims set out in article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
  • As a child acquires sufficient understanding to make their own decisions, parental responsibility diminishes.