Social services and your family

A guide to what to expect if social services become involved with your family

This article explains what to expect if your local authority social services become involved with your family. To find the number for your local social services you will need to contact your local authority. You can find your local social services here

Local authority social services support families and safeguard children who may be at risk of harm, whether from family members or others. Levels of support can vary within each local authority but they provide support to families who are in need of additional help and support which is unavailable from schools, GPs, other health services, or community-based services. 

What are social services?

Social services have a statutory obligation to safeguard and promote the welfare of vulnerable children and adults and can provide a wide range of services to children and their parents, usually within the own home environment and co-ordinated by a social worker. Families often feel anxious at the prospect of social services’ involvement because of experiences they may have heard from others, or just because they are frightened that social workers will remove their children from the family home.  

These fears are natural but a child will only be removed if there is very clear evidence that they are at risk of significant harm, and there is a court order in place too. If they consider that your child is in immediate danger, the police can take a child into ‘police protection’, but they have to return your child to your care within the next 48 hours unless the court makes an Emergency Protection Order (EPO). 

There are different departments in social services to support varying needs. There is an adult social services department which provides services to the elderly and working age adults who have learning difficulties, physical or mental health problems, or addictions. .  If a child is looking after a parent with a disability, they might be referred to as a ‘young carer’ and there may be special provisions in place to help if this is the situation.  Often, social care services for adults who have a mental illness or an addiction are provided by a mental health trust. 

It is common for these different departments to work together if a family or individual needs this. The aim is to coordinate their services in the interests of the family as a whole.  If there are concerns that a child may be suffering, or is at risk of harm, the work with the family will be led by a social worker from the children’s services department (sometimes referred to as Children’s Social Care).

Why social services may become involved

  • A parent or other adult family member or an older child may request family support services from social services at times of stress or for help regarding a particular child or family problem. A professional who knows the family such as a teacher, family centre worker or GP can make this request on their behalf.  
  • Depending on your local authority, either a neighbourhood-based social worker or a multi-agency assessment team member (sometimes referred to as a MASH team) will offer a further assessment, immediate assistance or an assessment team signpost to appropriate community-based support and services.          
  • Children’s and adults’ social care services can help parents and relatives who are disabled or who are caring for disabled children, including providing ‘short break’ services (inside or outside of the home).
  • There might be child protection issues for the child(ren), including cases where violence between adults could result in harm to the children.
  • The parent may request that a child be temporarily placed in foster care or residential care as an emergency or planned short term measure to help with their child's challenging behaviour, or to provide a planned break or a series of short breaks at a time of particular stress.
  • Where children are taken into care following emergency intervention by the police or a court order.
  • Where a child is placed for adoption, occasionally at the request of the parent but more often following a court order when the child is already in care.

Referral to social services

Referrals to social services can happen in a number of ways. You can request help yourself by calling your local social services - you can find your local social services here. Referrals can be made by other professionals who are working with your family or children, including schools, GPs, health visitors, and more. If there are concerns that a child is being abused or neglected, professionals, family members or anyone else who is concerned can approach social services, the police or contact the NSPCC directly for advice. 

If adult or children’s social services are involved in your family and you are unsure what to expect, these guidelines will offer some useful advice. Your local social services departments will have a number of leaflets and written factsheets that can help you understand the work they do and their procedures.  

They will have a website to give you more information about the sorts of difficulties they can help with and the services they provide.  If you do require the leaflets and factsheets in other languages or braille, please do ask your local social services department about this. You can also get independent advice, leaflets and support from Family Rights Group or if you are a concerned relative, the Grandparents’ Association

If the social services department of your local authority (LA) consider you or your child are in need of additional help or your child may have been abused or neglected, they have a duty to talk with you and professionals and sometimes close relatives who know your child well, and to assess what actions should be taken to improve things for the family and protect your child from harm.  . There are many ways in which social services and their partner agencies can help you and your children so it is important to try and work alongside them and cooperate as best you can. 

If they have been in touch to let you know that they are conducting a ‘safeguarding’ or a ‘child protection’ inquiry it is important not to panic. It is natural to feel anxious and frightened in this situation but you should be informed by social services what the process involves and be given leaflets about what you can do. Unless there are particular circumstances preventing them, they may call or write to you and let you know they are conducting an initial assessment. . They should give you an idea of how long this assessment is likely to take, and if they don’t, make sure you ask them.  In most cases these assessments result in them providing support and other services, with your agreement, in the family home.

What is a social services Section 47 enquiry?

If there are concerns about the safety or welfare of a child or children, they may decide that a child protection investigation is needed and they will conduct what is called a Section 47 enquiry. This means they will carry out a full investigation because there is reasonable cause to believe that a child or children living in that home has been abused or neglected or is likely to be abused or neglected in the future unless steps are taken to safeguard the child’s welfare. (The legal term they will use is ‘significant harm’). 

If you have heard that they are going to carry out a Section 47 enquiry, then again, please do not panic. This is to determine the child’s needs are being met. They will also use this enquiry to decide whether further action may be needed to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. 

You will be interviewed and the child will be seen, and depending on the age and circumstances may be formally interviewed on their own. They are likely to ask you and an older child to agree to a medical examination by the GP. Social services must seek your views and consider the child’s wishes and feelings when deciding what action should be taken in the Section 47 enquiry. Other information might be gathered from schools, GPs, or other professionals who know you and your child well. If there is someone you think they should talk to, to get a better understanding of your family you should tell them. 

Once the child protection enquiry has been carried out, social services will be in touch about the outcome.  If they decide that there has been no cause for concern then no further action will be taken.  If they consider the child has probably been abused or neglected or is likely to be unless changes are made, then a child protection case conference will be arranged. This may be because they think you or someone else in your family has done something to harm the child, or because of something you haven’t done, such as getting necessary medical treatment, or making sure your child is properly supervised.

About the child protection conference

The child protection conference is a meeting to help everyone involved in this investigation to assess all the information and plan how to safeguard the child and promote his or her welfare.  In most cases, parents and carers are encouraged to attend and entitled to take someone for support or have a legal representative to accompany them too.  

At this meeting, it will be decided whether or not the child has suffered or is likely to suffer significant harm and whether there should be a formal child protection plan (CP Plan) put in place.  If it is the case that a formal child protection plan is necessary. Here will be a record of the meeting and a detailed statement of the protection services to be provided will be given to the parents and the professionals. If it is decided that a formal protection plan is not necessary, but there are concerns about a child’s wellbeing, there may be agreement between the parents, older children and professionals that a ‘family support plan’ (sometimes called a ‘child in need’ plan should be in place to provide the support and services needed.  

It is natural to worry that your children may be taken into care when there is a Child Protection Conference, but the aim of this meeting is to see how everyone can work together to address the concerns raised. Only a court can order that a child should no longer live with his or her parents and this would only be in very harmful situations. 

Parents and children at the child protection conference 

As a parent, you should be consulted at all stages of the process and kept informed about the decision to hold a child protection conference. Parents will usually be encouraged to attend a child protection conference. If there has been domestic abuse within the family home, parents may be invited to attend separately. Parents can bring a friend or supporter to a child protection conference although they can’t usually speak on your behalf. However if you're a parent with a disability, the local authority has an obligation to make sure you can fully participate. The professionals at the meeting have also got to take into account race, religion and language barriers and take steps to ensure the parent is able to be involved whether it be access to an interpreter or other support.

There are some cases where the chair may say a parent cannot attend, this is in cases such as:

  • If you are the perpetrator
  • You have a history of violence or could be violent to someone at the meeting or after
  • Parent has severe mental health issues
  • If you arrive under the influence of alcohol or drugs

If you have been told not to come to a meeting and you feel it is without merit, you can speak to your legal representative and hopefully address this in writing. You could also ask that your views are expressed at the conference if you are not able to attend in person. You do have the right to make a formal complaint or seek judicial review of the decision to exclude you. However, it is important to seek legal advice about this.

At times, children are invited to come to the meeting but this depends on their level of understanding, their emotional health and their age. Social workers will only allow this to happen if they feel it is beneficial to the child or they have expressed a wish to attend. They will be given support before the meeting so they know what to expect. They may bring an advocate or supporter with them. If they do not attend, their views should still be expressed within the meeting. 

Social Services Child Protection Plan

If a formal Child Protection Plan is made, regular meetings called Core Groups will be held, and this is often the case if there is a family support plan.  The aim of this is for a small group of people including parents and children, if appropriate, to go through the plan thoroughly and decide how everyone involved can work together. This group will meet regularly to decide if the details of the plan need to change. The Child Protection Plan is a written record for parents, carers and professionals.  It will set out the following:

  • What type/s of abuse or neglect have occurred or are thought likely to occur if the protection plan is not successful
  • Who is the key worker for the child/parent and sometimes there will be a different key worker for the parents
  • Who are the members of the Core Group
  • What work needs to be done by the parents and professionals to reduce the concern and safeguard the child
  • What needs does the child have and how will they be met
  • What are the parents’ needs and what support and services are to be made available to them
  • When the work should happen and the date that the plan will be reviewed to see if it is still necessary, or there can be a less formal family support plan to provide the help needed  instead
  • Who is responsible for each part of the plan

A record of the plan will be kept by the agencies who were invited to the meeting and the parents and older children. (You may have heard the term ‘Child Protection Register’ but this no longer exists.  It has been replaced by the recording of plans in order to emphasise that the process is about providing services to protect the child.) The public cannot access information about whether there is a formal protection plan for a particular child and only the professionals  involved with the child, or who may need to know if a child they are working with is the subject of a protection plan,  have access to this information.  It is worth asking the key worker to tell you who does know about it.  

It is difficult to say exactly how long a formal protection plan will be needed.  This is decided at child protection review meetings (held approximately every six months, but it could be earlier) which parents and older children usually attend to give their views about whether the plan is helping or needs to be changed. This is something that the key worker can talk to you about. 

If you are concerned that a child may be abused or seriously neglected then you can contact your local Children’s Services Department, the NSPCC, the police, or a health professional or teacher can make a referral to social services on your behalf. If social services are involved with your family and you would like further support and independent advice for this, please do get in touch with us directly by calling our helpline on 0808 800 2222


Related advice: If your child is being adoptedWhat is a Residence Order, Grandparents and family lifeAdoption Support


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