Contacting social services for support with your child

7min read

This article has relevance for people who live throughout the UK, however, please note that references made to legislation and procedures are for England only.  Legislation, procedure and terminology will vary between all UK nations and you can find out more information about the UK’s child protection systems on the NSPCC website.

Asking for support

Children sometimes experience serious difficulties, whether it is because of issues within the family or because they are facing emotional, behavioural or developmental issues themselves. If these challenges are making your lives so hard that your child’s health or normal development is affected and you are not receiving support from other services, then you might be considering contacting social services.

However, before you take the step to contact social services, it is important to try and seek support from other services first as, otherwise, it is likely they will tell you to do this before proceeding with your request for help.  These services could include your GP, CAMHS, family support workers, school or local youth work/groups.  This is called seeking ‘Early Help’ and the NSPCC offer more information about this.

If you have been unsuccessful in seeking support and have made the decision to contact your local social services, this link will help you find the correct details for your local authority. 

Children Act 1989 declares social services have the legal duty to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need”.  Under Section 17 of this Act, you can request a ‘Child in Need’ assessment and this will consider whether your child will be able to reach or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development without intervention.  For more information, see Child Law Advice.

Before you speak to a social worker, it is a good idea to consider and write down what the problems are, so you can explain them clearly.  Keeping a diary of what is going on would be a good way to show the extent and pattern of behaviour.  If appropriate, this is something you could involve your child and any other family members with so that you are showing a full and balanced picture of the situation.  It might help to ask yourself:

  • How severe and how long has this issue been going on?
  • How is this impacting my child?
  • Are there other children in the home who are being negatively impacted by what is going on?
  • What sort of service or support will help you and your child?
  • What options have you tried so far to address the situation?
  • What might happen to your child if help is not offered?
  • Who else is involved with your child, including family members and professionals, for example a health visitor or teacher?  This will be helpful as these people can give Social services useful information that corroborates your concerns along with suggestions about what might help your child

For further support before you contact social services, you can speak to Family Rights Group as they offer advice and information about social services’ processes and procedures. 

The assessment

If, after talking to you about the problems you and your family are experiencing, the social worker decides that your child may be a ‘Child in Need’, they will carry out an assessment.  This means they will consider your child’s situation in more detail. Issues they may look at are:

  • Your child’s physical, emotional and developmental needs.
  • To what extent can you meet these needs, including your capacity to respond appropriately to them.
  • The family history and factors that have impacted your child, yourself or the wider family, which may include considering parental separation, bereavement, domestic violence or substance misuse within the home. 
  • What has been tried before, including considering what support is in place and what the barriers are that prevent it from being effective.
  • Whether there are any other children that need to be considered in the assessment.
  • Your child’s extended family situation and support system.
  • Environmental factors including housing and your financial situation and whether there are benefits you are eligible for and not claiming.

At Family Lives, we hear a lot from parents who are worried about contacting Social services, particularly if they feel they are going to be judged.  Social work is bound by a Code of Ethics, meaning social workers must promote dignity, respect people’s values, culture and beliefs and understand people’s experiences without judgement or blame.  They will need to consider factors like domestic abuse, poverty and housing in the assessment to understand the impact it has had on the family, as your child’s issues cannot be considered in isolation. 

Also, it is important to remember that by seeking support you are taking active and positive steps to try and help your child and meet their needs, and this positive action should be taken into consideration.  Another common concern for parents is they feel they are putting their child at risk of being taken away from them and placed into care.  Local Authorities have a duty to promote children’s upbringing by their families, so long as this is consistent with their duty to safeguard and protect the child. Family Rights Group offer a guide with tips for working with a social worker which you might find helpful.

The assessment should not usually take more than 45 working days from the point of referral, but urgent and/or clearly needed practical help can be provided whilst the fuller assessment is going on, so you should make sure the social worker knows about practical needs that are causing stress.

You and your child should expect to be fully involved in the assessment and it is likely they will ask to speak with your child alone to gather their views.  The assessment will also consider the views of all parents, other relevant family members and professionals to gain their perspectives and ensure a collaborative and co-ordinated approach.  

The assessment process will vary according to your Local Authority’s threshold documents and protocol for assessment, however, it will be underpinned by statutory government guidance, which for England includes ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018’.  It should take a balanced approach that considers your child’s needs, the concerns around the situation and what is working well in the family.

There is a legal definition of ‘a child in need’ on which social workers have to base their decision, but there are also local thresholds to decide about priorities and these will vary between Local Authorities. It will be helpful to ask the social worker involved with your child for a copy of the threshold documents and the assessment procedure which is followed in your area so that you know what to expect and how to ask for the decision to be reviewed if you disagree with it.

By the end of the assessment they should have a clearer picture of your child’s situation and will have assessed whether your child is ‘in need’. You should ask them to give you a written note about the decision (especially if they have decided your child is not ‘in need’ and they are not going to be able to help) and how they reached a decision. If you are not happy with the decision you should ask what you can do to get it reviewed. If the decision is that your child is eligible for ‘child in need’ services and support, the social worker will then go through with you the next steps and what help and support will be given to you and your child.

Child in Need plan

A Child in Need plan will be made if the assessment shows that your child is in need of support and intervention. A meeting will usually be arranged to discuss this and participants will likely include your child, yourself, the social worker and any other relevant people who are important to your child, like family members and professionals, as they will be included within the plan.  

The plan should contain statements about:

  • Your child’s needs
  • What help will be provided to your child and family, and who will provide it
  • The timescale showing how long the help will be provided for.
  • What the help is aiming to achieve and the difference it is expected to have to your child
  • An agreed timescale for reviewing the plan to check it is working and making a difference

Whilst it can feel worrying to families who find themselves in the situation whereby social services has become involved, it is important to work together with the social worker.  If you and your child contribute and be involved in the plan, this will be key to ensuring the plan will be achievable and successful. 

For further information about Child in Need plans, please see the information from Family Rights Group.  If you are feeling overwhelmed and are looking for supportive guidance through the assessment process, There For You Advisory Service offer support to families involved with children’s services.

Making a complaint

If you don’t agree with a decision made by the social worker or the social services department they work for, or you feel you or your child have not been treated appropriately during the process, you can make a complaint via your Local Authority.  You will need to follow their complaint’s procedure which you will find on their website.  You can also see the Family Rights Group website for information about this process.

Further resources

If you would like further support and advice, call our helpline on 0808 800 2222 or email us at You can talk to us online via our live chat service, which is open, Monday to Friday between 10.30am and 9pm. You may find it helps to find out how other parents and carers have coped with this on our online forums. We also have a range of free online parenting courses that can help through the ages and stages of parenting.