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.
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This article explains what to expect if you or a member of your family asks for assistance from your local authority social services department or if another professional asks a social worker to visit because they have concerns about the welfare of a member of 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 adult or children’s social services support family members who have additional needs beyond what health, education or community services can help with. They also have a duty to safeguard children and vulnerable adults who may be at risk of harm, whether from family members, themselves, or others. Levels of support can vary within each local authority and although the law defines what their duties are they also have their own ‘thresholds’ as to when they will provide a service.
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 you voluntarily agree to it or there is very clear evidence that they are at risk of significant harm and there is a court order in place. 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 services).
Why social services may become involved
- Your family is going through a time of stress or facing a particular child or family problem.
- Your child’s welfare is being significantly impacted due to emotional, behavioural or mental health difficulties they are facing and you are not getting the support you need from other services.
- There are concerns that your child may not reach or maintain a reasonable standard of health and/or development without support.
- There are safeguarding concerns and child protection issues including physical, emotional, sexual abuse or neglect.
- There is domestic abuse within the home.
- You have a disabled child meaning local authorities have a responsibility to support you, your child and their siblings. For more information, please see Contact’s information guide.
- Your child is a ‘young carer’.
- 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, 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. Your local authority website will also 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.
Once an initial referral is made, 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.
If the social services department of your local authority 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, your child, relevant professionals and sometimes close relatives who know your child well. This is 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 (Section 47) 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 information 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 assessment of your child’s needs and if there are any risks to their health or development. 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.
Whatever the reason for social services becoming involved in your family, it’s understandable that your emotions might be in turmoil and you are feeling worried and stressed. Having support around you including close family or friends who you can lean on can be comforting. You are also welcome to use our confidential helpline 0808 800 2222 as we offer a listening ear and emotional support. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at email@example.com.
Other organisations that can help
Read our guidance on Section 47 enquiries
Family Rights Group: for independent advice, leaflets and support.
There For You Advisory Service: support and advice when children’s services are involved in your family.
Child Law Advice: for more information about the duties of children’s services.
Kinship: if you are a kinship carer looking for advice and support.