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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.
Social services have a statutory obligation to safeguard and promote the welfare of vulnerable children 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.
There are different departments in social services to support varying needs. There is an adult social services department which provides services to adults or the elderly for physical and learning disabilities. 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 these cases. 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.
Referrals to social services can happen in a number of ways. You can request help yourself by calling your local social services. 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 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 your child is at risk of harm or in need of help, they have a duty to investigate the situation and to assess what actions should be taken to safeguard your child or promote their welfare. 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 an 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. This assessment should be completed within a certain number of days and they will inform you of how long this will take. In most cases these assessments result in them providing support and other services, with your agreement, in the family home.
If there are concerns about the safety or welfare of a child or children, they may decide that a further 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 may be at risk of 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 may ask you and an older child to agree to a medical examination by the GP. Social services must 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, etc.
Once the investigation has been carried out, social services will be in touch about the outcome. If they feel that there has been no cause for concern then no further action will be taken. If they feel the child is at risk of harm or has been harmed in some way then a child protection case conference will be arranged.
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 is at risk of significant harm and whether there should be a formal child protection plan put in place. If it is the case that a formal child protection plan is necessary, there 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 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.
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:
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.