Social Services and Your Family: Faqs and Advice
GoodLaw Solicitors LLP have an experienced team of lawyers who specialise in cases which involve Social Services and regularly deal with complex care cases concerning Non-Accidental Injuries, Sexual and domestic abuse, substance misuse and neglect. These are big, scary words but we strive not to lose focus on the children and the families that are impacted by Social Services’ involvement.
I have worked in the family law field for over 13 years in Brighton & Hove. I am a Partner at GoodLaw Solicitors LLP and head up the Family Department. There has been one constant throughout the changing legal framework across all family law and that has been how families can be turned upside down by Social Services’ involvement. Sometimes this can be helpful and necessary but it can also be scary, overwhelming and people can feel backed into a corner without any support. Frequently, where cases involve Social Services, there can be access to legal aid and it is always sensible to find a lawyer to help advise and guide you through the process and to make you and your family feel supported. I will try in this article to address some of the commonly asked questions relating to Social Services but this is only a guide and each family’s situation is different and unique so please contact me or a member of my team if you think you need further support.
QUESTION: Social Services want to take my children away, what should I do?
ANSWER: It can be the most stressful of times when Social Services are involved and indicate that they might want to remove a child from a home environment. However, it is important to remember that they cannot do this without either your consent (what is known as a s20 voluntary agreement) for them to be placed somewhere else such as with a family member or by taking it to court. If it is considered a real emergency, the police can remove children for their own safety by putting in place a Police Protection Order or Social Services can ask the Court for an Emergency Protection Order. Otherwise, if Social Services want to remove the children, they will need to apply for an Interim Care Order and there will need to be a court hearing where you can put your case to the Judge.
If you have been told that the Local Authority (Social Services) are going to make a court application, you should immediately contact a lawyer who specialises in care proceedings and seek their advice. Your lawyer can take instructions from you, obtain information from the Local Authority and urgently advise you on what you need to do.
It is important to remember to remain calm. It is always a time of heightened emotions and completely normal for you to feel angry, upset or alone. However, once you have a lawyer on board, they can support you and address any difficulties with social services for you without you needing to have any confrontations with Social Services yourself. Social Services do record all meetings and conversations and it may be that any records could be used as evidence in court so, as hard as it can be, it is important to cooperate and refer to your lawyer straight away with any concerns you have.
QUESTION: Can I change my Social Worker?
ANSWER: It is important that you try and cooperate with your Social Worker as much as possible. Sometimes this is difficult and Social Workers do not understand your position or what you are going through. The Court will consider a Social Worker as professional within any court proceedings and their opinions are given real weight and value by a Judge. It is therefore not recommended that you fall out with your Social Worker if possible and it can be very difficult to change Social Workers. This does not mean that Social Workers are always right or that their evidence cannot be challenged but you should speak to your lawyer about any difficulties, take their advice and ask them to address concerns with the Local Authority’s legal department, which is where the lawyers for the Social Workers are based. Your lawyer can act as a buffer to protect you from criticism when problems arise and can challenge the Local Authority on actions taken by the Social Worker, if it is appropriate to do so.
QUESTION: Social Services are not letting me see my children, what can I do?
ANSWER: It is not uncommon for Social Services to make recommendations about a parent’s contact with their child. This can be in the course of care proceedings or private Children proceedings (between one parent and the other) or even before anything has gone to court. Generally, Social Services would only recommend that there be no contact in cases where there is considered to be significant risk of harm to a child if that contact goes ahead. In many cases, arrangements can be put in place for contact to take place which manage the perceived risks. This could be contact in a Contact Centre or supervised by a third party. It is generally accepted and a legal principle that it is important for children to maintain a relationship with their parents whilst decisions are being made about their future and no contact is usually only in the most extreme of cases.
If you are not happy with the arrangements being made for your time with your children, it is really important to seek legal advice. It may be that Social Services are not in a position to enforce their recommendation legally or that you can make an application for contact to change the arrangements and a lawyer can advise you on the merits of any application and the consequences of any action you might decide to take.
QUESTION: What is a Child In Need Plan?
ANSWER: A Child In Need Plan can be put in place for a family after a Single Assessment has taken place identifying some needs within the family for improvement or assistance in order to meet the children’s needs. A Child in Need (CIN) Plan is put in place for a family where there is not considered to be a significant risk of harm at that time but where there may have been harm or where needs have been identified that require Social Services to give input and support the family. This is an early stage of Social Services involvement and has a framework of regular meetings around it and potentially work to be undertaken that the family is expected to cooperate with.
QUESTION: What is a Child Protection Plan?
ANSWER: A Child Protection Plan is put in place where there is considered to be continuing harm to a child. This can be due to neglect, physical, emotional or sexual harm. The Child Protection Plan will set out what is expected from the child’s parents and what Social Services will do during the course of the Plan. There will be regular reviews at Child Protection Conferences and input may be obtained from the children’s school, the police or other third party professionals who have been involved with the family. Lawyers can attend Child Protection Conferences but are not in a position to say anything at those meetings but rather attend for support and to take minutes. Legal advice can be given about Child Protection Plans and it is important to get early help from a lawyer to avoid the matter being escalated to a pre-proceedings meeting (Meeting Before Action) or to Court.
QUESTIONS: What is a Meeting Before Action?
ANSWER: A Meeting Before Action is scheduled by Social Services to talk about the concerns they have about the children of the family and what they think needs to be done by the family to avoid going to court. This is also known as a pre-proceedings meeting or PLO meeting.
Social Services will seek advice from their legal department about escalating the matter to this stage and will then send out a Letter Before Proceedings, which sets out their concerns, what you are expected to do and details and times for the meeting. This letter will state clearly that you should take the letter to a solicitor and obtain advice. If you receive such a letter, you will be entitled to legal aid irrespective of your financial circumstances and you should find a solicitor who specialises in this kind of work.
The Meeting Before Action will include the Social Worker, their manager or head of department, a minute taker from Social Services, the Local Authority lawyer, the parents (if a joint meeting is considered safe and appropriate) and their respective lawyers. The meeting should set out clear expectations and timeframes and your lawyer can challenge the Local Authority at that meeting if there are unreasonable or unrealistic requests or if expectations are unclear. This is the last stage before the case would be taken to court and it is therefore really important for you to be clear on what is expected and what you can do to avoid this and you should always try and take a solicitor to these meetings with you.
QUESTION: What are Care Proceedings?
ANSWER: Care Proceedings will be started by the Local Authority if they are worried about the children of the family. These proceedings can take place following a Meeting Before Action or can skip some of the pre-proceedings work if the situation is considered urgent enough. The Local Authority must make a court application requesting a hearing and set out what order they are seeking for the children. The Local Authority must set out their case in a “Threshold” document. Threshold is the Local Authority’s legal case and is a summary of their concerns and worries for the children. You will have a chance to respond to the Local Authority’s threshold and put your case to the Court.
The general principle is that Care Proceedings should take a maximum of 26 weeks from beginning to end as it is important that there be a decision made for the children in a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes cases which are complex can take longer, for example where medical evidence is required or lengthy reports/work is expected to take place.
At the very start of proceedings, you would be asked to put forward anyone who you would like to be assessed as an alternative carer for the child. This does not mean that the children cannot return to you but it is important, given the timescale of proceedings, that parallel planning take place. This means that any family or friends who could be alternative carers are assessed alongside the care proceedings. Those people would not be put before the parents but would be a back-up if the court found that the children could not remain with either or both parents. This can be extremely stressful and worrying for people as they think they will not stand a good chance but this is not the case and it is important to put friends and family forward as soon as possible so there is that back-up plan if it were needed.
During care proceedings, a Children’s Guardian will be appointed as the voice of the children within the proceedings. The Guardian is independent from Social Services although will be a professional with a Social Work background.
You will be automatically eligible for legal aid for care proceedings provided you are a parent. Other people who may be joined or involved in care proceedings, such as grandparents or intervenors, might be eligible for legal aid but should speak to a lawyer for further advice.
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Any involvement from Social Services can be overwhelming and it can raise many questions for families and children. It can be really helpful to obtain legal advice, even at an early stage, so that you know where you stand and what your options are. If you find yourself in the position of having Social Services involved with your family, please do not hesitate to contact me or a member of my team at email@example.com or on 01273 956270.