Social workers should involve parents and other family members when plans are being made for children.

There are laws and guidance that social workers (and other professionals) should follow to make sure parents and children are fully involved.

The questions and answers on this page explain how an advocate or supporter can help you to have your voice heard.

Working with an advocate - Frequently Asked Questions

Who are advocates?

An advocate is usually someone independent who can help you have your voice heard when plans or decisions are being made for your child. Advocates are most helpful to you if they are:

  • Independent from children’s services
  • Non-adversarial in their approach (this means when they support you to challenge things they do this in a way that is constructive and helpful rather than just argumentative or aggressive)
  • Able to focus on the needs of your child
  • Have detailed knowledge of childcare law.

It is good practice if they follow the Protocol on Advice and Advocacy for Parents (Child Protection) and the Family Advocacy Standards and Code of Practice, which have all been written by Family Rights Group.

If you find an advocate or supporter who you trust but they don't have detailed knowledge of children's law, don’t worry. They can get more information about the law and procedures that children’s services must follow by contacting Family Rights Group’s free advice line on 0808 801 0366 (open Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 3pm, excluding bank holidays).

How can an advocate help me?

You may find it hard to participate in meetings organised by your child’s social worker and other professionals. This could be because you don’t agree with the social worker’s view of what’s best for your child or you fear that things will be said that will upset or anger you. Or it could be that you find it hard to understand the processes and procedures involved in deciding what is best for your child.

It’s very important, however, that you do attend these meetings, even if you are finding things difficult. You may find it easier if you are supported by an independent advocate or a supporter (such as a friend of the family who is not directly involved in your current situation). That person can come to meetings with you and help you say what you think.

Advocates (or supporters) can help you:

  • Prepare for meetings with social workers
  • Ask the social worker questions
  • Speak up and get your point of view across
  • Reach agreements/negotiate with social workers
  • Challenge social workers or other professionals (in a constructive way) if you think they have made mistakes or you don’t agree with what they’re saying
  • Help you remember what was said and agreed at the meeting so you can plan what to do next.

You can hear from a young mother about how working with an advocate helped her when her child was involved with children services in this recent article.

Do I have the right to have an advocate at a child protection conference?

Not exactly. As a parent, you don’t have a legal right to bring an advocate (or supporter) with you to a meeting with social workers. However, you should be allowed to.

Government guidance (called Working Together 2018) says social workers should give parents information about local advocacy services, but there may not be a service near you that can help. It also says that when a child protection conference is going to take place, your child’s social worker ‘should explain that you may bring an advocate, friend or supporter’ to the conference.

When you ask the social worker if you can bring someone with you, you can refer them to this guidance which you can find here (see page 46 in particular).

For more information about child protection conferences go to our Child protection page.

Do I have the right to have an advocate when I discuss plans for my child when they are in the care system?

Maybe. You don’t have an absolute legal right to an advocate (or supporter) in this situation, but there is case law (that is laws based on decisions that judges have made in the courts in the past) that says:

  • When social workers want to make important changes to a child’s care plan (especially after a care order has been made), then the procedures they follow must be fair to parents. If they’re not fair, decisions may be overturned
  • Parents should be allowed to attend (or be represented at) meetings of professionals, if they want to (these meetings might include social workers, health visitors, psychiatrists, psychologists and doctors, etc.). This is so a parent can answer any allegation that is made against them.

What if a social worker doesn’t agree that I should have an advocate?

Sometimes social workers are reluctant to let parents bring an advocate or supporter with them to meetings.
If this happens, you should check why.  Is it because the social worker has concerns about the person you want to bring, for example, are they seen as a risk to your child or have they been agressive to the social worker in the past? If it is not for any such clear reason, then you could point out that research shows that an advocate can help parents take part in local authority planning processes. For example, an advocate can help a parent:

  • Understand their rights and options and how child protection planning and decision-making works
  • Reflect on why social workers are worried about their child
  • Make safe plans for their child (which may include alternative care within the family) within the child’s timescale
  • Have their voice heard by professionals
  • feel emotionally supported and more confident to participate.

You could also remind the social worker that government guidance (called Working Together 2018) says social workers:

  • Should give parents information about local advocacy services
  • Should ‘explain that you may bring an advocate, friend or supporter’ (in Working Together 2018 at page 46) to a child protection conference.

You could also remind the social worker that the Human Rights Act 1998 says that children’s services procedures for making decisions to keep children safe must be fair. You can argue that fairness includes bringing an advocate with you to meetings so that you can take part and be fully involved.

If your child’s social worker is still not agreeing to let you have an advocate or supporter come to the meeting with you, you should ask for them to put their reasons for refusing this in writing to you.

Note: The more vulnerable you are as a parent and the more serious the child protection concerns, the stronger your argument that you should be allowed an advocate to avoid your or your child’s human rights being breached.

Can I complain if a social worker refuses to let me bring an advocate to a meeting?

If you have explained to a social worker that you want to bring an advocate and the social worker is still refusing to agree, then you could consider making a formal complaint.

For information about how to make a complaint see Family Rights Group’s Advice Sheet 25: Challenging decisions and making compliants.

Do I have a right to an advocate if I have a disability?

Yes, but only if your disability stops you from taking part fully in meetings on your own. 

Under equality laws all public bodies (including children’s services) must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure that disabled people are not put at substantial disadvantage when providing services to them.

If your disability (including a learning disability or mental health vulnerability) impacts on your ability to take part in meetings, you can argue that you need an advocate as part of this ‘reasonable adjustment.’

Parents with learning disabilities should always have access to an independent advocate when there are child protection procedures or care proceedings taking place.
If children’s services don’t offer you an advocate in these circumstances, they may be breaching the law under section 20 of the Equality Act 2010 as well as the Human Rights Act 1998. You can find out more about human rights on the website of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

How can I find an advocate?

There is no national system for providing advocates to parents and families with a child who is involved with children’s services.

This means that whether or not you can find an advocate will depend on the arrangements in the area where you live.

All organisations that offer advocacy will have their own rules about the types of cases they can help with. So you’ll need to ask them about this. You will also need to ask if there’s any cost involved as some organisations need to charge. If there is a charge, you should take a look at the FAQ below Will children’s services pay for me to have an advocate?

Here are some organisations you can contact to find out about the advocacy services they offer:

  • Women’s Aid helps women and children affected by domestic violence
    24 hour telephone helpline: 0808 2000247
  • Just for Kids Law is a charity working across London helping young people in difficulty with support, advice and legal representation. They have a young parent advocate.
    Telephone: 0203 174 2279
    Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • MIND for better mental health
    Telephone: 0300 123 3393
  • Mencap Voice for people with learning disabilities
    Telephone: (0808 808 1111, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)
    Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

What if I can't find an advocate?

If you can’t find a professional advocate, think about whether there’s anyone else you know who may be able to help instead.

This could be someone you work with or a religious or community leader. They may not be a professional advocate, but they may still be able to support you at the meeting with children’s services.

They may be able to help you:

  • Understand the relevant laws and procedures
  • Prepare what you want to say at the meeting
  • Remind you during the meeting of anything you’ve forgotten to say
  • Think about realistic solutions for your child, taking into account what the social worker is saying about your child’s needs
  • Keep calm and focused on what is being discussed
  • Remember what was said after the meeting has finished.

If you can find someone suitable, inform the social worker that you wish to bring that person to the meeting as your supporter.

Will children’s services pay for me to have an advocate?

Not necessarily. Children’s services don’t generally have to pay for you to have an advocate.

However, the more vulnerable you are as a parent and the more serious the child protection concerns, then the stronger the argument that they ought to pay. If you have a disability that makes it hard for you to take part in meetings, then you may have a strong case to have an advocate in order to avoid your and your child's human rights being breached.

In some other situations, children’s services may agree to pay for an advocate as a matter of good practice. For example, where the relationship between you (the parent) and the social worker has broken down. But they don’t have to do this.

I’ve found someone who can be a supporter at a meeting. Where can they find further information to help them do this?

As a first step, suggest that they read the information on this website that seems most relevant to the situation they are trying to help you with.

They’ll also find it helpful to look through the list of Family Rights Group Advice Sheets to see what further information they contain that will be useful.

They can also call Family Rights Group’s free advice line on 0808 801 0366 (open Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 3pm, excluding bank holidays).

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Family Rights Group

Established in 1974, Family Rights Group is the charity that works with parents in England and Wales whose children are in need, at risk or are in the care system and with members of the wider family who are raising children who are unable to remain at home. You can find more information about the projects and initiatives led by Family Rights Group on the Get involved pages on this website.