If social workers have said they are worried your child has been ‘harmed’ or may be ‘at risk of suffering harm’ then they must look into the situation and will make ‘child protection enquiries’. It is very important that you have information to help you understand what these terms mean and that you understand the procedures that social workers are likely follow and how you should be involved.
The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) below will answer many of the questions you may have. If you have further questions or need advice you can call Family Rights Group's free advice line on 0808 801 0366 (open 9.30am to 3pm Monday to Friday, excluding bank holidays).
Child Protection - Frequently Asked Questions
What do social workers mean when they talk about ‘harm’?Government guidance describes four possible types of harm:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
Harm can be caused by a parent’s/carer’s actions or by their failure to stop a child being harmed. Harm can also include witnessing violence or conflict at home.
What do social workers mean when they talk about ‘significant harm’?The Children Act 1989 introduced the phrase "significant harm". This describes the level of harm that a child must be suffering (or be likely thought to suffer) before children’s services becomes involved in family life against the family's wishes.
There is no definition of "significant". The law requires local authorities and the courts to compare your child's health and development with a similar child to work out whether the harm is significant.
What happens when children’s services receive information that my child may be at risk of harm?When children’s services receive information that makes them suspect a child may not be safe and well cared for, this is called a ‘referral’.
A referral may come from a professional who knows your child, such as a teacher or doctor. Or, a referral may come from member of the public or someone in your family.
When children’s services receive a referral they must decide within one working day what action (if any) they plan to take. This includes deciding:
- Whether an assessment should be started
- What type of assessment it should be
- Whether your child needs any immediate support or protection.
In order to make that decision, children’s services will start by gathering some initial information about your child, you and your family.
Children’s services must tell the person who made the referral what action they plan to take. Children’s services must also tell you and your child what action they plan to take.
What is a child protection enquiry and what will it involve?Children’s services must make enquiries if they think your child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, ‘significant harm’ (information explaining what ‘harm’ and ‘significant harm’ means is included in the first two FAQs on this page).
This is called a child protection enquiry. Its aim is to gather information about your child’s situation and to decide whether children’s services should take any action to keep your child safe and promote their welfare.
A social worker will:
- Assess your family’s situation
- Decide whether they think your child is suffering (or is likely to suffer) ‘significant harm’.
All children’s services should follow government guidance called Working Together 2015. Every children’s services department should also have its own local procedures. These are called ‘safeguarding procedures’ and spell out exactly how child protection enquiries are carried out in your local area. You can ask your child’s social worker for a copy of the local child protection procedures and assessment protocol so that you know exactly how things should work in your area. This information should also be available on the website of the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) in your area.
Remember, social workers should always:
- Carry out any enquiries in such a way as to limit the distress for you and your child
- Try to understand how your family operates and work with your whole family, value your strengths, and any other sources of support that you may have
- Consider all children and parents as individuals
- Respect family structures, culture, religion, ethnic origins and other characteristics
- Be aware of the effects of racial harassment and discrimination
- Be careful not to stereotype when doing their assessment.
Will children’s services want to see my child?Children’s services will want to see your child as part of the child protection enquiry.
The social worker will usually ask for your agreement before they speak to your child.
Government guidance (Working Together 2015) also says that a social worker should see your child alone, wherever possible. This is because it is the social worker’s job to find out what your child’s wishes and feelings are and what they think about their situation.
If children’s services think that asking your permission to speak to your child may put your child at further risk of harm, then they can speak to them without your permission. For example, this might happen where the police and children’s services are jointly making enquiries and:
- There’s concern that a possible victim may be threatened into silence
- There’s a strong likelihood that important evidence may be destroyed
- Your child does not want you involved and is able to make that decision.
If the police and children’s services want to arrange for your child to be interviewed on video, they need your agreement.
Do I have to agree to children’s services seeing my child?If you refuse to allow children’s services to see or speak to your child, then children’s services can apply for a court order that will enable them to speak with your child.
This could be:
- A child assessment order
- An emergency protection order
- A care order.
With any of these orders, your child could be removed from your care against your wishes. How long this would last depends on which type of order is made.
What is a child protection conference? Who will be there?If social workers are worried your child may not be safe or well cared for, they will arrange a child protection conference.
The child protection conference is a meeting to discuss your child’s situation. It brings together you and your child's other parent (and perhaps your child, if they’re old enough) and all the professionals already involved with your child – for example, your child’s social worker, GP, health visitor and teacher. Sometimes other professionals are also invited, such as the police or other doctors. The aim is to look at all the relevant information and decide whether your child needs a child protection plan and what should happen next.
The conference itself should be led and managed by a conference Chair; who should:
- Be independent from the social worker and managers who have day to day responsibility for your child’s case
- Meet you and your child before the conference to make sure you understand why the conference is taking place and what it will involve
- Wherever possible, chair future child protection conference reviews that take place about your child.
If people, including family members and your child, cannot attend the conference then they can contribute and share their views in other ways, for example by sending in a letter or drawing, an audio-recording or by speaking with the conference Chair.
How will I be involved in the child protection conference?Parents should normally be invited to a child protection conference. You might not be invited however if there is a concern that you will:
- Disrupt the conference or prevent the conference focusing on your child
- Or intimidate someone else who will be at the conference.
If you are not invited to attend the conference you should still have the opportunity to speak with the conference Chair to share your views beforehand. You can also put your views in writing so that these can be read out during the conference. You should discuss with your child’s social worker and the Chair if they can meet with you. If you are not allowed to attend for the safety of the other parent, you could talk to your child's social worker and the conference Chair about whether the conference could take place in two parts (‘a split conference’) so that you can attend.
If you are invited to a child protection conference it is very important that you attend. The social worker should explain to you what will happen at the conference and what can be decided. Government guidance says:
- Social workers should help you and your child understand what will happen at the conference. They should also explain who will be there
- The Chair of the conference should meet you before the conference starts
- Children’s services should tell you about local independent advice and advocacy agencies. They should tell you this in advance so you have time to arrange an advocate before the conference.
How can I best get ready for the child protection conference?It is very important that you go to the child protection conference.
The social worker should prepare a written report for the conference. This should include information about your child and family’s situation and the recommendations that children’s services will make to the conference about how to keep your child safe and well cared for in the future.
Government guidance says that social worker's report and other reports prepared for the conference by professionals should be shared with you beforehand where appropriate. As soon as you know the date that the conference will be taking place it is a good idea to ask the social worker when their report will be available to share with you. You can explain that you want to make sure you have time to go through the report, ask questions and seek advice if you need to and that this will help make sure you can fully take part in the conference.
If you are worried that you will have a particular difficulty going through the conference report(s) (for example, because you have difficulty reading or English is not your first language) you should let the social worker know about this as soon as possible.
You can find out more about what may happen at a child protection conference by watching a the short film here.
To help you prepare for a child protection conference and take part fully in the meeting, you can download or print these Tips for getting ready for a child protection conference.
Can I bring someone with me to the child protection conference?You should be allowed to bring an advocate (who may be a solicitor) or a supporter (for example, a friend of the family who is not directly involved in the case) - with you. You can find more information about advocates and advocacy support on the Working with an advocate page.
For more information about advocacy for families, see also Family Rights Group’s Advice Sheet 10: Advocacy for families when social workers make plans for children.
What is a child protection plan?A child protection plan has to be drawn up if the child protection conference decides your child is at risk of significant harm (or is likely to be in the future). The aim of the plan is to keep your child safe and well cared for.
The child protection plan should be drawn up:
- Based on the recommendations made by the people at the child protection conference
- After the Chair of the conference has asked you what you think will help you and your child.
The plan may say your child must not come into contact with someone who is thought to have harmed them. It may also say what extra help you will get to care for your child or recommend that you attend a parenting course. The outline of the child protection plan will be drawn up at the conference but it will be turned into a fuller plan by a social worker after the conference.
If the child protection conference decides your child is not at risk of harm but does still need extra support, then professionals may suggest a ‘child in need plan’ or other support services are put in place instead.
What is a core group and what does it have to do with the child protection plan?After the child protection conference, smaller meetings called ‘core groups’ will take place and you should be invited to core group meetings. The first core group should happen within 10 working days after the child protection conference, after that core group members decide how often it would be helpful to meet.
The aim of the core group meeting is to add more detail to the child protection plan. The meeting will be organised and probably chaired by your child's social worker.
The professionals most involved with you and your child should be at the core group. This could be your child's social worker, health visitor, or teacher. If your child is old enough they will also be invited to participate in some way and maybe to attend.
What will the child protection plan say?A child protection plan should say what needs to be done to make sure your child is safe and well cared for in future. Clear timescales for all actions should be agreed. The plan should say who should do what and be clear about:
- What is expected of you and your family
- What support you and your child can expect from professionals and other services to help your child’s situation get better
- How professionals will know things are getting better.
The plan will be reviewed after three months and again after six months, to see if things are improving for your child.
If you are confused or don’t know what you need to change or do differently, ask the social worker to explain it to you in writing after the conference. If you feel that things are still not clear, you could seek independent advice from a solicitor or from Family Rights Group.
Go to the Working with a solicitor page for information about how to find a solicitor. Or contact Family Rights Group’s free advice line on 0808 801 0366 which is open Monday to Friday 9.30am-3.00pm (excluding bank holidays).
I don’t agree with the decision made by the conference. Can I make a complaint?It’s important to remember that the aim of the child protection plan is to keep your child safe. So it’s very important that the plan is followed.
If you’re worried or not clear about any part of the plan, then you should ask to meet the social worker or conference chair to discuss this and explain why you are worried.
If you think your situation hasn’t been properly understood and you are worried some part of the plan could perhaps make things riskier for you and your child, it is very important that you speak to your child’s social worker and the conference chair. You can also seek advice from Family Rights Group's free advice line. If you are feeling this way and have experienced domestic violence, you can also seek advice from a specialist domestic violence service. You will find information about specialist domestic violence services and further information about domestic violence here.
If you’re unhappy about the way the child protection conference was run or the outcome, then you can complain to the chair of the conference or complain directly to the social worker.
If you’re unhappy about what a professional from an agency other than children’s services has said or done (for example, a health visitor or a teacher), then you should complain directly to that agency (that is, the doctor’s surgery or the school).
You can also make a formal complaint to children’s services.
How do I make a complaint to children’s services?If you do, your complaint will be dealt with in three stages. You can find information about making a complaint to children’s services in Family Rights Group’s Advice Sheet 25: Challenging decisions and making complaints
I don’t agree with the decision made by the conference. Can I appeal?If you’re unhappy about the decision to make your child the subject of a child protection plan, there is normally no basis for a court appeal.
In exceptional cases you may be able to challenge the decision if you can show that there are grounds for a ‘judicial review’ of the decision. However, this means you would have to show:
- That the person making the decision took into account information that was irrelevant, or failed to take into account information that was relevant. Even so, you would also have to show that the outcome would have been different if the decision had been made properly, taking into account the right information and following the right procedure
- Or that the decision taken was so unreasonable, no reasonable person could have made it.
This is a very specialist area of law. If you think you may have a claim for judicial review, then you should seek advice from a solicitor. You can go to the Working with a solicitor page for information about how to find a solicitor.
I’m expecting a baby. How will social workers decide if my baby is safe?If children’s services are involved because they are concerned your baby, one born, will be at risk of suffering significant harm, then the social worker will carry out an assessment of your situation. They will talk to you, your family and other professionals who know you.
The assessment will help the social worker decide whether you need support to care for your child after the baby is born. It is very important that you try to work with the social worker whilst this assessment is being done. This will help to make sure that the social worker can take account of your views.
If the social worker is worried your baby may not be safe or well cared for after the birth, they may arrange a child protection conference while you are still pregnant. This is often called a ‘pre-birth conference’. The conference will decide what plans need to be in place to keep your child safe after the baby is born.
You should be invited to attend the pre-birth conference and should be allowed to take an advocate (who may be a solicitor) or supporter with you. You can find out more information about advocates and advocacy support on the Working with an advocate page.
Sometimes, children’s services do not arrange the pre-birth child protection conference or to start assessment work until quite late into the young mother’s pregnancy. Even if this is the case it is a very good idea to still make your own enquiries to find out what local services there are that may be able to support you and your partner during the pregnancy and into parenthood.
For example, you can contact the Family Information Service (FIS) in your area (you can search for this online or ask children’s services about this). You can then ask the FIS what local services there are for young parents or young-parents-to-be, in your area. You can find out if there is a children’s centre or other organisation in your area that runs groups or courses for young mothers and for young fathers.
You can look at the Further information page for ideas about the kinds of services that there are to help and support young parents.
If at any time you are asked to agree to your child being removed from your care following the birth (a ‘section 20 voluntary arrangement’) you should urgently seek advice from a solicitor who specialises in children’s law.
For information about how to find a solicitor and what you can expect from working with a solicitor go to the Working with a solicitor page.
For more information about section 20 voluntary arrangements you can go to the Care proceedings page.
The social worker wants me to agree to my baby being cared for by foster carers who are also approved as adopters. Should I just say yes?No you shouldn’t.
If the social worker is considering adoption for your baby and your baby is looked after in the care system, they have ‘a duty to consider’ placing your baby with foster carers who could also become adopters.
The idea behind this is that if the court decides later on that your baby cannot stay in your family, those foster carers might apply to adopt your baby thereby avoiding you baby the stress of moving to different carers. This is called ‘foster for adoption.’
If ‘foster for adoption’ has been mentioned in your case, it is very important you see a solicitor straight away. Go to the Working with a solicitor page for information about how to find a solicitor. You can also contact Family Rights Group’s free advice line on 0808 801 0366 (Opening hours: Monday to Friday 9.30am-3.00pm, excluding bank holidays).
If you don’t agree to social workers placing your baby with ‘foster for adoption’ foster carers, children’s services can still go to court to argue this is the right plan for your baby. If this happens, you will have a right to argue against this with the help of a solicitor. You will be able to tell the court how you think your baby can be kept safe (for example, by your baby being cared for by you with support, or cared for by someone else in your family).
If you haven’t already done so, it’s very important for you to think about whether anyone in your family might be able to care for your baby if you can’t. If there is someone, tell the social worker as soon as you can and ask for that person to be assessed as a possible carer for your baby.
You can also ask the social worker to refer you for a family group conference (FGC). A FGC is when your whole family meets to make a safe plan for your baby, taking account of any child protection concerns that social workers or other professionals (such as the police) have. A FGC can be a good way of finding out who in your wider family could look after your baby if you are unable to. It’s also a good way to find out how different family and friends can support you to keep your baby safe.
I’ve had a child taken into care before. Now I’m expecting a new baby and I want support, but I’m afraid to ask. What should I do?Young mothers or fathers who have had a baby removed before can be very worried about children’s services becoming involved when they have another child.
They often feel they want to hide from professionals or not tell anyone about the new pregnancy. This is not a good idea. Avoiding professionals or hiding your pregnancy is only likely to make things much worse.
If you have had a child removed before, a social worker should still work with you to assess whether you can now look after your new baby. The kinds of things the social worker will want to discuss with you will probably include:
- Your understanding of the problems that led to your previous child being removed
- Whether you have been able to overcome the problems that were there before
- What support you can get when the baby is born (in order to help you keep your child safely with you)
- Whether anyone else in the family may be able to care for your baby if you can’t – and arranging a family group conference to discuss this.
In some cases if children’s services are worried that your baby may be at risk, the social worker might arrange a child protection conference with other professionals to discuss this further.
Here are the best things to do:
- Stay in regular touch with health professionals to make sure you get the ante-natal care that you and your baby need
- Work with the social worker to make a safe plan for your child for when they are born. If you’re finding this hard (or think you may find it hard), read through our tips on Working with a social worker
- Suggest services that you think would assist you (and your partner) to support you to safely parent your child
- Share with the social worker details of any family members (on the mother or father’s side) who could care for your baby safely after the birth if you’re not able to. Ask those family members to contact the social worker so they can be assessed as soon as possible. You can also ask for a family group conference.
I’ve received a letter saying children’s services may start care proceedings if I don’t make changes to the way I care for my child. What should I do?This may be a ‘pre-proceedings letter’ inviting you to a ‘pre-proceedings meeting’. This kind of letter will normally say you are being given a last chance to improve your parenting to avoid children’s services asking the court for an order to giving them permission to remove your child from your care. It should normally tell you:
- What you need to change to be able to keep your child with you
- What help you will be given to make those changes
- About any assessments that social workers want to carry out
- That you are invited to a ‘pre-proceedings meeting’ to discuss the improvements you need to make
- The letter should also tell you how you can get free legal advice and representation from a solicitor.
If you are sent or given this kind of letter, or a social worker makes any suggestion that your child may not be able to remain in your care, it’s very important that you see a solicitor who specialises in children’s law immediately.
Go to the Working with a solicitor page to find out how to find a solicitor. When you meet the solicitor, give them a copy of the letter. They will be able to advise you and represent you at the ‘pre-proceedings meeting’.
Social workers will usually want to see that you have made the changes they think are necessary for your child to be safe and well cared for within six weeks of this letter/meeting, otherwise they will start court proceedings and your child could be removed. It is therefore very important that you focus on making the changes they have identified as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
Speak to your wider family immediately to see if any of them can support you or if they could care for your child if you aren’t able to. If they are able to help, ask them to contact the social worker straight away or ask them to agree to sharing their names and contact details with the social worker.
You can also ask the social worker to refer you for a family group conference (FGC) so that your whole family can meet to make a safe plan for your child, taking account of any child protection concerns. There is more information about this on the family group conference page.
Child protection conferences
To help you prepare for a child protection conference and take part fully in the meeting, you can download or print these Tips for getting ready for a child protection conference.
To get an idea of what a child protection conference may be like, watch the film below. Anne and Terry’s (fictional) story shows what happened when they went to an initial child protection conference. The film is realistic and engaging. Parents Anne and Terry are played by actors but the professionals in the film are playing themselves. The film may help you prepare to take part in a child protection conference.
Not all child protection conferences will follow the same format or agenda. For example, some conferences involve the conference chair writing the family strengths and any child protection concerns on a whiteboard or flipchart. Families are then encouraged to take a very active role in discussions about what works well in their family, what the ‘dangers’ are and what needs to happen (and by when) to make the situation better for their child.
Whatever the format used in the area you live, you should be clear about the agenda, how the room will be set up, and how you can best take part in the discussions.
For more detailed legal information about the child protection process, see Family Rights Group’s Advice Sheet 9: Child protection procedures.