A quick guide to children's services

If social workers have become involved with your child or unborn baby and you need more information about children’s services and what they do, this page is where to look.

What is children's services?

Children’s services used to be called ‘social services’. Children’s services are responsible for supporting and protecting vulnerable children. This includes providing children and their families with extra help. Where children are thought to be at risk of harm, children’s services will take steps which aim to make sure they are kept safe.

How do children's services work and what services can they provide?

When children’s services become involved with your child and family, there are laws and guidance from government that explain what they should do.

However, children’s services are organised slightly differently in different parts of the country. This means the way they do things and the full range of services they provide can vary to some extent.

The triangle below explains ways that children’s services can become involved with children and families and the different kinds of services there are. You and your child may not experience every kind of involvement shown in the triangle.

The way in which children’s services are involved with your child may change over time and will depend on different things including:

  • What kind of help you and your child need and whether this can be provided without social workers needing to be involved
  • Whether children’s services are worried that your child may have suffered, or be at risk of suffering, significant harm
  • The particular approach taken by children’s services in your local area to supporting children and families who are struggling
  • Whether children’s services thinks your child’s situation is improving or getting worse.

childrens services pyramid

  • Universal Services

    All children have access to a range of ‘universal’ services depending on how old they are, their stage of development and their individual needs.

    Universal services are provided by a number of different agencies, including health and education. So health visitors, GPs and school nurses are all examples of universal services.

    Remember to click on the other coloured boxes above for information about Early help, Child in need, Child Protection, Pre-proceedings and Court.

  • Early Help

    Early help means providing extra support as soon as a problem emerges. This can be provided at any time in your child’s life, whether your child is very young or a teenager.

    The first step in getting early help is for an ‘early help assessment’ to be carried out to identify what support your child needs. Someone who is already working closely with your child (for example a teacher or health visitor) may suggest to you that an early help assessment is carried out.

    Alternatively, if you feel that your child needs some help and support then you can ask someone who is working with your child for an early help assessment to be carried out.

    After the assessment, someone called a ‘lead professional’ should be appointed to coordinate any support offered to your child by different professionals and agencies. Examples include help provided by speech therapy, counselling services, young carers’ groups, family support workers, health visitors.

    You don’t have to agree to an early help assessment or to the help offered. Agreeing to an assessment and accepting support may be a good idea to make sure you/your child get the help you need as soon as possible. If you have any questions or worries about the early help assessment or services being offered, you should contact the lead professional and ask to talk things through.

    If you decide not to take up the offer of help but the lead professional is worried your child is still having problems and your child/family need greater support, they may decide to make a referral to children’s services.

  • Child in need

    If your child is assessed as having more significant or complex needs, then your child may be classed as a ‘child in need’. A ‘child in need’ will receive extra help/services from children’s services, although what this is may vary.

    If your child has a disability, then they will classed as a ‘child in need’.

    Other children who may be classed as in need are those who may need services from children’s services in order to be healthy or to develop properly. Local children’s services departments will have their own measures for deciding exactly which children in their area are enough ‘in need’ to get services.

    The aim is to keep the child safe, well cared for and, at home wherever this is in their best interests.

    Children’s services must provide information about the help they can give. Examples of extra help that may be offered to the family of a ‘child in need’ include:

    • Day care (for children under the age of 5)
    • Parenting classes or courses
    • A family support worker or other practical help at home
    • Help with housing.

    A plan to help a child in need can also include help that is provided by people working in health and education, such as a health visitor or a class teacher.

  • Child protection

    Children’s services must look into your child’s situation if they receive information that makes them suspect your child is at risk of ‘significant harm’. They have to do this by law.

    Children’s services will normally want to see your child, unless there’s another way they can find the information they need – for example, by asking your child’s teacher.

    If your child is thought to be at risk of significant harm then a meeting will take place between children’s services, other professionals, you and other key family members. This meeting is called an ‘initial child protection conference’.

    If the conference thinks your child has been abused or injured or is at risk of harm, a child protection plan will be drawn up. This sets out what help will be provided to your child and to you and how progress will be monitored. For more information about this and about child protection conferences, see the Child protection page.

  • Pre-proceedings

    You may hear this kind of children’s services involvement being called ‘pre-proceedings’, a ‘pre-proceedings-meeting’ or sometimes ‘a PLO meeting’. PLO stands for Public Law Outline. This sets out the legal process children’s services must follow when considering starting care proceedings. We use the term ‘pre-proceedings’ and ‘pre-proceedings meeting’ on this webpage.

    A pre-proceedings meeting is a last opportunity for you to discuss with children’s services what changes they say you need to make to be able to care safely for your child. These are the changes they think are needed so they don’t need to apply to the Family Court for a care order to remove your child. Open this infographic to see the six main aims of the pre-proceedings process.

    You should be invited to this meeting in a ‘letter before proceedings’. This letter should tell you what children’s services are worried about and what changes they would like you to make. Click on this link to see all the things that should be included in a letter before proceedings.

    It is very important that you:

    • Go to the pre-proceedings meeting
    • Ask a solicitor specialising in children’s law to go with you
    • Talk to your solicitor before the meeting about what you will say to children’s services about changes you’re going to make to help keep your child safe
    • Let the social worker know you will be going to the meeting.

    It is also important to talk to your wider family and friends about what help and support they can give. How might they be able to help you make the changes needed? You should discuss whether any family members could care for your child in the short (or long) term if you were unable to. You can also ask your child’s social worker to arrange a family group conference (FGC).

    If at any time before or during the pre-proceedings process children’s services decide it is not in your child's best interests to wait any longer for you to sort out your difficulties and your child should be removed from your care, they may apply to court for an order saying that your child should be removed against your wishes.

    They should tell you this in a ‘letter of issue'. If you receive a letter of issue or if you are told by children's services they are planning to ask the court for an order to remove your child, you should immediately contact a solicitor that specialises in children's law.

  • Court proceedings

    If you haven’t been able to sort out the things that children’s services are worried about and there are still concerns about your child’s safety and well-being, children’s services may consider applying to court for a care order to remove your child from your care.

    However, unless children’s services can show there is an urgent need to remove your child from their home, they have to show the court what work they have done to support you and your family to resolve their concerns before going to court.

    For an explanation of the different court orders that children’s services can apply for, and information about what should happen before and during court proceedings, please go to the Care proceedings page.

Children's Services - Frequently Asked Questions

When am I likely come into contact with children’s services?

You are most likely to come into contact with children’s services if:

  • You have a child who needs extra help or you need additional support to care for your child, for example because they have a disability
  • Your child’s situation is being looked into under child protection procedures because there is a concern they may have suffered significant harm or may be at risk of suffering harm (not be safe or well cared for)
  • You are not able to look after you child, or social workers think you are not able to look after your child.

What will happen when children’s services first become involved with my child?

Your first contact may be with a Multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) or a Duty social work team and then an Assessment social work team.

Within one working day of receiving information about your child/ren, children’s services should decide three things. These are:

  1. Whether to start an assessment
  2. What type of assessment it should be (for example, whether to focus on support or child protection)
  3. Whether your child needs any immediate support or protection.

If children’s services are involved with your child because they suspect that your child may not be safe or well cared for please go to the Child protection page for more information about what children’s services must do.

Will the same social worker always deal with my child’s case?

Children’s services can be organised in different ways in different local areas. It is important to ask whether the same social worker will always deal with your child’s case or if there will be any change. It is possible that after your first contact with children’s services your child’s case is transferred to another social work team. This could be to a specialist team, for example:

  • Children with disabilities – if you need extra help because you or your child has a disability;
  • Family support – if a social worker thinks that you need extra help to look after your child;
  • Child protection – if a social worker thinks your child is at risk of harm;
  • Looked After children – if a social worker thinks that your child needs to be looked after in the care system.

Parents may find a change of social worker upsetting, especially if they have spent time explaining everything to a previous social worker. So it’s usually worth asking if the new social worker has read your child’s case file before they start working with you.

How will my child’s needs be assessed?

When they’re assessing your child’s needs, social workers should follow government guidance and local guidelines. This means assessments should follow:-

  • Working Together 2018 – this is a national framework that sets out how to go about assessing a child’s needs
  • Local threshold documents – these help social workers decide whether your child is likely to get any particular services (slightly different measures or ‘thresholds’ apply in different parts of the country)
  • Local protocols for assessment – these set out the processes social workers should follow when carrying out an assessment.

Will children’s services work with my family when they do assessments?

Yes. All assessments should involve the child and their family.

When carrying out an assessment, social workers should also consider all children and their parents as individuals. Your family structure, your culture, religion and ethnic origin, and other relevant characteristics should all be respected.

Social workers should:

  • Try to understand your family, how it operates and what works well (i.e. the strengths of your family)
  • Work with your whole family
  • Respect the religious beliefs or cultural traditions that influence how your family live
  • Be aware of the effects of racial harassment and discrimination, and make sure that they guard against stereotyping when they do their assessment.

Social workers should be open with you. They should listen to your views and share relevant information with you (unless this would place your child at risk of harm).  They should work you as your child's parent, whether or not you have parental responsibility for your child.

I need more information about child protection?

Detailed information about child protection procedures, child protection enquiries and child protection plans is available on the Child Protection page.

What does ‘looked after child’ mean?

A child who is cared for in the care system is known as a ‘looked after child’. Your child can only be looked after in the care system if:

  • Someone with parental responsibility for your child agrees to this (see information about parental responsibility and voluntary arrangements here) OR
  • The court makes an order which brings your child into the care system.

For more information about what children’s services have to do when a child is looked after, see Family Rights Group’s Advice Sheet 11: Duties on Children’s Services when children are in the care system

What will happen if my child goes into the care system or is going to be adopted?

The law sets out what children’s services must do where a child is looked after in the care system or is about to become looked after.

The key duties that children’s services have include:

  • Drawing up a care plan and a placement plan for your child before they go into care. If there isn’t time to do this before your child goes into care (for example, if your child has been taken into care in an emergency), then it should be done as soon as they enter the care system
  • Consulting you and your child about all decisions made about your child’s care. This includes discussing the care plan and placement plan for your child as well as how to make sure you can play a part in your child’s life (unless a court has said something different)
  • Taking your child’s racial, religious, cultural and linguistic background into account when making plans for their care
  • Arranging somewhere for your child to live. Where possible, this should be with a parent or other person with parental responsibility. If that can’t happen, children’s services should try and place your child with a relative, friend or other person who’s connected with them. The relative, friend or other person must be approved as a foster carer. Any placement that is made must be in your child’s best interests
  • Ensuring that your child has regular contact with you and other members of your family (unless a court has said something different)
  • Making a permanent plan for your child’s future if they have been looked after for more than four months. The plan could be for your child to:
    • return to live with you
    • live with another family member
    • live with unrelated long-term foster carers, or
    • be placed for adoption.

For more information about what children’s services have to do when a child is looked after see Family Rights Group's Advice Sheet 11: Duties on Children’s Services when children are in the care system.

VERY IMPORTANT If social workers are talking to you about the possibility of your child being placed for adoption – or even being placed with people who may go on to adopt your child at some point in the future (this is known as ‘foster for adoption’) – then it is essential that you seek legal advice immediately. You can either contact the Family Rights Group or a solicitor who specialises in children’s law.

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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.