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Children’s services used to be known as ‘social services’. Every local authority (council) has a children’s services department. They have two main roles. These are to support children and families and protect vulnerable children.
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There are a range of services that all children have access to. These are called ‘universal’ services.
The range of universal services available depend on a child’s:
- Stage of development
- Individual needs.
Universal services are provided by different agencies. This includes health and education. Examples of universal services include access to a GP, health visitor or a children’s centre. Children’s services do not need to be involved for children and families to access universal services.
Early help aims for agencies to work together to provide support as soon as problems emerge. This is because tackling a problem early can be the best way to help. Early help can also be provided to stop problems from getting worse. Education (schools, nurseries), housing, and health services are all examples of agencies.
Early help can be given to a family with a child up to age 18. So, the child may be a baby, toddler, at primary school or a teenager.
Early help is voluntary. It is support that can only be given if the parent or carer agrees.
Social workers are not involved in early help assessments or providing early help services. But sometimes social workers ask early help services to support children and families they are working with.
See our Early help page for more information.
Child in need
A child in need is a child who is thought to need extra help from children’s services if they are to achieve or maintain ‘a reasonable standard of health or development’. All disabled children are classed as children in need.
Children’s services should carry out a child in need assessment to:
- Work out whether a child is in need
- Decide whether the child is in need enough to get services in that local area, and
- Find out what extra support and services may most help the child and their family.
If children’s services receive information that makes them suspect a child has been harmed or is likely to suffer significant harm they must investigate. This is called making child protection enquiries. They have to do this by law.
If a child is thought to be likely to suffer significant harm an initial child protection conference must take place. This is a type of meeting.
It will include:
- Children’s services
- The child’s parents
- Other key family members.
If the conference thinks a child has suffered significant harm (or is likely to) then:
- A child protection plan will be drawn up
- This plan will set out the help that will be given to the child and their family
- The plan will say how progress will be monitored.
It is important that parents and carers understand:
- The key words and phrases used during the child protection process
- The procedures that children’s services are likely to follow
- How families should be involved during the child protection process.
See our Child protection page for more information.
This involvement is sometimes referred to as a pre-proceedings meeting or PLO meeting. PLO stands for Public Law Outline. The PLO sets out the legal process children’s services must follow when considering starting care proceedings.
At this time children’s services will write to the parent or carer. This letter is a called a letter before proceedings.
- Explain the things children’s services are concerned and worried about
- Invite the parent or carer to a meeting to discuss those concerns
- Explain what changes children’s services would like the parent or carer to make.
It is very important for parents to attend pre-proceedings meeting and ask a solicitor specialising in children’s law to go with them. See our Pre-proceedings page for more information about getting ready for a pre-proceedings meeting.
If children’s services remain worried about a child’s safety and welfare then they may decide to apply to the Family Court to ask for an order. This could be an order asking the court to allow the child to be removed.
If there are still concerns a child’s safety and welfare, children’s services may apply for a court order. The order they apply for will depend on the situation.
If children’s services think that a child may be at immediate risk of significant harm in their parents’ care, they can apply to the court for an emergency protection order. These orders are made under section 44 of the Children Act 1989. Applications for emergency protection order are made where children’s services think a situation is too urgent to wait to start care proceedings. The order allows children’s services to remove a child. Or allows them to arrange for a child to remain somewhere – in hospital for example.
If children’s services think the Family Court needs to:
- Make decisions to keep a child safe immediately AND
- Make decisions about where a child should live in the longer term
they will apply to start care proceedings. This is the process of applying to the Family Court for a care or supervision order. Children’s services have to show that the child:
- Is suffering significant harm, OR
- Is likely to suffer that harm AND
- That this is because of the care that has/would likely be given to them by their parent(s)
- Or is because the child is ‘beyond parental control’ (see section 31(2) of the Children Act 1989).
Children’s services can ask the Family Court to make a court order to allow them to remove a child from their parents’ care. This is called an interim care order. It is a short-term order. When it is in place a child becomes looked after in the care system by children’s services.
Children’s services have to show the court what they have done to support the family already. And show there is an urgent need to remove the child because their safety demands it. Safety includes physical safety. And psychological and emotional well-being.
See our Care (and related) proceedings page for more information about the different orders children’s services can apply to the court for.
What first steps do children’s services usually take?
The first steps children’s services must take if they receive information about a child include deciding:
- Whether to start an assessment
- What type of assessment it should be (for example, whether to focus on support or on child protection)
- Whether the child needs immediate support or protection.
A range of laws and guidance come together to explain this. But there are five important principles which guide the ways children’s services should make decisions and work. These are the building blocks of the child welfare system.
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1. Welfare of the child
The Children Act 1989 is the leading piece of child welfare law in England. It includes many duties on children’s services relating to the welfare of children including:
- A general legal duty on children’s services to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare’ of children in need in their area. And to promote their upbringing within their families. Children’s services must do this by providing a range and level of services to help meet the needs of these children (see section 17(1) of the Children Act 1989)
- A similar duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children looked after in the care system (see section 22(3) Children Act 1989)
- A duty to take reasonable steps to prevent children in their local area suffering ill-treatment or neglect (see Schedule 2, Children Act 1989, para 4(1)).
If the Family Court needs to make decisions about the care and upbringing of a child then the welfare of the child has to be the ‘paramount consideration’ (section 1 Children Act 1989).
This means the child’s welfare is always the court’s main concern. The key question for the court is: “what is in the child’s best interests?”
See our Care proceedings page for more information about how the court make decisions and children’s welfare.
2. Children raised within their family
Government guidance confirms that ‘children are best looked after within their families, with their parents playing a full part in their lives, unless compulsory intervention in family life is necessary’ (see Working Together 2018 at paragraph 11 on page 9).
The general legal duties on children’s services mean that they should aim to keep children safe, well cared for and, at home unless this would place them at risk (see section 17 of the Children Act 1989).
If a child cannot be raised by their parents, children’s services should first look at whether there is anyone in the child’s family and friends’ network that can care for them.
See our Children living with relatives and friends page for further information.
3. Parental responsibility
A person with parental responsibility is responsible for the care and wellbeing of their child. Section 3 of the Children Act 1989 explains parental responsibility as “All the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority, which by law a parent has in relation to the child…”
Unless a court order says something different, a person with parental responsibility can make important decisions about a child’s life. For example:
- Providing a home for the child
- Protecting and caring for the child
- Consenting to the child’s medical or dental treatment.
Only through a court order can children’s services share parental responsibility for a child.
See our A-Z entry for Parental responsibility for more information.
4. Partnership working
Children’s services should work in partnership with children and families. This is clear in government guidance (see Working Together 2018 at paragraph 10 on page 9).
Day to day, partnership working includes:
- Listening to what families think may help them
- Involving children and families in assessments
- Listening to the views of the child before making decisions and plans
- Making decisions with children and families wherever possible.
5. Fair process and respect for human rights
The Human Rights Act 1998 applies to all public bodies. This includes children’s services and the family court. This means they must take account of a person’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
- Working with children and families in ways which are consistent with the right to respect for their family life. This right can only be interfered with if it is necessary AND ‘proportionate’. This means:
- They should only make decisions about how a child should be cared for where that is necessary to achieve the aim of keeping the child safe and well
- Any actions they take should be no more than what is needed to achieve that aim.
- Making sure their decision-making processes are fair and involve children and parents. There should be ways to challenge decisions. And for families to raise complaints.
Actions and decisions taken by children’s services or the family courts must also take account of the human rights of children which are also protected under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
More information about human rights can be found is on the website of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.