Social Services have a statutory obligation to safeguard the welfare of children who they believe may have suffered or are at risk of suffering significant harm. This obligation allows them to apply to the Court and request an Order for the removal of a child from his or her parent’s care if they believe that the child is at risk of suffering significant harm if they remain at home. These proceedings in family law are known as care proceedings.
Social Services can become involved with a family in many ways – for instance, a family may directly request support from Social Services in times of stress or for help regarding a particular child or family problem. Alternatively, a teacher, health visitor, GP or other professional working with the family or children may make a referral to Social Services if they have any concerns about a child. It is also common for the police to refer matters to Social Services, for example in instances where domestic violence between adults could potentially result in harm to the children.
Many families often feel anxious at the prospect of Social Services’ involvement with their children because of experiences they may have heard from others, or just because they are frightened that Social Workers will remove their children from their care. These fears are completely natural but they may result in families being reluctant to engage and co-operate their Social Worker. This lack of engagement can add to a Social Worker’s concerns which can ultimately create a bigger problem for the family.
When a Social Worker becomes concerned about the welfare of a child, in most cases they will firstly arrange a meeting with the child’s parents to see if it is possible to reach agreement about what needs to happen to protect the child from harm, so that Court proceedings can be avoided. In family law this meeting is known as a pre-proceedings meeting. The Social Worker is required to send each parent a letter inviting them to attend at this meeting. This letter will also set out in detail and in plain language exactly what the concerns are and exactly what Social Services propose should be done to deal with these concerns and avoid Court proceedings.
It is very important for parents to attend at a pre-proceedings meeting with Social Services. Each parent is entitled to bring a legal representative with them to this meeting and they will be entitled to Legal Aid to cover any legal costs. If there is a failure by parents to engage in this process for whatever reason, this may result in Social Services issuing care proceedings in respect of the child.
If you receive a letter from Social Services inviting you to a pre-proceedings meeting you should seek legal advice immediately. A family law solicitor will be able to advise you fully on what this meeting will entail and will support, advise and guide you through the pre-proceedings process.
Experienced and professional legal advice at this stage of Social Services involvement with your family will go a long way in helping to address any issues or concerns that Social Services may have whilst potentially avoiding the need for lengthy and stressful Court proceedings.