If an allegation has been made against you which has led to a “safeguarding” investigation, you should immediately ask what the allegation is and who made it. If Children’s Services (CS) say that it was made anonymously, they should still tell you what you are being accused of doing/or not doing to or for your children. You must ask them to put the allegation in writing. If the allegation is untrue, or an exaggeration, distortion or misrepresentation of events, you must challenge it immediately. It’s always best if you can do this in writing so there is clear evidence of what they said and what you are saying. You can also ask professionals like teachers or health visitors, or family or friends who know you and your child to write challenging what’s being said about you or your child.
If the allegation is serious (e.g. that you are hitting your children or neglecting them) a social worker can come and remove the children from your care under an Emergency Protection Order (EPO). They can get an EPO from court without telling you ahead of time. The police can also take your child/children and keep them for up to 72 hours without a court order. If this has already happened, seek legal advice right away and see Section 7.
If a social worker phones you or comes to see you. Explain clearly what has happened (or has not happened) and do whatever you can to show them that your children are being well looked after and are safe. This is especially important if you are a victim of domestic violence (see more point 8). Most victims of DV expect support, but instead you may be suspected and accused of “failing to protect your child” and this can be used to have your child taken from you. Hopefully they will be reassured that everything is fine and will have no further involvement. Remember to have a reliable friend with you and that you have the right to record all interactions with the social worker. Make sure your children have someone with them at all times.
If they are not reassured, they can decide to do an assessment of how you and your child are doing. If you don’t agree to being assessed, they can do assessments of your children without you knowing or without your consent, eg by talking to professionals such as GP or teachers. These assessments will be carried out under Section 17 of the Children’s Act, unless the child is in imminent danger and they have 45 days to complete these assessments from the date of the referral. Each Local Authority will have their own child protection procedure and protocols for assessment and you are entitled to ask for a copy of their procedures.
You do not have to agree to a parenting assessment but you need to consider this very carefully as there may be no other evidence upon which the court can make a decision at a later date so a refusal may not be the best thing to do. Getting advice from a lawyer would be helpful but there is no legal aid at this point. You can ask for an Independent Social Work Assessment at this stage (not likely to be granted) or if you get a negative parenting assessment. There may be a request for you to have a psychological assessment which you need to consider very carefully. There is no legal obligation to do so and you can suggest that a letter from your GP will suffice.
Young mothers should not be assessed unless there is a very strong reason for it, because these assessments may label you for life and can be used against you in the future. Psychological assessments cannot be ordered on children unless you give permission or there is a court order. Ask for the basis of any assessments, who is undertaking them and what their experience is. This assessment is supposed to be completed within 45 days of a referral being made. CS are not allowed to speak to your child without a responsible adult being present. This can be you or an adult of your choice. You can ask them to tell you what exactly they are worried about and what their evidence is. They can also speak to your child’s school without you knowing, but NOT to your child without your consent and you being present. There is NO law that allows social workers to talk to a child alone, even police must have an adult, usually a parent, present. Social workers’ ethics say that they should consider the distress of a child when speaking to them and should ask an adult known to the child to be present. But they don’t always follow this and insist that “it’s their right”. This is NOT true and often the way to diffuse this is to ask them to print you a copy of the relevant law and then you will consider their request. They will then say “there is no law but it is something we like to do”, at this point you can say politely that you would like an adult present.
If CS are not satisfied that the children are being well looked after or think they are being abused or neglected.
If CS have “reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm” the social worker is likely to convene what is called a Strategy Meeting between children’s services, the police, and any professional involved with your family such as GP, midwife, school, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), community psychiatric nurse, etc. You and your children are not invited to these meetings and don’t usually get any notification that they are going to happen. The purpose of the meeting is for CS to decide whether to begin a child protection assessment (known as a Section 47), a child in need assessment (known as Section 17), or whether more support services are needed. They could also decide to close the case. If they decide to pursue the case further, a Child Protection Conference must be held within 15 days of the Strategy meeting.
If you are at this stage you should pay very close attention to what you are being told to do so that you can hopefully avoid being taken to court. Mothers are often advised to comply with everything social services ask of them because if you don’t it will be used against you. While this can be true, we know of mothers who complied with everything they were asked to do only to have their children removed in the end – they felt cheated and manipulated and came to regret not speaking out or defending themselves at an earlier stage.
It’s about time we made demands on those who are legally instructed to provide services. Whatever you do or ask, keep a written record of it and of the response you got, because phone calls can always be ignored, forgotten about or distorted whereas that is much harder with an email! You are allowed to record all phone calls and meetings not just with the social worker but with ALL professionals such as your child’s teachers and doctors. Keep in mind that if your children are removed from your care it is much harder to get them back (but it’s not impossible) whereas before they are taken you have much more possibility of keeping them.