Many parents may feel anxious at the prospect of having Social Services involved with their family– perhaps because of experiences they may have heard from others, read in the media or just simply because they are frightened that Social Workers will try to remove their children from their care.
These fears are completely natural and certainly in my experience, not many parents appreciate a stranger, no matter how professional and qualified they may be, “coming into my home and telling me how to raise my kids”.
That being said, Social Services do play an important role in our society when it comes to ensuring the safety and well-being of children within our communities.
Who are Social Services?
Community Care and Social Service in Northern Ireland is provided by a number of Health & Social Care organisations, known as ‘Trusts’. There are a total of 6 Health and Social Care (HSC) Trusts in Northern Ireland.
Each HSC Trust provides an array of social services, from children’s services, disability services, older people services, mental health services and services for vulnerable adults to name a few.
What is the role of Social Services when dealing with children?
Social Services have an obligation by law to safeguard the welfare of children who they believe may have suffered, or are at risk of suffering harm.
How can Social Services become involved with my family?
A Social Worker can become involved with your family in many ways:-
- You may directly request support from Social Services in times of stress or for help regarding a particular child or family problem you have.
- Teachers, Health Visitors, GPs or other professionals working with your family or children may make a referral to Social Services if they have any concerns about a child.
- Any person, whether known to you or anonymous, who is concerned about the treatment of your child can make a referral to Social Services seeking that they investigate matters.
- 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.
Can Social Services remove my children from me?
If Social Services believe that your child is at risk of suffering significant harm if they remain with you, they can (if certain criteria are satisfied) apply to the Court and request an Order for the removal of your child from your care. These proceedings are known as care proceedings.
However, issues that Social Services have with your care of your children can be resolved without the need for care proceedings
How can I avoid care proceedings?
If a Social Worker becomes concerned about the welfare of your child, in most cases they will firstly arrange a meeting with both parents to see if it is possible to reach agreement about what needs to happen to protect your child from harm, so that Court proceedings can be avoided.
This meeting is known as a pre-proceedings meeting.
The Social Worker is required to send both parents 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 suggest 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.
Am I entitled to legal representation at a pre-proceedings meeting?
Yes, each parent is entitled to bring a legal representative with them to a pre-proceedings meeting and they will be entitled to Legal Aid to cover any legal costs, regardless of their income.
What if I do not attend at the pre-proceedings meeting?
If there is a failure to engage in this process for whatever reason, this may result in Social Services issuing care proceedings in respect of your child.
If you receive a letter from Social Services inviting you to a pre-proceedings meeting you should seek legal advice immediately.
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.