If a Social Worker (SW) has been appointed to assist your family (or a family member) this, of course, can be for a variety of reasons; this section will concern itself with the involvement of the Social Services Department (SSD) in relation to children only.

It may be that a SW has been appointed and that the SSD are offering your family support – and that you are content with the services and the support your family is being offered.

It could be that your child is being cared for by the Local Authority at your request. You should consider if this a permanent arrangement, and if not, are the SSD aware of your views? If they are not, you should discuss them with your SW or their Team Manager. You should regularly discuss with your SW the SSD’s long-term plans for your child, to make sure that you both still understand each other and share the same views. Your Solicitor can offer you practical advice, including writing to the SSD for you, helping you to arrange regular contact and make representations to the SSD for the return of your children.

6.1 Case Conferences

Sometimes where the SSD have concerns about a child they may organise a Case Conference. The SSD will invite to that conference professional people who have been involved with the child and the family, including people from health care services (GP’s and health visitors), education services (teachers, nursery workers), the Police (only if they have been involved), and any other professional body involved.

The case conference will decide whether:

(i) your child’s name should be placed on what is termed the "At Risk Register"
(ii) assistance or support should be offered to your family.

Attending a Case Conference can be frightening, and intimidating. Did you know that you have the right to have a Solicitor attend the Case Conference with you? Your Solicitor can assist you to understand what is going on, and to make representations if you are invited to say anything, e.g. by way of opposing your child’s name being entered on the At Risk Register.

6.2 Care Proceedings

The Local Authority may take Care Proceedings in respect of your child which can result in a Court Order under which your child can be taken away from you and placed in the care of the Local Authority. Did you know that a parent automatically has the right to free Public Funding (formerly “Legal Aid”) so that you can be represented within the Court proceedings by a Solicitor? The Law Society has awarded some Solicitors with specialist knowledge of this subject membership of the Law Society’s Children Panel to recognise their expertise.

In some cases, other people may also wish to become involved, for example extended family members, or a person with whom the child has been living. These people will not automatically be entitled to free Public Funding but should consult a Solicitor to see whether they do qualify.

The SSD will be represented by the Local Authority Solicitor. The SW will be a witness within the case. The SSD do not decide the outcome of the case. The case will be decided by a Judge or by Magistrates.

Your child will be represented by someone called a Children’s Guardian, who in turn will appoint their own Solicitor. The job of the Guardian is to act on behalf of and give advice to the child in light of the child’s age and understanding. The Guardian should also advise the Court about the child’s understanding, the child’s wishes, the appropriate timing of the proceedings, the suitability of the options being considered and any other matters relevant to the Court’s decision.

At the first Court appointment the Court will try to establish what evidence it needs have available to be able to decide your case, and will set a timetable for dealing with the case. It is usual for all parties to be invited to file evidence with the Court on specific dates.

You must co-operate with Social Services and the Guardian throughout the proceedings.

The Court will decide the case once it has sufficient evidence before it. The Court will use the “Welfare Checklist” when deciding the case. (For details of the Welfare Checklist see Section 3.4.3).

6.3 What happens if a Care Order is made?

The making of a Care Order does not end your role as a parent, but means that you share Parental Responsibility for your child with the Local Authority. (Your Parental Responsibility lasts until the making of an Adoption Order when all parental responsibility passes to the adoptive parents).

Under a Care Order the child will usually be removed from the parent’s care.

The Local Authority will have a Care Plan which explains their long-term plans for the child, including the arrangements for contact by the parent with the child and whether there is a plan to adopt the child.

6.4 What are my Rights to Contact with my Child until he/she has been adopted?

It may be that your child has been in the care of the Local Authority for some time, and that your contact has been reduced or stopped altogether by the Local Authority. One reason for doing this may be that the Local Authority want to “free the child for adoption”. If adoption goes ahead there will usually be a final face to face farewell visit. There is sometimes a commitment by the SSD to offer a Postbox service where it can forward birthday and Christmas cards to your child, and send you photographs of your child.

Your child can only be freed for adoption by Order of the Court.

The final Adoption Order will only be made by the Court.

It is worth checking with the Local Authority whether the placement with the prospective family did in fact go ahead or whether it broke down. If it broke down then there may be grounds for re-opening the question of your contact with your child, and of your continuing access to information concerning the child’s well being.

Members of the child’s extended family may also want to check whether they are entitled to contact with the child.

It has to be said that applying for contact with a child in care is not a straight forward matter, but is one that a Solicitor can advise you upon.