When a parent is referred to Social Services
Backlash asked senior social worker Legally Bland to provide advice for parents of an alternative disposition such as BDSM or LGBT who find themselves reported to social services.
The first you as a parent will know you have been referred to Social Services is either by:
- an unannounced home visit
- a letter advising you that a referral has been made and asking you to make contact to arrange a home visit
- a telephone call from a social worker saying they wish to speak with you
In all cases of a home visit ask for identification. All genuine social workers will carry identification.
The first thing that you should be told is the nature of the referral. ‘This is what has been alleged’. It is highly unlikely and very bad practice if you were told this over the phone.
Remember the adage ‘don’t shoot the messenger’. The social worker is only relaying what someone else has told them, and they have a duty to investigate.
It is no use trying to press a social worker to reveal who made the referral if they say it was anonymous.
First, they really may not know if the person raising the issue did not leave details. Or, if that person specifically asked to remain anonymous, this cannot be shared with you. It may seem unfair but try and remember the bigger picture.
Second, social workers rely on members of the public alerting them to children who are at risk. Without anonymity some genuine cases may be missed and it is for this reason and this reason alone that anonymous referrals are accepted.
Don’t get bogged down in trying to tackle this. Work with the grain, not against it. Help the social worker conclude your child is safe.
The social worker will ask you to give consent for them to contact other agencies, like the Health visitor, child’s school, GP etc, in order to obtain personal information about you and your family, and to also share information with those agencies.
Read the small print. Some forms say that by signing, your authorisation is valid for a year, so if there is another referral your permission is deemed to have been given already. Some say that if you change your mind about consent, you have to notify the local authority in writing. Good practice would see them give you a leaflet on the initial visit about ‘consent to obtaining and sharing personal information’ before asking you to sign any consent form.
Only the Police have the legal power to take your belongings, such as a computer, or even to access it. If your computer is seized by the police and you are concerned about any potentially illegal material, contact Backlash. Remember if your computer is seized it is likely the police will also take cameras and mobiles, so ensure you have written down relevant numbers or you may find yourself unable to access support.
There have been cases where a social worker has asked a person for their passwords. As in normal life, do not give your passwords to any sensitive personal information to anyone. Social workers like anyone else can ‘ask’ anything, but that doesn’t mean you have to divulge it.
Malicious BDSM referrals
In the context of a malicious BDSM referrals, it really is a case of using common sense.
If you are asked about visiting adult sites, then say so. After all, they are not illegal. Explain that the sites are for adults, are password protected, but above all that they are LEGAL and CONSENSUAL.
Stress what steps you take to ensure that your child cannot access ANY material inappropriate for their age, ie clearing history, clearing caches with saved passwords, that they do not use the computer unsupervised etc.
Most families have more than one PC and if you have separate computers – for example yours is the only one you use for adult sites – then say so.
Like ‘real life relationship’, again this is common sense. As a parent it would be hoped that you do not invite any ‘tom dick or harry’ into your home, and it’s no different with BDSM relationships.
You have a right to a private life, and a sex life, and being into BDSM does not mean that you suddenly become indiscreet around your child.
If you go to a fet club it is no different than going to a vanilla club. What safeguards do you put in place? You arrange for a babysitter, make sure they know your mobile number, etc.
Stress that ‘play’ only takes place in the context of sexual activity and like any other parent the thought of your child walking in on you having sex is one that you take steps to avoid. A lock on the bedroom door usefully demonstrates precaution, but stress that this is not because of the type of play and is something you have done even when having sex with the lights on, lying back and thinking of England.
There may well be questions regarding ‘your beliefs’ and how that could impact on your child. For instance, men are there to be ‘served’ in the case of the submissive, or inferior/superior. Any responses about this should be put in terms of ‘strictly role play’. Your child needs appropriate role models, family, friends, peers etc. There are very few parents who ‘indoctrinate’ their child, but it does exist which is why social workers decide to ask.
As an adult you protect your child from anything unsuitable i.e paracetamol in the medical tin, keep alcohol out of reach, and it’s no different with your play kit. If you’re worried about ‘little hands’, store your toys safely where little hands can’t find them i.e in a padlocked cupboard or bag. There is nothing illegal about having equipment. Think pink furry handcuffs or chocolate spread, and even Boots sell play material.
If the referral is claiming your child has access to your toys and there has been an occasion where little hands have indeed managed to get a hold of them, then explain this, don’t lie about it.
Most parents have at some time been embarrassed by the child who has found something ‘intimate’ and has come down the stairs waving it around. Most of us learn the hard way. If asked, just explain it and what steps you have taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
If the social worker still isn’t getting it, you can try to bring your explanation down to a level they may understand. Try Rhianna, Fifty Shades of Gray, Ann Summers’s back room.
Marks after play
This is no different to any other concern about a child seeing their parent with an injury, no matter how it was obtained. It’s upsetting for the child and will impact on their emotional wellbeing.
You may need to explain that the type of sex you have does not result in any visible injuries. If however someone has seen you with bruising and this has been reported as part of the concern, then you need to think very carefully about how you respond. If it’s true then bear in mind the ‘transient and trifling’ test.
In terms of your own child, you are the expert. In terms of BDSM you probably know far more than the average person, or the social worker. These days you would hope that social workers are aware of BDSM, but unfortunately like the man on the street it is often still confused with ‘incest and child abuse’, like it or not.
If their line of enquiry starts going down this abuse route just patiently bring it back on course. Perhaps ask the social worker what they know or understand about BDSM, as this may well give you a clue as to why they seem to be going down a particular route and then you can deal with their underlying concern.
A good way of keeping the social worker ‘on track’ is to ask them to go back and repeat the referral, in order to try and tackle the concerns step by step.
Speaking to your child
A social worker will always want to speak to the child involved. They will usually want to see a child without his or her parent present. However they should be considerate of any distress this may cause and look to minimise this.
In normal circumstances, they would need to get permission from a parent with parental responsibility before speaking to a child.
Legally anyone with parental responsibility has a right to know a referral has been made and the nature of that referral. If this is going to cause a problem – for example there has been domestic abuse in the relationship and if your ex finds out it could impact on you or your child’s safety – then alert the social worker to that fact. Always speak to the social worker if you are concerned about domestic abuse.
In exceptional circumstances children’s services may speak to your child without the knowledge and/ or consent of a parent with parental responsibility.
However, they would need to justify the reasons for this, first to the parent, second to their Team Manager, and ultimately the Courts. This would usually be because there was strong reason to believe that an investigation would otherwise be compromised.
If you are sure you don’t want your child to be seen alone, when stating that you do not give permission to your child being seen without you set out clear reasons for this and offer an alternative if possible, such as that you are present at the back of the room without participating in the discussion, or that another trusted family member or friend is present.
If the social worker is insisting that they are going to see your child without you, insist that the basis that this is being done be put to you in writing, including clear reasons why it is felt necessary to do this without your consent.
The normal questions a social worker may ask a child would probably begin with them introducing themselves to the child and asking the child if they know what a social worker does. The child’s response will give an indication to the social worker of the child’s understanding.
Most probable question are things like: Which school do you go to? Do you enjoy it? What friends do you have? What sports do you do? Do you have a favourite teacher who you could speak to if something was worrying you? Who in the family would you speak to if something was worrying you?
Depending on the age of the child and their ability to understand the concerns, the social worker will make a decision about how much of the referral information they should share with the child.
For example if the referral is about BDSM or pornography they may well ask the child about computers, e.g. do you like computer games, which ones? What the social worker maybe trying to establish is how much ‘free access’ the child has to the computer to ascertain any risk.
The last thing a social worker will want is to distress your child. They will also be mindful that should the referral be substantiated and the child is at risk of significant harm, or that a crime has been committed, they cannot jeopardise any future investigation by asking leading questions.
In my experience it is the parent who is more distressed at the thought of someone talking to their child than the child’s experience of chatting to ‘the nice person who has come to see if everything is ok’ and talks to them about school, family and friends.
An assessment has to cover all aspects of a child’s wellbeing. You will be asked questions that may not seem relevant, for example, when did your child last see your GP? This could be totally irrelevant to the actual referral, but the simplest way is to think of it like this: There is an assessment with boxes, and each box has to say something, otherwise ‘computer says no’.
The boxes start with general questions i.e name, age, parental responsibility, and then they move onto Health, Education, Identity, social relationships (peers and extended family), housing and financial. Domestic abuse should also be a question. This gives a holistic picture to the social worker.
This diagram describes the assessment framework and shows how questions may relate to each area.
Although you may not agree with the referral it is best to try and accept that the social worker is only doing their job. They have received information, they have no context, so this is how they have to follow up. The social worker is trying to find evidence that the information in the referral is either correct or is incorrect.
Treat their visit is your opportunity to try and alleviate any concerns they may have, no matter how far fetched.
You do not have to agree with the concerns raised, but there is an expectation that you acknowledge and understand their professional concern. First impressions count, and being human social workers sometimes read these wrongly www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/mar/14/couple-accused-of-child-abuse-win-damages
Do not lie. A good social worker will spot that a mile off and it only increases the concerns if they know an adult isn’t telling the truth. This then begs the question ‘why?’ and whilst you may have done it out of fear, worry, embarrassment, etc it will lead to yet another question and more involvement.
If you have grounds for believing the referral may well be malicious, explain why calmly and preferably with evidence, such as hostile texts. It pays to file away such evidence when it arrives, rather than delete it in disgust. Just in case.
Retaining such evidence will also help the police go after the perpetrator for harrassment, if you decide that is the only way to stop the maliciousness continuing.
Social workers are overworked. They do not want to be involved in a case without good reason. They do not want to continue or escalate a case without good reason. However they cannot close a case just because someone is avoiding them or they can’t get hold of them.
You have a right to see and have a copy of any assessments, and comment on information that you feel is wrong. Whilst the information will not be removed from the assessment, your views will be recorded to provide balance.
Once a referral has been actioned there is only one way of shutting it down and that is to address the concerns. You can make the job harder or easier depending on what you do.
Not allowing access to the home or the child will increase the length of time the assessment takes. Lying will increase the length of time as more questions will be asked as to why.
If you present as aggressive or flippant about the concerns, that again leads to ‘why?’. Remember it is a genuine concern that the worker has come out on. It may be ridiculous to you but to them it is a case that they have been told to look at and come back to the office with those concerns either substantiated or not, to determine whether the case can be closed or whether further action is needed.
If a social worker gets that judgement right, few ever know. However if they get it wrong, especially finding something unsubstantiated that later turns out to be true, all hell breaks loose. It is not an easy task. Help them get the judgement right.
Unfortunately BDSM is misunderstood by a lot of professionals and the public. If you have children or a ‘sensitive job’ then you will always run the risk of someone making a malicious referral. It is quite common in family proceedings to see such referrals.
You do not have the power to stop someone making a referral, there is a legal duty for the local authority to investigate them. But you do have the power to control how you respond to it. That can make a significant difference to the outcome, and how quickly the referral is closed.
It will also help if a malicious referrer tries again, as the file will provide a good basis for assessing risk, and that unfortunately you have been the target of a malicious troublemaker once already.