Social services help for homeless families with children

If your family includes one or more children under the age of 18, you might be entitled to help from social services. This could be the case even if the council's housing department can't help you.

Who does social services have to help?

Social services don't have to help all families with children but they do have a duty to look into your situation to check what help you are entitled to. They can't just turn you away or tell you to go to the housing department.

Your family is probably entitled to housing and/or financial support from social services if someone in your family is under the age of 18 and:

  • has been in care in the past, or
  • is disabled, or
  • is classed as being a 'child in need'.

If no one in your family is in any of these groups, you should ask the housing department for help if you become homeless or are at risk of losing your home.

The housing department may have a legal duty to rehouse you if you make a homelessness application. You do not have to be sleeping on the streets to get help in this way.

Care leavers

Care leavers who are under the age of 18 and have spent a total of at least 13 weeks in care since the age of 14 are entitled to accommodation and financial support from social services. Social services has to house a care leaver until age 18 and should provide ongoing help until age 21. If a care leaver is at college or university full-time, this can be extended until age 24 (or the end of the course, if that happens first). In most cases, if you go to the housing department for help, it will probably ask social services to help you.

Disabled children

If your child has a disability and your family is homeless or likely to lose your home, then your child should automatically be accepted as a child in need and be offered help by social services. In most cases, the housing department also has a responsibility towards you, so the two departments should work together to help you.

Children in need

Your child should be considered to be a 'child in need' if he or she needs help to manage the things that affect health and development. This might be the case if:

  • you don't have money for food
  • you don't have anywhere to live
  • you are having problems that affect your health or education
  • you are living with a violent person.

Your child or children can be in need even if your family doesn't have long-term difficulties. For example, your home might become uninhabitable in a fire or flood. Your child or children are in need until your problems are sorted out.

The housing department will probably also have a responsibility to help you because families with children are automatically in priority need. The two departments should work together to help you. If they disagree about which department is responsible for you, get advice immediately.

Use Shelter's emergency housing rights checker to check your housing rights. 

Getting help for your family from social services

Ask your local council for contact details for their social services or children and families department. Call, phone or visit the social services department and tell it that you need help. Explain how your housing problems are affecting your children's health or development. For example:

  • sleeping on the streets or in unsuitable accommodation can damage your children's health
  • having nowhere to live could lead to stress or depression
  • any medical problems your children already have may get worse
  • if you have problems with drugs or alcohol, it's harder to sort yourself out.

Social services must carry out an assessment of your child's or children's needs and your ability to meet those needs. In the majority of cases, children are safeguarded while remaining at home by social services working with their parents, family members and other significant adults in the child's life to make the child safe, and to promote his or her development within the family. But sometimes social services decide that a Child Protection Plan is needed if they believe that a child is at risk of significant harm or should be taken into care (see below).

If you need help with contacting social services, get advice from a Shelter advice centre, Citizens Advice or other welfare advice centre. An adviser may be able to tell you what sort of help social services normally provide in your area and give you an idea of what you can expect. Shelter advice centres and most other advice centres provide their services for free and whatever you say is usually just between you and the adviser you speak to. They won't contact anyone else about your situation unless you agree to it or they believe you or your children are in danger.

Use Shelter's advice services directory to find a face-to-face adviser near you.

What help can social services provide?

The law doesn't say exactly what help social services should give you and different councils have different rules. It will depend on your personal situation, what is available in your area and how much it costs. You should be given a range of services to help you with any problems you are having. This could include:

  • accommodation – usually it will be up to the housing department to help you find suitable housing, but social services should help you to deal with the housing department and can also get you emergency accommodation
  • a place in a playgroup or nursery
  • help with problems with schools or childcare
  • help with children's behaviour
  • help with drug or alcohol problems
  • friendship and support
  • counselling and/or help with any other problems you have.

Help from social services for children with disabilities

Social services have to provide a range of services to families with disabled children to minimise the impact of the disabilities and enable them to live as normal a life as possible. Different councils provide different services, but they can include:

  • adaptations or modifications to your home
  • short-term breaks in foster families or residential units (respite breaks)
  • support services in the home, and
  • assistance for disabled children to participate in out of school and leisure activities in the community alongside non-disabled children.

What is a Child Protection Plan?

If social services think that your child is at risk, they may hold a child protection conference. Usually you (the child's parent or parents) can be at the conference, together with people who are involved in looking after your child like a social worker, a teacher and a doctor, and possibly others like a police officer or hospital staff. Sometimes the child can come too. If the conference decides that a child is at continuing risk of significant harm, further action is needed.

Social services are responsible for making a Child Protection Plan to safeguard the child. The plan involves family members, professionals and other agencies in protecting the child, and will include decisions about where the child will live, what arrangements are made for contact (visits), and what help will come from social services.

The Child Protection Plan is confidential. Only those people who need to know – like teachers, doctors and the police – will know that your child has one. It is meant to protect your child – it is not a punishment or a criticism of you.

Can your children be taken into care?

When a family asks for help, social services normally only have a duty towards the children in the family, unless the adults have special needs. However, social services should aim to keep the family together. This means that they can provide accommodation for the whole family. Whether they do this or not depends upon them balancing your needs with the demands upon them to help others.

If they decide to only help the children by providing accommodation in a care home, get advice immediately.

Use Shelter's advice services directory to find a face-to-face adviser near you. 

In a few cases, social services may decide that a child isn't safe at home, for example if there is a risk of violence or neglect. In these cases, social services can apply to the court for a care order, which makes the local authority responsible for the child's care.

If a child is thought to be in immediate danger, social services can apply to the court for an emergency protection order, which puts the child under the protection of the local authority for up to eight days.

Usually, social services will take your child to a children's home or place them with foster parents, where they will be looked after. Often, this will only be for a short time while your home is made safe or another family member may be involved in making a safe home for your child. But if arrangements can't be made for your child to return to a safe home, a long-term arrangement with foster parents will be made. Children in the care of the local authority are called 'looked after' children.

If your child is taken into care or if social services want to take your child into care, you should:

  • cooperate with social services – if you are honest and helpful, social services should try to help you to provide a safe home for your child or children. If you lie or threaten violence, social services will be worried about your ability to care for your child
  • get advice from a specialist solicitor, who can help you to get what you want as well as what is best for your child. You can get a list of childcare solicitors in your area from Citizens Advice, the Law Society or online using the Legal Adviser Finder.

Do social services have to listen to what you say you need?

Social services have to take your wishes into account when they decide what kind of services to provide.

If your child is 16 or over, his or her wishes cannot be overruled by parents and social services can't force the child to go back home.

Social services should also consider your gender and your ethnic and religious background when deciding how to help you. However, it's important to be realistic, as the type of services you can get will depend on what is available in your area.

Should housing and social services departments work together?

Social services and housing departments of the council should work together to help you. Every council should have set procedures for referring people between housing and social services departments. This should avoid people being passed back and forth between the two. However, these systems don't always work so get advice immediately if you have problems getting help.

Use Shelter's directory to find a local adviser who can help you deal with the council.

Most families with children who are homeless or at risk of losing their home should be able to get help from the council's housing department by making a homelessness application. You do not have to be sleeping on the streets to do this and the fact that you have children means that you are automatically in priority need.

However, the housing department will probably refer you to social services if they decide that:

  • you are intentionally homeless, or
  • you are not eligible for assistance because of your immigration status
  • they do have a duty to help you because of your homelessness application but think that social services would be able to provide more appropriate help (for example, if you have difficulty living independently).

Making a complaint about social services

You may not be offered the kind of accommodation or services you need. Social services have to make difficult decisions about what they can afford. You may not always be able to get all the services that you want, but you can make a complaint if:

  • the accommodation and services you are offered are not suitable
  • social services refuses to look into your situation to check whether you are entitled to help.

Social services must put the interests of your child first. This could mean that social services might do things that you are not happy with, but there are things that you can do if your child is taken into care.

Every council must have a complaints procedure and there are also legal rules about how complaints should be dealt with. Get advice from a Shelter advice centre, Citizens Advice or other local advice centre before making a complaint as the procedure can be complicated.

Use Shelter's directory to find an advice centre in your area.

What if the child doesn't live with you?

If you have parental responsibility for your child, then you have a right to be consulted about decisions relating to your child. This is the case even if your child doesn't live with you.

The child's mother gets parental responsibility when the child is born. The father gets parental responsibility if:

  • he is married to the mother when the child is born, or marries her later, or
  • he is named on the birth certificate as the father, or
  • he gets parental responsibility by a parental responsibility agreement, court order or re-registration of the birth. You can get advice on these options from Citizens Advice or a solicitor.

Use our directory to find advice agencies in your area.

Read Shelter's fact sheet  Am I Homeless? for more information on help for homeless people.

Last updated: 1 January 2014