Children who need local authority services

This advice applies to Scotland. See advice for See advice for England, See advice for Northern Ireland, See advice for Wales

Duties of local authorities

Every local authority must protect and promote the welfare of children in need in its area. To do this, it must work with children and their parents to provide support services to enable children to be brought up in their own families, as far as this is possible.

The local authority should also work with other groups and services in the community, such as health and education services, to check that children's needs and development are safeguarded to ensure their well-being.

Assessment of well-being

The Scottish government has identified eight indicators of well-being: safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included. When a child's progress is assessed, these indicators should be looked at with other agencies, the child and their parents or other full-time carers.

A well-being assessment can be done whenever there are concerns for a child or young person under 18. By identifying a child's problems and finding solutions that involve a number of agencies, it's hoped that the child's or young person's development can progress without risk of harm. The outcome of an assessment of well-being should allow a child and their parents or other carers to request the assistance needed.

You can find out more in the leaflet 'Understanding wellbeing' on the Scottish government website.

Who are children in need

Children in need are defined in law as children who are aged under 18 and:

  • need local authority services to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development

  • need local authority services to prevent harm to their health or development

  • are disabled

  • are affected by the impairment of a family member

  • are at risk of becoming a looked-after child because they're not in a settled situation

Children who are disabled or affected by impairment

A child is considered disabled if they have a mental or physical impairment or a chronic health problem.

A child may be affected by the impairment of a family member if one of their parents or siblings is disabled.

If a child is disabled or affected by the impairment of a family member, the local authority must provide an assessment of the child, if the parents ask for one. The local authority must also provide an assessment of the child’s carer and their ability to provide care for the child.

When a local authority provides services to a child who's disabled or affected by the impairment of a family member, it should aim to help the child to live as normal a life as possible.

Services for children at risk

The local authority has to provide or arrange services for children who it believes are at risk and in danger of needing compulsory measures of care or supervision. These children are known as looked after by the local authority. The services the local authority provides have to be relevant and should mean that the child stops being at risk. Help can be given at the same time to carers of the child.

Relevant services should be provided for a pregnant woman at risk and anyone closely involved in her life, including someone who may become more involved in her life when the child is born.

If you or a child or pregnant woman you care for is at risk and you need more help to understand what support you might be eligible for, go to your local Citizens Advice Bureau or your local authority.

How to apply for support from the local authority

Local authorities must provide information for parents and children about the services they provide. A child or a parent should contact the local authority's social work department or the department which deals with social work services.

The local authority should discuss with the family what their needs are. The local authority and the family should plan together how to resolve the problem and agree on what support is required. The child’s views are important and the local authority must take account of them.

Once a child has been assessed, the local authority should make a plan giving details of:

  • what services will be provided

  • how long they may be needed for

  • what they plan to achieve by providing services

  • what each person is expected to do

The plan should give details of any areas of disagreement between the family and the local authority and details of arrangements for dealing with problems. The local authority must offer a child and their family options for deciding how the support will be arranged. This is called self-directed support.

What support can be arranged

Support for children in need may be provided directly by the local authority or by a voluntary or commercial organisation, funded by the local authority. A range of services can be provided.

Advice, information and support

Advice, information or support to children in need and their families may be available. This may be simple advice about a particular problem over the phone, or more regular guidance and counselling.

Help at home

Help in the home may be available, through regular visits by a social worker or befriender.

Home help may be required to help with household tasks which will enable the parent to spend more time with their children.

If the child is disabled, the local authority may provide help in the way of adaptations or equipment, or help with finding more suitable housing.

Day care

A local authority must provide day care for children in need who are under five and must provide after-school and holiday care for children in need who are of school age.

Day care can be provided by the local authority directly or by voluntary or independent agencies registered with the local authority. Care could be provided in a centre or by a childminder.

Family centres

Family centres provide a range of services for children and their families. They may provide opportunities for families to meet other families and take part in recreational activities. They may offer such facilities as parent-and-toddler groups, toy libraries or adult education classes.

Respite services

Respite services may be offered to families where a child is disabled or has behavioural problems. Respite services offer a break for carers and an opportunity for the child to develop independence and receive support and social experiences.

Respite services can be provided in a number of ways, for example:

  • in the family home

  • day trips away from home

  • occasional overnight stays away from home

  • longer periods away from home with a foster carer or in a residential home

  • breaks for the family away from home

Community services

The local authority can meet its obligation to provide services to children in need in a wide variety of ways, including funding voluntary or private organisations, or through other statutory services such as libraries, health centres or youth groups.

Financial help

The local authority can help children in need or at risk by providing cash help. The help may be in the form of a loan, a cash payment or a payment in kind, for example vouchers for a shop. The local authority can only make cash payments in exceptional circumstances, and if you want to apply for a cash payment you'll have to convince the local authority that your case is exceptional. The authority will want to consider whether the help can be provided in a different way or if there are other sources of financial help available.

If family problems mean that a relative is caring for children while their own parents can't care for them, the local authority might be able to help. You should get advice about your situation as you might be a kinship carer.

If you want to apply to the local authority for financial help, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example at a Citizens Advice Bureau. Find out where to get advice.

Self-directed support

If, after an assessment, a local authority decides that a child and their family need support services, it must offer them a variety of options for deciding what support services they'd like and how they should be organised. This is called self-directed support.

The options are:

  • to receive a direct payment from the local authority, so that the child or their family can arrange and manage the support themselves

  • to choose the type of support required but the local authority makes the arrangements and manages the budget

  • to ask the local authority to make the decisions about the type of support required, make the arrangements and manage the budget

  • a mix of the three options

You can find more information and advice about self-directed support on the Self-Directed Support Scotland website.


A local authority can provide accommodation to help a child in need or their family. The local authority must provide accommodation to a child if they are under 18 and:

  • no one has parental responsibility for them

  • they're lost or abandoned

  • the person with parental responsibility can't provide suitable accommodation or care for the child

Anyone who's caring for a child can ask the local authority to provide the child with accommodation for a period when they're unable to do so, for example because they're ill or finding it difficult to manage for other reasons. The child only needs to be accommodated until the carer decides they can resume their day-to-day responsibilities for the child.

If a parent approaches the local authority for help, a social worker will discuss the problem with the parent and the child. The social worker should also discuss whether other options could enable the child to stay at home rather than moving into local authority accommodation.

What type of accommodation might the local authority provide

The type of accommodation provided by the local authority will depend on the needs of the child and the services available in the area. It could include:

  • placing the child with a relative

  • placing the child with another family (foster carers)

  • placing the child in a residential children’s home

  • providing any other arrangement which would meet the child’s needs

If a child has been provided with accommodation by the local authority, they're considered to be looked after by the local authority. The parents retain full parental responsibilities and rights towards the child. However, the local authority also has specific responsibilities towards the child.

Complaints about services for children in need

The local authority complaints procedure and the Care Inspectorate

A child or a parent may wish to complain about:

  • the local authority refusing to provide a service

  • the way that a decision was made about providing a service

  • problems which arise once a service has been provided

  • the standard of care provided, including a complaint about a particular member of staff

It's against the law for a local authority to discriminate against you because of your race, sex or sexual orientation or because you're disabled. If you feel you've been discriminated against, you can make a complaint about this.

You have a choice about who to complain to about a social service provided by the local authority. You can:

  • use the local authority complaints procedure. The authority has a duty to ensure that a child and their family know about the procedure and how to use it

  • make a complaint to the Care Inspectorate, which is the independent body responsible for regulating care services. Sometimes the Care Inspectorate may want you to use the local authority complaints procedure first, but you don't have to

The Care Inspectorate

Compass House

11 Riverside Drive



Tel: 0345 600 9527



If you have a complaint about a particular member of staff, you could complain first to the person’s line manager or, if the member of staff is registered with the Scottish Social Services Council, directly to the council.

Scottish Social Services Council

Compass House

11 Riverside Drive



Tel: 0345 60 30 891

Contact form on website


Further action

Within the local authority complaints procedure

If you're unhappy with the response from the local authority, you can ask for a review of its decision. If you're still unhappy after the review, you can take the complaint further in a number of ways outlined below.

The Care Inspectorate

If you didn't complain to the Care Inspectorate in the first instance, you can do so after using the local authority complaints procedure. If you're unhappy with the Care Inspectorate's decision, you can complain to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

You can complain to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman after the complaint has been through the normal complaint process.

You must put your complaint to the ombudsman in writing and you should include any letters to and from the organisation you're complaining about. Send your letter to:

The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

Bridgeside House

99 McDonald Road



Tel: 0800 377 7330

Fax: 0800 377 7331

Contact form on website 


Complain to the Scottish minister

You may want to complain to the relevant Scottish minister about what you think is a failure of the local authority to comply with one of its legal duties, for example under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. You'll need the help of an experienced adviser to do this. You should consult your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

Depending on the nature of the complaint, you may be able to take legal action in one of the following ways:

  • apply for judicial review

  • raise a court action because of discrimination on grounds of race, sex, sexual orientation, disability or religion

  • claim a breach of human rights

You'll need the help of a solicitor to take legal action, and legal aid may be available to do this.