Although all families with young children have a health visitor, they don't all have a social worker. However, many parents of sick or disabled children do have social work support to help them meet the extra demands they face. Most social workers are employed by local authority social services departments and are based either in local social services offices or in hospitals. The rest are employed by the larger voluntary societies.
You can be referred to a social worker by your child's health visitor, doctor or teacher. However, many people refer themselves so no one will be surprised if you do. You just have to phone or visit your local social services office or hospital social worker. If you do this, you'll talk first to the duty officer who will try to organise immediate attention if you need urgent help. Then she will pass your enquiry to a senior social worker who will decide who should follow it up. Don't be surprised if the person who deals with you eventually isn't the one you first spoke to. It's just the way the system works, not, as one mother felt, a sign your case has been kicked around the office.
Some social services departments are organised generically which means all the social workers do a bit of everything. Others are divided into departments for learning disabilities, child care, mental illness etc. Don't assume you automatically need a child care social worker. Sometimes someone from the learning disabilities or elderly and physically disabled teams would be more useful. There may also be someone specialising in helping the visually disabled or hearing impaired.
A medical social worker based at your hospital may be able to offer you good support, especially if she has experience with other children like yours. If the hospital is some way from your home, she may only have limited knowledge of the help you could receive locally but she should be able to suggest other people you could contact. If she works at a small, local hospital, she may have less experience of your specific situation but more knowledge of local services.
Social work training covers many areas so only a limited amount of time can be devoted to the needs of disabled and sick children and their families. If you are lucky, your social worker will have specialised in this area after qualifying so she will know the problems you face and have sensible ideas on how to cope with them. However, if she has no experience with families like yours, she may have only limited understanding of your needs. If she misunderstands your situation and offers inappropriate help, say so as calmly as you can. Try stating your needs very specifically - ask for the exact help or information you need.
Personality matters more with social workers than with many of the other professionals. How can you be expected to talk about your deepest concerns to someone you don't like? If you find it difficult to get on with your social worker, talk to her team leader or senior - ask the secretaries at her office to put you in touch. Be diplomatic. There's no need to call your social worker an insensitive cow, just say you find it difficult to confide in her. The senior will understand your need to relate to someone and should either arrange for a change of social worker or try to persuade the existing one to improve.
Contrary to popular opinion, social workers don't delight in taking children away from their parents. Your social worker would rather help you cope than end up with your child in care. If she offers you respite care of some sort, this is not the thin end of the wedge. She is trying to give you a breathing space, not trying to steal your child away.
As well as respite care, your social worker may be able to organise help with alterations to your home, special equipment, home helps and home sitters although resources vary widely from area to area and their availability is limited by cost. Some social services departments also use approved volunteers to provide a wide range of help.
Your social worker should know about local facilities like toy libraries and opportunity playgroups, be able to explain the various benefits to which you may be entitled and help you complete the application forms. In addition, she may know of charities which could help and be willing to contact them for you. Her support can make considerable difference to the success of some of your own requests for help and is particularly useful if you are seeking more suitable housing from your local council or housing association.