The topic of parental engagement in the context of child protection is of significant international interest, given much documented problems of achieving effective ‘partnerships’ where professional agencies raise serious concerns about children. This article reports the findings of a qualitative study of interaction between professionals and parents in the quasi-judicial setting of pre-proceedings meetings in England. Recent legislative changes in England and Wales have aimed to improve the prospects for effective partnership work with parents through a revised pre-proceedings process. Through detailed examination of parent-professional interaction using methods of applied discourse studies, the study highlights the constraints that institutional requirements create in terms of the differential rights and obligations of parents and professionals. Inevitably, that talk is asymmetrically organized in favour of the local authority, leads to resistance on the part of parents. The study highlights problems of engaging parents who display both active and passive forms of resistance, as they seek to challenge or reject organizational goals. The study concludes with broader observations about the likely limits of legislative efforts that seek to ‘re-order’ the complex relationships between parents and professionals in child protection work.