National Guidance England

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Child protection system in England

The Department for Education (DfE) is responsible for child protection in England. It sets out policy, legislation, and statutory guidance on how the child protection system should work.

Why legislation is important for safeguarding children.

Legislation provides the framework for safeguarding and child protection in England. It makes clear the expectations and requirements around duties of care to children and creates accountability for these. The main legislation in England is the Children Act 1989, the Children Act 2004 and the Children and Social Work Act 2017.

Who is responsible for safeguarding and child protection?

Local safeguarding partners are responsible for child protection policy, procedure, and guidance at a local level.

The local safeguarding arrangements are led by three statutory safeguarding partners:

  • the local authority
  • the integrated care board (ICB, previously clinical commissioning group or 'CCG')
  • the police.

Working together with other relevant agencies, they must co-ordinate and ensure the effectiveness of work to protect and promote the welfare of children, including making arrangements to identify and support children at risk of harm.

Reviewing the child protection system in England

In May 2022, two government-commissioned reviews were published about the child protection system in England:

  • The National review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson looked at how and why the services intended to protect children were not able to do so (Hudson and Child Safeguarding Review Panel, 2022).
  • The independent review of children’s social care looked at the changes needed to better protect and support children and young people (MacAlister, 2022).

The DfE responded to the reviews’ recommendations with a long-term plan for the reform of children’s social care, Stable homes, built on love: implementation strategy (DfE, 2023).

In October 2022, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published its final report and recommendations into child sexual abuse and exploitation in institutions in England and Wales (IICSA, 2022). In May 2023, the Home Office (Home Office, 2023) set out how they would be responding to IICSA’s recommendations.

Reporting concerns

In England, people working with children are expected to report concerns about a child’s welfare to the relevant agencies.

Duty to protect children

The key guidance for child protection is Working together to safeguard children (Department for Education, 2023). This states:

The guidance makes it clear that protecting children from abuse, neglect and exploitation requires cooperation across all agencies at all levels.

In addition, section 11 of the Children Act 2004 places a statutory duty on certain agencies to co-operate to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. This includes:

  • local authorities
  • NHS services and trusts
  • police
  • probation services and young offenders’ institutions.

People who work in these agencies and who do not report suspected cases of abuse or neglect may be subject to disciplinary proceedings but do not currently face criminal penalties.

Mandatory reporting

It is mandatory for all regulated health and social care professionals and teachers in England to report 'known cases' of female genital mutilation (FGM) in under 18s to the police (Home Office, 2016).

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) recommended that the government make it a legal requirement for certain people to report child sexual abuse when:

  • they’re told about it by a child or perpetrator.
  • they witness it happening.
  • they observe recognised indicators of child sexual abuse.

The Home Office is gathering views on how a legal duty to report child sexual abuse would affect children, organisations, workplaces, and volunteers (Home Office, 2023).

How to report concerns about a child’s welfare

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our child protection specialists will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice.
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in.
  • Contact the police.

Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

Working together to safeguard children states that local authority children’s services should give feedback to anyone who has made a child protection referral to them on the decisions they have taken (Department for Education, 2018).

If your organisation doesn't have a clear safeguarding procedures, or you're concerned about how child protection issues are being handled in your own, or another, organisation, contact the Whistleblowing Advice Line to discuss your concerns.

When you're not sure

The NSPCC Helpline can help when you're not sure if a situation needs a safeguarding response. Our child protection specialists are here to support you whether you’re seeking advice, sharing concerns about a child, or looking for reassurance.

Whatever the need, reason or feeling, you can contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk

Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you. Depending on what you share, our experts will talk you through which local services can help, advise you on next steps, or make referrals to children's services and the police.

Referrals and investigations

Working together to safeguard children (Department for Education, 2023) highlights the importance of providing early help to promote the welfare of children. Local organisations and agencies should work together to:

  • identify children and families who would benefit from early help.
  • undertake an assessment.
  • ensure good ongoing communication.
  • co-ordinate or provide support.
  • engage effectively with families and the family network.

If a child has complex needs, it may be appropriate for the local authority to provide support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (children in need).

Where there are child protection concerns, the local authority must make enquiries and decide if any action must be taken under section 47 of the Children Act 1989.

Assessing child welfare and child protection concerns

It is the responsibility of the local authority to investigate any concerns raised about a child’s welfare.

If the child is not in immediate danger, there will be an assessment of the child’s needs. Within one working day of a referral being received, a local authority social worker should acknowledge receipt to the referrer and make a decision about next steps and the type of response required. This will include determining whether:

  • the child requires immediate protection and urgent action is required.
  • the child is in need and should be assessed under section 17 of the Children Act 1989
  • there is reasonable cause to suspect that the child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, and whether enquires must be made and the child assessed under section 47 of the Children Act 1989
  • any services are required by the child and family and what type of services.
  • further specialist assessments are required to help the local authority to decide what further action to take.

Assessing the risk of significant harm

If information gathered during an assessment suggests that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, the local authority should hold a strategy discussion to enable it to decide, with other agencies, whether it must undertake a section 47 enquiry.

A Section 47 enquiry refers to Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 and involves social workers gathering evidence and speaking with the child, family and other relevant professionals to determine if any interventions may be beneficial to the child's welfare.

All assessments should be completed within 45 working days from the point of referral into local authority children's social care.

If the child is in immediate danger the local authority or an authorised person can take the following action through the courts:

  • an emergency protection order can be issued to immediately remove a child to a place of safety.
  • an exclusion order can be issued to remove the abuser from the family home.
  • a child assessment order can be issued for a children's social worker to assess the child’s needs without the parents' or carers' consent.
  • the police can remove a child to a place of safety for up to 72 hours without obtaining a court order.
  • a female genital mutilation protection order (FGMPO) can be applied for through a family court and offers the means of protecting actual or potential victims from FGM under the civil law.

Child protection conferences

A child protection conference is held if a child is assessed as being at risk of significant harm. It may also take place where there are concerns about an unborn child.

At the case conference relevant professionals can share information, identify risks, and outline what needs to be done to protect the child.

In England, this must happen within 15 working days of the strategy discussion.

Professionals draft a child protection plan which the core group will develop and implement.

A core group is set up of family members and professionals.

Child protection measures

Child protection plan

A child protection plan sets out what action needs to be taken, by when and by whom (including family members), to keep the child safe from harm and to promote their welfare.

The plan will be reviewed at regular child protection conferences until the child is no longer considered at risk of significant harm or until they are taken into care.

Care proceedings.

In some cases, professionals may conclude that the parents or carers are not able to provide safe or appropriate care for their child and the local authority will decide to take the child into care.

Unless the level of risk requires the courts to get involved immediately, care proceedings will only start after extensive efforts to keep the child with their family.

If the child is still at risk following these efforts, then the parents will be invited to a pre-proceedings meeting as a final attempt to avoid going to court.

Voluntary accommodation

A child may be taken in to care voluntarily through Section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

A local authority must provide accommodation for children who do not have anywhere suitable to live. This includes children who have nobody to look after them or whose parents are unable to look after them for a period of time, due to illness or other problems.

Under Section 20 a parent retains all their legal rights and can require the child’s return at any stage.

Going to court

Care proceedings are usually held in the Family Court although more complex cases may be held in the High Court.

The court will make sure the child has a children's guardian. The guardian's job is to look after the child's interests. If the child is mature enough, they can appoint their own solicitor to represent their wishes.

The child's social worker will make a care plan to help the court decide how the child should be cared for.

Care orders.

If the courts agree that it's necessary, they can make an order giving the local authority parental responsibility for a child. There are four types of care order.

Interim care order

At the initial hearing the court may decide that an interim care order is needed to set out what should happen to the child during proceedings.

This is awarded for eight weeks initially. The social worker and an officer from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) among others will try to understand why the child might be at risk and what can be done to keep them safe.

The social worker and Cafcass officer will then produce reports on what they think should happen to the child, after consulting with the parents, child and family and friends.

This will include whether they think the child should be taken into care or stay with the family.

The judge will decide how long the interim care order will last and how often it will be reviewed.

Concurrent planning

While the interim care order is in place, professionals can work together with the family to see if the child can return home. Other options that may be explored are rehabilitation and placement.

Rehabilitation aims to return the child to the birth family, while placements offer options for fostering or adoption.

Care order.

The court will only make a full care order if they are convinced:

  • the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm
  • making an order would be better for the child than making no order and that the level of harm is due to either:
  • the care the child is receiving or likely to receive if the care order isn't made; or
  • the child is beyond parental control.

A care order gives the local authority shared parental responsibility with the parents, but the local authority has the power to decide how much involvement a parent should have with their child.

  • Placement order. This allows a child to be placed with prospective adopters prior to an adoption order, if the local authority believes this is the best option for the child.
  • Adoption order. This transfers parental responsibility to the adoptive parents. It's made by a court following extensive enquiries, based on the best interests of the child.

At the point of the adoption the care order ends, and the adoptive parents take over sole parental responsibility.

Unless an adoption order is made or the child returns home, care orders last until the child turns 18. Local authorities have a duty to continue to promote the welfare of care-leavers until the age of 21, or 25 if the young person wants to.

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