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Children’s services departments sometimes receive information that makes them suspect a child may not be safe or well cared for. This information is called a referral. If after receiving a referral, children’s services suspect a child is suffering significant harm, they must investigate this. This is called making child protection enquiries.
When children’s services make child protection enquiries they aim to:
- Gather information about the child and their family
- Assess the family’s situation
- Decide whether they think the child is suffering significant harm
- Decide whether they think the child is likely to suffer significant harm
- Decide whether they should take any action to keep the child safe and promote their welfare.
- What the law says about child protection and ‘harm’
- How child protection enquiries start
- The child protection process
- How children’s services should work with families during the child protection process
- Children’s involvement in the child protection process
- Complaining about a child protection conference
What the law says about child protection and ‘harm’
How child protection enquiries start
Most child protection enquiries begin when children’s services receive information suggesting a child may not be safe and well cared for. This is known as a referral. Child protection enquiries can also be held in respect of an unborn child. See our Parents to be page for more information about how children’s services may assess and provide support to parents-to-be.
Click on the dropdowns below for more information about referrals and the start of the child protection enquiries.
Who may make a referral and should children’s do once they receive one?
Anyone can make a referral if they are concerned about a child. So a referral may come from a member of the public or a family member. Or it may come from someone involved with the family or child. This could be a teacher, health visitor, the police or a GP for example.
What should children’s services do once they get a referral?
Government statutory guidance says that when they receive a referral, children’s services should decide certain things within one working day (see Working Together to Safeguard Children at page 33, paragraph 78).
They should confirm the referral has been received and then decide:
- Whether the child needs any immediate protection or immediate services
- Whether to start an assessment and if so, what type:
Children’s services must also:
- Tell the person who made the referral what action (if any) they plan to take
Tell the parent and the child what action (if any) they plan to take. Unless doing that may place the child at risk of harm (see Working Together 2018, page 34, paragraph 80).
Will a referral always lead to a child protection enquiry?
Whether a referral leads to children’s services making child protection enquiries will depend on the precise situation. But section 47 of the Children Act 1989 says if significant harm to a child is suspected, enquiries must be made, and must also be made if a child is in police protection, or under an emergency protection order.
Do parents have a choice about whether child protection enquiries are carried out?
No. This is because the enquiries are being made in response to concern a child may be suffering significant harm or is likely to. When concerns are about that level of harm, children’s services can become involved even if this is against the family’s wishes, to ensure a child is safe.
The child protection process
Exactly what happens once child protection enquiries have started will depend on the precise situation. But any of the stages of the child protection process below may take place next. These events may or may not happen in this order. Again, it will depend on the situation. Click on the boxes below to read more about each stage.
How children’s services should work with families during the child protection process
There are some generally principles which should guide the way children’s services make decisions and work. Working in partnership with families is one of those principles. There is more information about these on our Children’s services page. The FAQs below look at how children’s services should work with families during the child protection process.
Children’s involvement in the child protection process
A child protection enquiry should be carried out in a way which limits the distress to the child and to their parent or carer (see Working Together 2018 at pages 38 to 39). The FAQs below explain the ways in which children may be involved in child protection enquiries. And how social workers should approach their work with children.
Will children’s services want to see the child during child protection enquiries?
Yes. Children’s services will want to see the child. They generally ask the parent or carer for their agreement before speaking with a child.
Working Together says that wherever possible the social worker doing the enquiry should see the child alone. This is because it is part of the social worker’s role (and duty) to find out what the child thinks about their situation and what they think may help the family (see Working Together 2018, page 45).
Can children’s services speak to a child without a parents' permission?
Yes, but only if they think that asking permission would put a child at further risk. This is explained in government guidance called Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings 2011 see page 19, paragraph 2.40).
The sort of situation in which a parent’s permission might not be asked is when there are joint police and children’s services’ enquiries and:
- The police and children’s services are concerned that a possible victim of abuse (e.g. the child) might be threatened into silence
- There is a strong likelihood that important evidence may be destroyed, or
- The child does not want their parent and carer involved and is able to make that decision.
The guidance is clear that the police and children’s services do need the agreement of a parent or someone else with parental responsibility if they want to interview a child on video (see page 19, paragraph 2.37).
The decision as to whether the police and children’s services will make child protection enquiries together – a joint enquiry – is made at a strategy discussion. See the strategy meeting (discussion) section for more information.
What if a parent doesn’t want children’s services to see their child?
If a parent refuses to allow children’s services to see or speak to their child, children’s services may apply to the court for a child assessment order or even an emergency protection order or interim care order.
If the court makes any one of these orders, children’s services could remove the child against the parent or carer’s wishes. Parents should, therefore, always allow children’s services to see their child to avoid this happening.
How will the child be involved in the child protection conference?
A child may be invited to take part in the child protection conference. Whether or not this is appropriate will depend on their age and development, and whether they want to attend. The conference Chair will usually decide whether the child should attend part, or all, of the conference.
The child’s views are very important and they should be supported to express their views in any child welfare meeting. They should be offered a children’s advocate, whose job is to help children to say what has happened, and what they feel they need. If the child does not want to attend the conference themselves, they can talk to the advocate who could then attend the conference to express the child’s views. Or they could help them to put their views in writing. Whether or not an advocate is involved, it is a key part of the social worker’s role in the child protection process to make sure that the child’s wishes and feelings are put across in the conference.
For further information about advocacy support for children see our Children working with advocates guide on the Top tips and templates page.
Complaining about a child protection conference
Parents and carers can make formal complaints about the child protection process. How exactly to complain depends on what the complaint is about. The table here and FAQs below explain more.
Can a complaint change the decision that a child should be on a child protection plan?
A complaint cannot change the decision of a child protection conference. But it is possible for a complaint to result in:
- A new conference being held
- A new conference chair being involved.
The conference would consider whether a child needs to be a child protection plan. And if a plan is needed, what it should include. The conference will not necessarily reach a different decision to the previous one.
Can decisions made at a new child protection conference be challenged?
If a new conference is held after the complaint has been dealt with, this may be described as a ‘reconvened’ conference. At the start of a new conference the Chair must make sure that everyone present is told about the decisions made about the complaint. The conference is then held following the usual child protection conference procedures.
If an early review child protection conference has been arranged instead, the Chair must make sure everyone present is told about the decision made then.
If a parent or carer is not happy with the decision of a new conference (or an early review conference) they cannot take their complaint any further within children’s services. But it may be possible to persuade the children’s services’ complaints manager and the child protection team manager to review any remaining concerns again. The aim will be to see if these issues can be sorted out.
What can a parent do if they are dissatisfied with the outcome of the complaints process?
In this situation a parent or carer may contact the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO). They can only do this if:
- The children’s services complaints process has been followed, and
- That process is finished.
See our Complaints page for further information.
Can a child protection conference’s decision be appealed in a court?
There is normally no basis for a court appeal. But, in exceptional cases, it may be possible to challenge a decision through a judicial review. This is a type of court case in the High Court. It involves a looking at a decision made (or action taken) by a public body. Children’s services departments are public bodies. Judicial review is a way of challenging how a decision has been made. There have to be good reasons (‘grounds’) for going ahead with a judicial review. It is a very specialist area of law. So anyone wanting to look into making a claim should seek legal advice. This should be from a solicitor who specialises in judicial review work.
See our Judicial Review advice sheet for further information.