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The child protection system in England

NSPCC factsheet

September 2013

This page sets out the child protection system in England.

National guidance
Reporting child protection concerns
Child protection referrals
Child protection investigations
Child protection case conferences
Care proceedings

National guidance

Child protection in England is the overall responsibility of the Department for Education (DfE).

Legislation and guidance

The legislative framework for the child protection system in England is the Children Act 1989 and the Children Act 2004.

The Department for Education issues guidance to local authorities. The current guidance is Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF) (HM Government, 2013). Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) use this guidance to produce their own procedures which should be followed by practitioners and professionals who come into contact with children and their families in that particular local authority area.

Local Safeguarding Children Boards and children's services

England's 148 Local Safeguarding Children Boards are responsible for ensuring that the key agencies involved in safeguarding children work effectively together in safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children at the local level. Their core membership is set out in Working together (HM, Government, 2013), and includes local authorities, health bodies, the police and two lay members.

The Act also requires every local authority in England to appoint a Director of Children's Services and to designate an elected councillor as Lead Member for children's services, who are professionally accountable and politically accountable (respectively) for the education and children's social services functions of the local authority.

Reporting child protection concerns

There are no mandatory reporting laws in England, but guidance issued by professional bodies and Local Safeguarding Children Boards emphasise the duty to make a referral where there is a reasonable belief that a child is at risk of significant harm.

General public

A member of the public who has a concern about the welfare of a child should report their concerns to either:

  • their local authority child protection team - a telephone number including an out-of-hours contact should be publicly available
  • the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000, email help@nspcc.org.uk or text 88858; or
  • in case of an emergency, the police.

Referrals made to the NSPCC and the police are passed on, as appropriate, to local authority child protection teams.


All professionals who work with children and families should have their organisation's procedures to follow if they have concerns about the welfare of a child.

All schools must have a designated child protection person, who is approached in the first instance.

Health sector organisations similarly have designated nurses and doctors who deal with child protection issues. Other organisations may have their own procedures, most of which will involve going through the line-manager channel.

Child protection referrals

Once the local authority child protection team receives a referral, it has a duty to investigate concerns about any child who is physically present in their area, even if the child is a resident of a different local authority.


An initial assessment is undertaken to gather information about the needs of the child and whether the parents can adequately safeguard the child; to decide what action may be necessary and from which agencies.

If the child is not deemed to have suffered actual, or be at risk of likely, significant harm then the social worker will meet the child, family and other professionals to determine and organise appropriate support services.

A child in need

If it is decided that the child is in need of further support from social services, they are officially designated a child in need (as defined by section 17 of the Children Act 1989). Under this section, local authorities have a duty to provide services to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need. The outcomes will be reviewed and the case closed when appropriate.

Significant harm

Harm is defined under section 31(9) of the Children Act 1989 as "ill treatment or the impairment of health or development". Section 120 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 added to this definition: "… including for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another". To decide whether harm is significant, the health and development of the child is "compared with that which could reasonably be expected of a similar child" (section 31(10) of the Children Act 1989).

If it is decided that the child has suffered or is at risk of significant harm and is in need of protection, children's services will make further investigations or take any necessary immediate action.

Immediate danger

If at any time during the assessment or child protection process it becomes apparent that the child is in immediate danger, agencies can take steps to secure the safety of the child.

The local authority can apply for an Emergency Protection Order (EPO) to remove a child from home. They can also apply for a Child Assessment Order which requires parents or carers to allow professionals access to the child in order to undertake an assessment, or an Exclusion Order which allows a perpetrator to be removed from the home. The police also have powers of protection to remove a child to a place of safety where they have reasonable grounds to suspect the child is at risk of significant harm or to stop a child being removed from a place of safety.

The NSPCC is named in section 31(9) of the Children Act 1989 as an authorised person, which means it also has the power to apply directly for a court order if it believes a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm.

Child protection investigations

Section 47 enquiry

In cases where a child is believed to have suffered or be at risk of significant harm, a strategy discussion takes place. Professionals from the relevant agencies will meet to decide whether to initiate a section 47 enquiry. This refers to an enquiry under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 and initiates further investigation.

The social worker leads an assessment gathering more information from the child, parents, family members and other professionals in order to determine whether the child is in need or at risk of continuing harm.

If the section 47 enquiries substantiate concerns about a child, a child protection case conference will then be convened.

Child protection case conferences

A child protection conference is held when a child is deemed to be at risk from significant harm following a section 47 enquiry to decide whether or not to make a child subject to a child protection plan. Child protection conferences can also take place before the birth of a child. This can happen if, for example, there is a history of child abuse from the parents, or if the mother is substance-dependent or suffering from mental health problems.

Who attends the child protection conference

The conference should be attended by the child or the child's representative, child protection officers (social workers), other relevant professionals who have been involved with the assessment process, and family members.

Initial child protection conference

The initial child protection conference is responsible for agreeing an outline child protection plan and deciding who should be part of the core group which then develop the details of the plan. The core group is designated to meet regularly (the first meeting should be within 10 days of the child protection conference) to monitor the progress of the outcomes contained in the plan. The child protection plan contains details of how children's services will check on the child's welfare, what changes are needed to reduce the risk to the child and what support will be offered to the family.

Review conference

A child protection review conference must be held within three months of the initial child protection conference, and further reviews should be held at intervals of not more than six months for as long as the child is the subject of a child protection plan.

Care proceedings

'Care proceedings' is the phrase used to describe the legal process by which children's services ask the court to allow them to take a young person into care.

To begin with, the local authority will ask the court to make temporary orders (called interim care orders) while matters are investigated further and plans are made. If children's services think a care order is necessary, they will ask for a full care order to be made.


Care proceedings are usually held in the family proceedings court of the magistrate's court. This court is also responsible for awarding emergency protection orders. More complex cases may be transferred to a higher court, where decisions are made by judges. The court will appoint a children's guardian (an expert welfare officer) to look after the child's interests during the proceedings. If a child is judged to be sufficiently mature they will also be allowed to appoint a solicitor to represent their own wishes as well.

Interim care orders

The first step in care proceedings is usually to apply to the courts for an interim care order. The local authority has to produce a care plan, detailing where the child shall live and arrangements for attending school and seeing parents. In some cases, the child may continue to live with the parents under specified conditions. If these conditions are not met, then the local authority is able to intervene, without having to obtain a separate court order. An interim care order is awarded for eight weeks in the first instance, and then must be renewed every four weeks.

An interim care order gives the professionals enough time to complete their assessments and collect evidence for the final care order hearing. It also gives them time to work with the family to see whether the child can be returned, and simultaneously plan for their placement away from home.

Care order

At the final hearing, the court will decide whether to make a full care order. To make a care order, the court must be convinced that the threshold criteria set out in section 31(9) of the Children Act 1989 are met (that the child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm and that the harm is attributable to the parents or carers). The court must also be convinced that making an order is better for the child than making no order at all - this is known as the presumption of no order.

Once a care order is awarded, the care plan for the child will be implemented. Depending on the circumstances of the individual, the child may continue to live at home or be placed in kinship care (with other members of the family), foster care or a children's home. In some cases the care plan may contain plans to return the child to their family, which may or may not result in the care order being discharged.

A care order gives the local authority parental responsibility for a child. In theory, this parental responsibility is shared with the parents, but in practice, the local authority has the power to determine the extent to which a parent or guardian is involved with their child and how far they are allowed to exercise their parental responsibility.

Adoption order

In circumstances where it would be unsafe for the child to return to live with her/his parents, the local authority may seek to have the child adopted. An adoption order (which transfers parental responsibility to the adoptive parents) is only made by a court following extensive enquiries. The sole criteria for deciding if the order should be made, is the best interest of the child.

At the point of the adoption the care order is discharged and the adoptive parents take over sole parental responsibility. Otherwise, care orders last until the child turns 18, but local authorities have a duty to continue to promote the welfare of care-leavers until the age of 21.

Looked after children

Children become 'looked-after' by local authorities if they are subject to a care order. A child may be 'looked-after' but still be living with their parents (under the terms of the care plan). Children may also be looked after under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. This means children are accommodated with the permission of their parents, which may be because the parents are unable to cope, or to provide short-term respite care for children with disabilities or long-term care for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.


Adoption and Children Act 2002. London: The Stationery Office (TSO).

Children Act 1989. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO).

Children Act 2004. London: The Stationery Office (TSO).

HM Government (2013) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). London: Department for Education (DfE).

Contact the NSPCC's information service for information on child protection in England or any child protection topic