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The child protection system in Northern Ireland

NSPCC factsheet

This page sets out the child protection system in Northern Ireland. It looks at:

National guidance

Child protection in Northern Ireland is fully devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive and Northern Ireland Government departments, in particular to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS). A range of other departments have responsibility for elements of safeguarding. The primary piece of safeguarding legislation is the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

Northern Ireland is split into five Health and Social Care Trusts, each of which holds delegated responsibility for child protection in that area.

All five Trusts abide by a single set of child protection procedures called the Area Child Protection Committees’ regional policy and procedures 2005 (PDF) which is based on the DHSSPS guidance Co-operating to safeguard children (2003). The Social Services Gateway team within each Trust is responsible for investigating any concerns or allegations about children being abused.

Co-operating to safeguard children (PDF) was published by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) in 2003 to assist the then Area Child Protection Committees (ACPCs) develop strategies, policies and procedures to safeguard children who are assessed to be at risk of significant harm.

It aims to ensure that:

  • child protection services are targeted at children most in need of protection from serious forms of abuse;
  • when the provision of other services would more appropriately meet their needs;
  • that families are not exposed to the stress of being the subject of child protection investigations;
  • resources are targeted appropriately by the agencies involved.

This guidance defines child protection within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which says that “States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his parents, legal guardians or other individuals legally responsible for him and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures” (Article 3).

The guidance provides definitions of physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect to explain the different ways in which children can be abused.

Any concerns about harm, abuse or neglect must be passed on to relevant agencies so that they can be investigated.

The five Area Child Protection Committees (ACPCs) were replaced by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) in September 2012.

Reporting child protection concerns

In England, Scotland and Wales there is no formal requirement in law to report child protection concerns to the statutory authorities. In Northern Ireland, Section 5(1) of the Criminal Law Act (1967) provides for a criminal offence of failing to disclose an arrestable offence to the police, which includes most offences against children.

General public

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

  • the Gateway Services Team for Children’s Social Work at the Health and Social Care (HSC) Trust in the area that the child lives. NI Direct provides a list of contact details.
  • the NSPCC by phone 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 the local Health and Social Care Trust’s child protection team.


Guidance for Northern Ireland can be found in chapter five (PDF) of Co-operating to safeguard children (2003) which contains relevant information on handling individual cases. Any referrals should be confirmed in writing within 24 hours.

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

All schools in Northern Ireland must have a designated child protection teacher who is approached in the first instance.

Health and Social Care Trusts have designated nurses and doctors who deal with child protection issues. (see chapter 3 of chapter 3 of Co-operating to safeguard children (2003) (PDF).

Other organisations may have their own procedures which may involve going through the line-manager channel.

Professionals who need to assess a child’s needs can use the regionally agreed UNOCINI assessment framework referral form and assessment. The assessment can then be passed to children’s services if appropriate.

The UNOCINI assessment framework

Understanding the Needs of Children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) is an assessment framework developed by health and personal social services in conjunction with colleagues from other agencies and organisations, such as education and the police.

It aims to support professionals in assessment and planning to better meet the needs of children and their families by providing a process by which their circumstances can be considered. It provides a format for a preliminary assessment that can be undertaken by any professional within any agency. This helps professionals make effective and safe decisions about how a child and their family’s needs can be assessed.

The UNOCINI framework is intended for use by all professionals working with children as a tool to help them identify children's needs at an early stage and prevent problems from escalating. It can be used to make referrals to children's social services, and ensures that agencies are provided with important information about the children being referred.

A UNOCINI Initial Assessment will be carried out after social services receive a referral. Where appropriate this will lead to a UNOCINI Pathway Assessment. The framework has three assessment areas, each of which are split into four domains:

  • the needs of the child or young person
  • the capacity of their parents’ or carers’ to meet these needs
  • wider family and environmental factors that impact on parental capacity and children’s needs.

Guidance about how and when to use UNOCINI can be found in Understanding the Needs Of Children In Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) guidance (PDF) (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 2011).

Child protection referrals

When child protection concerns are received, the Health And Social Care Trust (and if a crime has been committed, the police) have a duty to investigate.

In practice this means an immediate referral should be made to a statutory agency such as the local health and social care trust children’s services and/or the police.

Once a referral is received, the Gateway Service must complete the Initial Assessment within a maximum of 10 working days. If required, this will be followed by automatic transfer into children’s services which operate behind Gateway. The Gateway Service Team Member retains responsibility to complete the Initial Assessment which will then be transferred on to the appropriate team.

The Initial Case Conference, which should be convened within 15 working days of receiving a child protection referral, will therefore act as the point of transfer of case responsibility to the Family Intervention Team.

Where the Initial Assessment indicates that a short time limited intervention will offer the appropriate support to children and their families, it is considered that the Gateway Service should conclude this piece of work as it offers greater continuity. If it transpires that longer term involvement is necessary, the Gateway Social Work Manager will transfer onto the Family Intervention Team (see Gateway service processes: guidance for Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Trusts (PDF) (DHSSPS, 2008).

Their enquiries may lead them to decide that the child has not been harmed and is not at risk of significant harm, so no further child protection action is necessary. Another response may be considered more appropriate, such as offering other services to the family.

If they decide that the child may be at risk of significant harm, a second stage of assessment is necessary (see Article 66 of Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

Significant harm

There are no absolute criteria for judging what constitutes significant harm. Chapter two (PDF) of Co-operating to safeguard children (2003) gives the following explanation:

“may include the degree, extent, duration and frequency of harm. Sometimes, a single traumatic event may constitute significant harm, e.g. a violent assault, sexual assault, suffocation or poisoning. More often, significant harm is a series of events, both acute and long-standing, which interrupt, change or damage the child’s physical and/or psychological development. Some children live in family and social circumstances where their health and development are neglected. For them, it is the corrosiveness of long-term emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse that causes impairment, sometimes to the extent of constituting significant harm” (paragraph 2.4, p.14).

Child protection investigations

The key agencies (social work services, the police and health services) will work together to establish the facts and gather and share information, to help assess the risk and needs for the child and decide if any protective action is needed.

If it becomes apparent that a child is in immediate danger, agencies can take legal action to protect them. If this is the case, the agency should secure the immediate safety of the child by either:

  • applying to the court for an Emergency Protection Order, Child Assessment or Interim Care Order and ensuring the child is in a safe place. This means the child will be placed in care on an interim basis whilst the family is assessed. Both of these orders can include a provision to exclude contact between a child and a specified adult. Or
  • in exceptional circumstances, Article 65 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 states that police protection may be provided where a child cannot be protected by any other means.

If emergency action is taken, the need to safeguard any other children in the house should always be considered.

The guidance for child protection investigations is contained in the Area Child Protection Committees’ regional policy and procedures 2005 (PDF).

The NSPCC also has powers under Article 49 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 as an authorised person to make applications for Emergency Protection Orders, Child Assessment/Supervision Orders and Care Orders.

Protections are also available for individuals and children under the Family Homes and Domestic Violence (NI) Order 1998. Individuals can apply for an Occupation Order or a Non-molestation Order under this legislation which also amended the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 to take account of children witnessing domestic violence.

Child protection case conferences

If the initial multi-agency assessment has deemed a child to be at risk from significant harm, a child protection case conference will be held. An initial child protection case conference brings together family members and agencies to decide whether to place the child on the child protection register. Child protection case conferences can also take place before a child is born, if there are concerns that the child may be at risk.

Case conferences are multi-agency meetings which allow practitioners to share information, identify risks and plan actions that will protect the child, including whether a child’s name should be put on the child protection register. A case conference should take place within a maximum of 15 working days of the first initial referral. It requires minimum attendance of the chairperson, a representative from social services, and representatives from two other agencies or disciplines in direct contact with or knowledge of the child.

If a child is placed on the child protection register, then they must have a child protection plan and must be seen by the case co-ordinator at least every four weeks. A child protection plan sets out how social 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.

A review child protection case conference should be convened after three months, and then at six monthly intervals thereafter.

The guidance for child protection case conferences is contained in the Area Child Protection Committees’ regional policy and procedures 2005 (PDF).

Care proceedings

Depending on the findings of the child protection conference, the Family Intervention team may decide that care proceedings are necessary in order to keep the child safe.

In Northern Ireland, the five Health and Social Care Trusts are responsible for providing residential care and fostering services to children and young people. The relevant legislation can be found in the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, specifically Article 21.

Care proceedings are usually held in the Family Proceedings Court. This court is also responsible for awarding emergency protection orders. More complex cases may be transferred to Family Care Centres or the High Court, where decisions are made by judges.

The first step in care proceedings is usually to apply to the courts for an interim care order while matters are investigated further and plans are made. The Trust has to produce a care plan, detailing where the child will 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 Trust 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 (Article 57). During this time, professionals can simultaneously work with the family to see if the child can be returned, but also look at rehabilitation and placement. This is known as concurrent planning.

After investigation, if social services still think a care order is necessary, they will ask for a full care order to be made (Article 50). To make a care order, the court must be convinced that the threshold criteria set out in Article 50 are met (i.e. that the child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm and that the harm is attributable to the parents or carers). A care order gives the local authority parental responsibility for a child, and once it is awarded the child’s care plan will be implemented.

In circumstances where it would be unsafe for the child to return to live with her/his parents, the Health and Social Care Trust 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 relevant legislation is the Adoption (Northern Ireland) Order 1987.

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 Health and Social Care Trusts have a duty to continue to promote the welfare of care-leavers until the age of 21. Children become ‘looked-after’ by Trusts if they are subject to a care order. A child may be 'looked-after' by the Trust, but may still be living with their parents (under the terms of the care plan).

Children may also be looked after under Article 21of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. This means children are accommodated with the permission of their parents, which may be because the parents are unable to cope, or require short-term respite care for children with disabilities.


Adoption (Northern Ireland) Order 1987

Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995

Criminal Law Act (1967)

Family Homes and Domestic Violence (NI) Order 1998

Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2003) Co-operating to safeguard children (PDF).
Belfast: Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).

Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2005) Area Child Protection Committees’ regional policy and procedures 2005 (PDF).
Belfast: Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).

Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2008) Gateway service processes: guidance for Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Trusts (PDF).
Belfast: Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).

Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2011) Understanding the Needs Of Children In Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) guidance (PDF).
Belfast: Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).

United Nations (1989) Convention on the rights of the child.
Geneva: Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.

Northern Ireland homepage
Child protection resources for anyone working to safeguard children in Northern Ireland

Child protection in all UK nations
Information and resources on child protection in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Further reading

Search the NSPCC Library Online for references on child protection in Northern Ireland

Further help and information

NSPCC training consultancy
Our child protection training courses in Northern Ireland.

NI Direct: protecting children and vulnerable adults
Information on reporting child abuse and neglect, disclosure and barring arrangements and regulated activity with vulnerable groups.

Contact the NSPCC’s information service for more information about child protection in Northern Ireland or any child protection topic