Child protection system in Northern Ireland Reporting your concerns about a child

We're all responsible for reporting concerns about a child's welfare. In Northern Ireland it's also an offence not to report an arrestable offence, including those against children, to the police. There are specific reporting guidelines and procedures in place for people who work with children.

If you think a child is in immediate danger

Don't delay – call the police on 999,
or call us on 0808 800 5000, straight away.

How to report a concern

The gateway services team is the first point of contact for all new referrals to children's social services. You can find the team in the area that the child lives on the NI Direct website.

If you work or volunteer with children and families your organisation should have procedures in place to report concerns about a child. For example, all schools in Northern Ireland will have a designated child protection teacher.

UNOCINI assessment framework 

You can use Understanding the Needs of Children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) assessment framework to help you assess a child's needs. The framework is designed to help you identify a child's needs at an early stage and prevent problems from escalating. The assessment can then be used to make referrals to children's social services.

What happens to the report

When concerns about a child are reported to us or the police, they will be passed to the local Health and Social Care Trust's child protection team where appropriate.

Referrals and investigations

Practice information for people working with children in Northern Ireland

Although there are no specific mandatory regulations in the UK requiring professionals who work with children to report suspicions about child abuse to the authorities, in Northern Ireland it's an offence not to report an arrestable crime to the police, which by definition, includes crimes against children. In the rest of the UK, professionals who work with children report their concerns and are expected to co-operate and exchange information.

Guidance for Northern Ireland can be found in Cooperating to safeguard children (PDF). Chapter 5 contains relevant information on handling individual cases. Any referrals should be confirmed in writing within 24 hours.

In England, Working together to safeguard children (PDF) places great emphasis on information sharing. The guidance states, "Effective sharing of information between professionals and local agencies is essential for effective identification, assessment and service provision.

Early sharing of information is the key to providing effective early help where there are emerging problems. At the other end of the continuum, sharing information can be essential to put in place effective child protection services. Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) have shown how poor information sharing has contributed to the deaths or serious injuries of children."

The guidance goes on to state, "Fears about sharing information cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the need to promote the welfare and protect the safety of children. To ensure effective safeguarding arrangements:

  • all organisations should have arrangements in place which set out clearly the processes and the principles for sharing information between each other, with other professionals and with the LSCB
  • no professional should assume that someone else will pass on information which they think may be critical to keeping a child safe. If a professional has concerns about a child's welfare and believes they are suffering or likely to suffer harm, then they should share the information with local authority children's social care."

Information sharing: guidance for practitioners and managers (PDF) supplements local guidance and encourages good practice in information sharing.

If a professional believes that a child may be at risk of, or is suffering, significant harm and that they need to refer them to the appropriate authorities, they need to consider whether they have a duty of confidentiality to the child. If this is so, they may share information if they have the consent of the child or if they believe, based on their professional judgement that the sharing of information is in the public interest.

Any concerns should also be discussed with the family and if possible their agreement should be sought, unless this would put the child at increased risk of significant harm, or if it would undermine any possible criminal investigation.

If the professional needs to share information and cannot get consent they must consider, on the facts of each case, whether it is in the public interest to share all or some of the information they have. As outlined in paragraph 3.40 of the information sharing guidance, the key factors to consider are necessity and proportionality, "i.e. whether the proposed sharing is likely to make an effective contribution to preventing the risk and whether the public interest in sharing information overrides the interest in maintaining confidentiality."

Paragraph 3.42 of the information sharing guidance identifies some circumstances in which the sharing of confidential information without consent would normally pass the public interest test. These are:

  • "when there is evidence or reasonable cause to believe that a child is suffering, or is at risk of suffering, significant harm
  • to prevent significant harm to a child....., including through the prevention, detection and prosecution of serious crime."

If a professional is unsure of what constitutes "reasonable cause to believe" they should discuss their concerns either with their line manager or the member of staff who has the lead role for child protection. Concerns should always be acted upon and any decision on whether to share information or not should always be recorded.

Any information shared should always be accurate, up to date, shared appropriately and securely: only with the person or people who need to know and limited to information relevant to purpose.

In Wales, guidance about information sharing is contained in Chapter 14 of Safeguarding children: working together under the Children Act 2004 (PDF), paragraph 14.5 broadly overlaps with the guidance for professionals in England in stating that, "the safety and welfare of a child or young person must be the first consideration when making decisions about sharing information about them" and that there must be, "an overriding public interest in disclosing information." However, paragraph 14.6 also advises that, "the best way of ensuring that information sharing is properly handled is to work within carefully worked out information-sharing protocols between the agencies and professionals involved, and taking legal advice in individual cases where necessary."

In Scotland, the National guidance for child protection (PDF) sets out the legal provisions concerning confidentiality and consent, but emphasises that "If a child's wellbeing is considered to be at risk, relevant information must always be shared".

Chapter 5, paragraph 5.14 of Northern Ireland's Code of practice on protecting the confidentiality of service user information (PDF) on decision-making about whether to use and disclose personal information relating to children, states that, "There is a need to balance the protection of a child from actual or potential harm with respect for their confidentiality and the confidentiality of their family. The welfare of the child is paramount. The assessed levels of actual or potential harm to a child, as well as the substance and imminence of such harm, should inform decision-making with regard to the sharing of personal identifiable information".

We have kept our position on mandatory reporting under regular review. We are continually looking at the effectiveness of existing reporting models and we work closely with key stakeholders from across the child protection and legal sectors, as well as listening to the views of children and victims of abuse.

Our policy briefing on Strengthening duties on professionals to report child abuse (PDF, 392KB) sets out the NSPCC’s current position in relation to mandatory reporting of concerns or suspicions and the need for a criminal offence of cover-up, concealment or inaction in response to known child abuse by a professional.

We propose two changes to the reporting requirements on professionals in relation to the behaviour of others within the institution in which they work:

  1. The introduction of a criminal offence to cover-up, conceal or ignore known child abuse. This would mean that all professionals working with children would be subject to a duty to report known child abuse and if they fail to do so criminal sanctions could be brought to bear. Such sanctions would make it clear that the protection of children is paramount and a failure to respond to abuse is not an acceptable option.
  2. The introduction of a restricted form of mandatory reporting relating to concerns or suspicions about abuse conducted by those within the institution. This would remove the option of ‘dealing with concerns in-house’ from the senior professional, by requiring them to report the concern to an external body and take advice regarding appropriate investigation and response. Should the professional choose to ignore this requirement, criminal sanctions could be brought to bear. This would help prevent the perceived conflict of interest between protecting the child and protecting the institution’s reputation.

These two proposals are detailed in more depth in the policy briefing.

Discussions on these proposals are ongoing, and we want to continue to work with government, and other experts and stakeholders to develop further detail, including determining the exact institutions it should apply within.

If a restricted model of mandatory reporting proved successful within institutions which offer residential care to children it could be rolled out to other institutions, but given the problems posed in other jurisdictions we think an initial duty should be restricted to institutions where the power imbalance is the greatest, the conflict the strongest and children are more vulnerable.

Our Exploring the case for mandatory reporting (PDF, 612KB) paper presents a summary of the discussion at a roundtable of stakeholders, The focus of the roundtable was to explore how a form of mandatory reporting might work. These discussions were not in any way conclusive: the paper draws on individual views expressed around the table and does not pretend to represent any definitively shared view. We hope this paper will contribute to the debate of this complex issue.

It is important to recognise that a mandatory reporting regime is not a silver bullet and alone will not address the challenges faced when safeguarding and protecting children. The NSPCC believe that child safeguarding and protection works best when there is an effective structure that:

  • focuses on the best interests of the child
  • creates good protective, organisational cultures;
  • supports children speaking out and being heard;
  • has external checks to make sure the right measures are being implemented; and
  • takes action when the system fails to protect children properly, including giving protection to those who report their concerns or take action to make children safe.

It is essential to ensure that both of the proposals set out above are underpinned by strong statutory and professional guidance that is consistent across all areas of child safeguarding and that drive all organisations that provide services to children to have robust and effective safeguarding arrangements. The arrangements need to be underpinned by excellent policies and procedures, but also implemented and monitored to ensure that people engaged in delivering services take effective steps to protect children from abuse.

Inspection regimes and regulatory requirements play a key role in ensuring that effective policies and procedures and training and awareness activities are in place. Robust and appropriate safeguarding practice is also underpinned by good governance and the NSPCC suggests consideration of a role for strengthened corporate liabilities to establish principles of accountability for organisations in relation to safeguarding policies and procedures.

The NSPCC will continue to work alongside key stakeholders and professionals to review and refine these proposals and wider measures based on evidence and practice to continue to improve safeguarding practice in all institutions caring for children.

Legal definitions:

view Part 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1967

The child protection system in the other UK nations

Child protection system in England

How the child protection system in England works from reporting, investigations and care proceedings including facts, statistics and case reviews.
How it works in England

Child protection system in Scotland

How the child protection system in Scotland works from reporting, investigations and care proceedings including facts, statistics and case reviews.
How it works in Scotland

Child protection system in Wales

How the child protection system in Wales works from reporting, investigations and care proceedings including facts, statistics and case reviews.
How it works in Wales

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