Child protection in England Referrals and investigations

Woman writingA referral is a request from a member of the public or a professional to the local authority child protection team or the police to intervene to support or protect a child.

When reports about a child are referred, the police or the local authority child protection team will first assess if the child is at immediate risk of danger.



Helping children in immediate danger

When a child's in immediate danger, the local authority or an authorised person including the NSPCC, can take the following action through the courts:

The order can be applied for through a family court and offers the means of protecting actual or potential victims from FGM under the civil law.

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 so that a children's social worker can assess the child's needs if the parents' or carers' won't give consent for them to do so.

The police can remove a child to a place of safety for up to 72 hours without obtaining a court order.

Our authorised person status

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the NSPCC is unique amongst charities as it has statutory powers to intervene on behalf of children.

In these nations, only local authorities and the NSPCC can apply to a court for a care, supervision, or child assessment order.

We refer to this as having 'authorised person status' because in law we are described as an 'authorised person' to bring such proceedings.

We have had statutory powers to intervene on behalf of children for more than a century. These were most recently re-affirmed by the Children Act 1989 in England and Wales and the Children (NI) Order 1995 in Northern Ireland.

Legal definitions

Assessing the risk of harm

Unless a child is in immediate danger, there will be an initial assessment of the child's needs and risk of significant harm. The assessment should be carried out as soon as possible, but must be completed within 7 working days of the referral.

What is significant harm and how is it determined

"Harm" is the "ill treatment or the impairment of the health or development of the child".

It is determined "significant" by "comparing a child's health and development with what might be reasonably expected of a similar child".

Although there is no absolute criteria for determining whether or not harm is "significant", local authorities such as social services, police, education and health agencies work with family members to assess the child, and a decision is made based on their professional judgement using the gathered evidence.

 Legal definitions for the 4 nations

After a referral is investigated and assessed

After these initial enquires, a number of things can happen:

If the child hasn't been harmed and isn't considered to be at risk of significant harm, it may be decided that there doesn't need to be any further child protection action. The child and their family may be offered additional support, such as a parenting programme, instead.

We provide a number of services which local authorities can refer children and families to.

If it's decided that the child is in need of further support from social services, they will officially become a child in need.

Child in need

Local authorities have a duty to "safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in need". The national threshold for providing services is if a child is assessed as being a 'child in need'.

A child is defined as being 'in need' if:

"a) he is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision for him of services by a local authority under this Part;
b) his health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision for him of such services;
c) or he is disabled"

and in Scotland,

d) "he is affected adversely by the disability of any other person in his family"

Child in need status no longer exists in Wales.

Legal definitions for the 4 nations:

view Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (England)

view Section 17 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995

view Section 22 and 93 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995

If the initial referral suggests that the child may be at risk of significant harm then the professionals who work with the family will have a strategy discussion. A strategy discussion involves the social worker gathering more information from the child, parents, family members and other professionals. If the strategy discussion confirms concerns about a child, a section 47 enquiry will start.

If the strategy discussion suggests that the child may be at risk of significant harm then the professionals who work with the family will decide if there should be section 47 enquiries. As part of the enquiry there will assessments of the child’s welfare and safety needs. If the assessments find that the child is at risk of significant harm then there will be a child protection conference.

Case conferences

A case conference is held if the child is at risk of significant harm, so that all of the relevant professionals can share information, identify risks and outline what needs to be done to protect the child. This must happen within 15 working days of the strategy discussion.

Who's involved in a case conference:

  • agencies such as social services, the police and health services
  • people who have the most involvement working with the child and family, such as the child's school and the family GP
  • family members
  • the child, when appropriate.

What's considered during a case conference:

  • background information about the family
  • findings from the child protection investigation
  • ongoing assessments.

At an initial case conference all the relevant agencies share information, identify risks and outline what needs to be done to protect the child. At this conference professionals draw up an outline child protection plan which, if they decide a child is at risk of significant harm, the core group will then develop and implement. A core group is set up of family members and professionals. A child protection conference may also be help where there are concerns about an unborn child.

Child protection plans

The 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
  • what support will be offered to the family.

Case conferences will continue at regular intervals until the child is no longer considered at risk of significant harm or until they are taken into care.

Support our research

Research like this helps keep children safe from abuse – but we can’t do it without our generous supporters.

Donate now

Information Service

Our free service for people who work with children can help you find the latest policy, practice, research and news on child protection and related subjects.

For more information, call us or email

0808 800 5000

Submit an enquiry

Follow @NSPCCpro

Follow us on Twitter and keep up-to-date with all the latest news in child protection.

Follow @NSPCCpro on Twitter