Child protection in Northern Ireland Referrals and investigations

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

When reports about a child are referred, the police or the gateway services 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 following action can be taken through the courts:

Articles 57A and 63A of The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 give a court the power to exclude a named individual suspected of abuse from a child's home.

Social services can get an emergency protection order, child assessment order, interim care order or supervision order to remove and / or protect the child. We also have powers as an authorised person to apply for these orders.

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:

The police are also able to remove the child in an emergency but this is only done in exceptional circumstances.

Assessing the risk of harm

When the Health and Social Care Trust (HSCT) Gateway Service receives a referral about a child, they will carry out an initial assessment within 10 working days using all the available information to decide if further action is required. As part of the process, practitioners must consider whether the Joint Protocol (PDF) should be implemented. The Joint Protocol is a framework for joint investigative working between the police and social workers.

Where there are allegations of abuse and neglect, or a crime is suspected, the referral must be reported to the police (PSNI) and a strategy discussion must take place within 24 hours to decide how to proceed. The strategy discussion may involve a range of professionals working with the family. The purpose of the discussion is to ensure an early exchange of information and to clarify what action needs to be taken jointly by the PSNI and the HSCT and what they will take forward separately.

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 will cease to exist in Wales when the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act comes into force in 2016.

Legal definitions for the 4 nations:

view Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (England and Wales)

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

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

If a child is identified as needing additional social work support, a pathway assessment will give an in-depth assessment of their needs. 

It may be decided that best support is short time-limited intervention. This will be provided by the gateway service.


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.

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.

The initial case conference should take place within 15 working days of the child protection referral. At this point the responsibility of the case is transferred to the Family Intervention Team.

If professionals at the initial case conference decide a child is at risk of significant harm they will add the child to the child protection register, and draw up a child protection plan.

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.

Child protection registers and plans

The child protection register (CPR) is a confidential list of all children in the local area who have been identified as being at risk of significant harm. The register allows authorised individuals in social work, education, health, police and the voluntary sector to check if a child they are working with is known to be at risk.

If a child is added to the child protection register they must also have a child protection plan.

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.

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