Child protection 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.
How to report a concern
If you have an immediate concern about the safety or welfare of a child or young person you should contact the PSNI without delay so that an emergency protective response can be made. You can also make a direct referral to PSNI where a crime is alleged or suspected.
If you have a concern about a child's welfare or safety in circumstances other than an emergency, the HSCT 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 (PDF) 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.
The UNOCINI guidance on thresholds of needs model (PDF) can be used to decide the level of need and how help and support the child or young person.
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.
Practice information for people working with children in Northern Ireland
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 and young people in Northern Ireland. Chapter 6 contains relevant information on raising concerns and making referrals. Any referrals should be confirmed in writing within 24 hours.
In 2007 the NSPCC published a report looking at arrangements for mandatory reporting from across the world and specifically what might work in Northern Ireland to better protect children (Wallace and Bunting, 2007).
When it comes to the reporting of child abuse, the NSPCC believe that the overriding principle should be that all professionals listen to and act in the best interests of the child.
We believe that where professionals cover up crimes against children by consciously failing to report known abuse of a child this should be an offence.
Whether any failure to report suspected child abuse should be criminalised is more contested territory. We have looked at other countries and have not seen convincing evidence that this automatically keeps children safer. Indeed, there is evidence that such systems can lead to over reporting, which makes identification of children at risk harder and action to protect them less swift.
We believe attaching criminal sanctions to a failure to report should only be done where there is a problem with reporting. In a good number of cases where children suffered serious abuse it has not been a lack of reporting but a lack of action that has led to tragedy. However, we have seen too many instances of a failure to report where suspected abuse has been swept under the carpet within “closed” institutions like boarding schools and care homes. Too often, an organisation’s reputation has been placed ahead of the welfare of a child. That is why the NSPCC favours the mandatory reporting of suspicions of abuse by those working within such institutions.
In such settings, we believe that suspicions should be reported to a person or body outside that institution to ensure any perceived conflict of interest between organisational reputation and protecting children does not arise.
Mandatory reporting is not a silver bullet and alone will not address the challenges faced when safeguarding and protecting children. An effective structure needs to focus on the interests of the child; create good protective cultures within organisations; support children speaking out; have external checks to make sure the right measures are implemented; and take action when the system fails to protect children properly.
We keep this position under constant review as evidence and experience develops. We ask that whoever forms the next government undertakes a thorough and wide-reaching consultation on how best to legislate in this complex area.
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.
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.
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.
Does the NSPCC support the Labour Party's call for mandatory reporting of known abuse?
Yes, though we also support the mandatory reporting of suspicions of abuse in certain settings. A full, well informed consultation would be desirable.
view Part 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1967
The child protection system in the other UK nations
Child protection in England
Child protection in Scotland
Child protection in Wales
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Child protection training
We offer a range of online and face-to-face training courses for people who work with children to help you gain the skills to act appropriately and confidently to keep children safe.
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Wallace, I. and Bunting, L. (2007) An examination of local, national and international arrangements for the mandatory reporting of child abuse: the implications for Northern Ireland (PDF). Belfast. NSPCC.