Child protection in Scotland Referrals and investigations

Woman writingA referral is a request from a member of the public or a professional to local children's social work team or the police to intervene to support or protect a child. A referral can also be made to the Children’s Reporter.

When reports about a child are referred, the police or children's social work will gather information to assess if the child is at risk of harm. As new information comes to light, the risks to the child will need to be re-assessed.

Helping children in immediate danger

If a child’s in immediate danger, an order can be made through Scotland’s sheriff courts (local courts which deal with the majority of civil and criminal cases in Scotland). Depending on the situation, one of the following actions may be taken:

A child protection order (CPO) can be issued to immediately remove a child from circumstances that put them at risk, or to keep a child in a place of safety (eg a hospital). Anyone can apply to the sheriff for a CPO.

An exclusion order can be issued to remove a suspected abuser from the family home. Only the local authority can apply for an exclusion order.

A child assessment order (CAO) requires parents to allow their child's needs to be assessed by a social worker. A CAO can only be applied for by the local authority.

If a sheriff isn't available, the police or someone authorised by a justice of the peace can remove a child to a place of safety for up to 24 hours. This allows time to apply for a CPO.

All of these emergency measures allow time to decide the best way to protect a child. This may involve a case conference and possibly care proceedings.

Assessing the risk of harm

If a child isn't considered to be in immediate danger then more information will be gathered. This will allow an assessment of whether they are at risk of suffering significant harm.

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:

no further child protection action is needed

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. This may involve a Child’s Plan, which details the way support will be provided to a child and who will be responsible for co-ordinating and reviewing this.

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

joint investigation

If the initial assessment suggests that the child may be at risk of significant harm, there will be a joint investigation to decide if any child protection action is needed and whether a child protection case conference should be held.


Case conferences

A child protection case conference (CPCC) is held if the child is assessed as being 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 child protection case conference (CPCC) must take place within 21 days of the concern about the child being referred to the police or children's social work.

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

CPCCs 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 CPR they must also have a child protection plan.

The child protection plan sets out:

  • how social work 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.

A Core group is responsible for making sure that the child protection plan is supporting the child effectively on an ongoing basis. The members of this group include the person who has been nominated as the Lead Professional, the child and their parents/carers, and they report about this at CPCC meetings. The Core group should be set up within 15 days of the initial child protection case conference.

Other legal interventions

The CPCC may decide that the best way to protect the child is through legal interventions either to make sure they get the help they need or take the child into care.

When that happens, the case is referred to the Children's Reporter who will decide if there needs to be a children's hearing for compulsory measures.

Legal definitions:

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