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1.1.1 Responding to Abuse and Neglect


  1. Introduction
  2. The Concept of Significant Harm
  3. Early Help
  4. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect
  5. Domestic Violence and Abuse
  6. Potential Risk of Harm to an Unborn Child
  7. Practitioner / Agency Response
  8. Hearing and Observing the Child
  9. Parental Consultation
  10. Urgent Medical Attention
  11. Making a Referral
  12. Concerns Raised by a Member of the Public
  13. Adult Services Responsibilities in Relation to Children

    Further Information

    Amendments to this Chapter

1. Introduction

The Pan Dorset Safeguarding Children Procedures set out how agencies and individuals should work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people. The target audience is practitioners (including unqualified staff and volunteers) and front-line managers who have particular responsibilities for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children, and operational and senior managers, in:

  • Agencies responsible for commissioning or providing services to children and their families and to adults who are parents;
  • Agencies with a particular responsibility for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children.

Many children, especially some of the most vulnerable children and those at greatest risk of social exclusion, will need early co-ordinated help services. Some services will be provided as universal services whilst others may be more targeted to meet specific needs, whatever the circumstances of the child:

All agencies and practitioners should:

  • Be alert to potential indicators of abuse or neglect;
  • Be alert to the risks which individual abusers, or potential abusers, may pose to children;
  • Share and help to analyse information so that an assessment can be made of the child's needs and circumstances;
  • Contribute to whatever actions are needed to safeguard and promote the child's welfare;
  • Take part in regularly reviewing the outcomes for the child against specific plans;
  • Work co-operatively with parents, unless this is inconsistent with ensuring the child's safety.

These procedures are based on the Working Together to Safeguard Children Guidance 2015 which sets out what should happen in any local area when a child or young person is believed to be in need of support. Effective safeguarding arrangements should aim to meet the following two key principles:

  • Safeguarding is everyone's responsibility: for services to be effective, each individual and organisation should play their full part; and
  • A child-centred approach: for services to be effective, they should be based on a clear understanding of the needs and views of children.

Working Together to Safeguard Children defines Safeguarding as:

  • Protecting children from maltreatment;
  • Preventing impairment of children's health or development;
  • Ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care; and
  • Taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.

2. The Concept of Significant Harm

Some children are in need because they are suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm. The Children Act 1989 introduced the concept of significant harm as the threshold that justifies compulsory intervention in family life in the best interests of children, and gives local authorities a duty to make enquiries (Section 47) to decide whether they should take action to safeguard or promote the welfare of a child who is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm.

Additionally, a Court may only make a Care Order or Supervision Order in respect of a child if it is satisfied that:

  • The child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and
  • The harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to a lack of adequate parental care or control (Section 31).

In addition, ‘harm’ is defined as the ill treatment or impairment of health and development. This definition was clarified in section 120 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (implemented on 31 January 2005) so that it may include ‘impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another’ for example, where there are concerns of domestic violence and abuse.

There are no absolute criteria on which to rely when judging what constitutes significant harm. Consideration of the severity of ill-treatment may include the degree and the extent of physical harm, the duration and frequency of abuse and neglect, the extent of premeditation, and the presence or degree of threat, coercion, sadism and bizarre or unusual elements.

Each of these elements has been associated with more severe effects on the child, and/or relatively greater difficulty in helping the child overcome the adverse impact of the maltreatment.

Sometimes, a single traumatic event may constitute significant harm (e.g. a violent assault, suffocation or poisoning). More often, significant harm is a compilation of significant events, both acute and longstanding, which interrupt, change or damage the child's physical and psychological development.

Some children live in family and social circumstances where their health and development are neglected. For them, it is the corrosiveness of long-term neglect, emotional, physical or sexual abuse that causes impairment to the extent of constituting significant harm.

3. Early Help

The following guidance:

Early Help and Eligibility Criteria and Levels of Need for referrals to Children’s Social Care Services for Bournemouth and Poole and Thresholds for intervention by Children’s Services Social Care for Dorset Children’s Services Social Care provide effective ways to identify emerging problems and potential unmet needs for individual children and families as well as clear guidance and procedures for all practitioners, including those in universal services and those providing services to adults with children.

Practitioners across Dorset are supported through training and supervision to understand their role in identifying emerging problems and sharing information with other practitioners to assist with early identification and assessment such as through the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) or equivalent early help assessments.

The local Threshold documents include information as follows:

  • The process for the early help assessment and the type of early help services to be provided;
  • The criteria, including the level of need, for when a child should be referred to Children’s Social Care for assessment and for statutory services under:
    • Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (children in need);
    • Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 (safeguarding);
    • Section 31of the Children Act 1989 (care proceedings);
    • Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 (duty to accommodate a child).

4. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect

The following definitions are based on those identified in Working Together to Safeguard Children 2015:


A form of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting harm, or by failing to act to prevent harm. Children may be abused in a family or in an institutional or community setting by those known to them or, more rarely, by others (e.g. via the internet). They may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children.

Physical Abuse

A form of abuse which may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating or otherwise causing physical harm to a child. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces, illness in a child.

Emotional Abuse

The persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to a child that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may include not giving the child opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or ‘making fun’ of what they say or how they communicate. It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. These may include interactions that are beyond a child’s developmental capability, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction.

It may involve seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another. It may involve serious bullying (including cyber bullying), causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children.

Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child, though it may occur alone.

Sexual Abuse

Involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet). Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.


The persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse. Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to:

  • Provide adequate food, clothing and shelter (including exclusion from home or abandonment);
  • Protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger;
  • Ensure adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate care-givers); or
  • Ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment.

It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs.

5. Domestic Violence and Abuse

Research analysing Serious Case Reviews has demonstrated a significant prevalence of domestic abuse in the history of families with children who are subject of Child Protection Plans.  Children can be affected by seeing, hearing and living with domestic violence and abuse as well as being caught up in any incidents directly, whether to protect someone or as a target. It should also be noted that the age group of 16 and 17 year olds have been found in recent studies to be increasingly affected by domestic violence in their peer relationships and Adolescent Parental Violence is also now recognised.

It should therefore be considered in responding to concerns that the Home Office definition of domestic violence and abuse (2013) is as follows:

"Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence and abuse between those aged 16 or over, who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender and sexuality.

This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse:

  • Psychological;
  • Physical;
  • Sexual;
  • Financial;
  • Emotional.

Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim."

Please refer to the Domestic Abuse, Teenage Relationship and Interfamilial Violence Procedure.

6. Potential Risk of Harm to an Unborn Child

In some circumstances, agencies or individuals are able to anticipate the likelihood of significant harm with regard to an expected baby (e.g. where there is information known about domestic violence, parental substance misuse or mental ill health).

These concerns should be addressed as early as possible before the birth, so that a full assessment can be undertaken and support offered to enable the parent/s (wherever possible) to provide safe care to the baby. Please refer to Protecting the Unborn Child Procedure.

7. Practitioner / Agency Response

All practitioners, whether paid or voluntary, in all agencies and organisations, where they come in to contact with children and young people, or similarly, all those who work in some way with adults, who may be parents or carers, should:

  • Be alert to potential indicators of abuse or neglect;
  • Be alert to the risks which individual abusers or potential abusers, may pose to children;
  • Be alert to the impact on the child of any concerns of abuse or maltreatment;
  • Be able to gather and analyse information as part of an assessment of the child’s needs.

Each agency will have child protection procedures in place to support and provide information about how and what action to take when there are concerns about a child. These individual agency procedures will flow from the Pan-Dorset Safeguarding Children procedures. The child protection procedures will include information about how:

  • To identify potential or actual harm to children;
  • To discuss and record concerns with a first line manager / in supervision;
  • To analyse concerns by completing an assessment;
  • And when to discuss concerns with the agency's safeguarding children lead  (able to offer advice and decide upon the necessity for a referral to Children's Social Care or other route).

All practitioners in agencies with contact with children and members of their families must make a referral to Children's social care if there are signs that a child or an unborn baby:

  • Is suffering significant harm through abuse or neglect;
  • Is likely to suffer significant harm in the future.

The timing of such referrals should reflect the level of perceived risk of harm, not longer than within one working day of identification or disclosure of harm or risk of harm.

Urgent Concerns

Where a child needs immediate protection prompt action should be taken.

Practitioners in all agencies should use their knowledge and agency resources to contact local Children’s Social Care or the police about their concerns directly and to complete the appropriate referral form, if there are urgent concerns.

In such circumstances a formal referral to Children's social care, the police or accident and emergency services (for any urgent medical treatment) must not be delayed by the need for consultation with management or the  safeguarding children lead, or the completion of an assessment.

In urgent situations, out of office hours, the referral should be made to the Pole or Out of Hours Social Services.

8. Hearing and Observing the Child

Whenever a child reports that they are suffering or have suffered significant harm through abuse or neglect, or have caused or are causing physical or sexual harm to others, the initial response from all practitioners should be to listen carefully to what the child says and to observe the child’s behaviour and circumstances to:

  • Clarify the concerns without questioning the child;
  • Offer re-assurance about how the child will be kept safe if this is known and is certain;
  • Explain what action will be taken and within what timeframe.

The child must not be pressed for information, led or cross-examined or given false assurances of absolute confidentiality, as this could prejudice police investigations, especially in cases of sexual abuse.

If the child can understand the significance and consequences of making a referral to Children's social care, they should be asked for their views.

It should be explained to the child that whilst their view will be taken into account, the practitioner has a responsibility to take whatever action is required to ensure the child's safety and the safety of other children.

9. Parental Consultation

Concerns which have been raised, should, where practicable, be discussed with the parent and agreement sought for a referral to Children's social care unless seeking agreement is likely to place the child at risk of significant harm through delay or from the parent's actions or reactions; For example in circumstances where there are concerns or suspicions that a serious crime such as sexual abuse, domestic violence or induced illness has taken place. If in doubt, seek advice from Children's Social Care staff.

Where a practitioner decides not to seek parental permission before making a referral to Children's social care, the decision must be clearly noted in the child's records with reasons, dated and signed and confirmed in the referral to Children's social care. Practitioners should consult with their line manager/designated/ safeguarding children lead, if at all practicable, for advice.

When a referral is deemed to be necessary in the interests of the child, and the parents have been consulted and are not in agreement, the following action should be taken:

  • The reason for proceeding without parental agreement must be recorded;
  • The parent's withholding of permission must form part of the verbal and written referral to Children's social care;
  • The parent should be contacted to inform them that, after considering their wishes, a referral has been made.
A child protection referral from a practitioner cannot be treated as anonymous and where any court proceedings may follow, whether criminal or family court, the information may be made available.

10. Urgent Medical Attention

If the child is suffering from a serious injury, the practitioner must seek medical attention immediately from accident and emergency services and must inform Children's social care, and the duty consultant paediatrician at the hospital.

Where abuse is alleged, suspected or confirmed in a child admitted to hospital, the child must not be discharged until:

  • Children's social care local to the hospital and the child's home address (may be two different LA children's social care) are notified by telephone that there are child protection concerns;
  • A strategy meeting/discussion has been held, if appropriate, which should then include relevant hospital and other agency practitioners.

11. Making a Referral

Referrals should be made to Children's social care for the area where the child is living or is found.

If the child is known to have an allocated social worker, the referral should be made to them or in their absence to the social worker's manager or a duty children's social worker.

In all other circumstances referrals should be made to the duty team.

The referrer should confirm verbal and telephone referrals in writing, within 48 hours.

Where an assessment has been completed prior to referral, these details should also be conveyed at the point of referral.

Children's social care should within one working day of receiving the referral make a decision about the type of response that will be required to meet the needs of the child. This decision will be communicated to the referrer.  If this does not occur within three working days, the referrer should contact these services again and, if necessary, ask to speak to a line manager to establish progress.

For further details see Referrals Procedure and the referral forms which can be accessed here:

Children and Young Peoples Partnership, Dorset Inter-agency referral form.

Children in Need Bournemouth and Poole Inter-Agency Referral form.

12. Concerns Raised by a Member of the Public

When a member of the public telephones or approaches any agency with concerns about the welfare of a child or an unborn baby, the practitioner who receives the contact should always:

  • Gather as much information as possible, to be able to make a judgement about the seriousness of the concerns;
  • Take basic details:
    1. Name, address, gender and date of birth of child;
    2. Name and contact details for parent/s, educational setting (e.g. nursery, school), primary medical practitioner (e.g. GP practice), practitioners providing other services, a lead practitioner for the child.
  • Discuss the case with their manager and the agency's  safeguarding children lead to decide whether to:
    1. Make a referral to Children's social care;
    2. Make a referral to the lead practitioner, if the case is open and there is one;
    3. Make a referral to a specialist agency or practitioner e.g. educational psychology or a speech and language therapist;
    4. Undertake an assessment.

Record the referral contemporaneously, with the detail of information received and given, separating out fact from opinion as far as possible.

The opportunity for a face to face meeting or interview should be offered to the member of the public to clarify information and offer advice, if needed.

The member of the public should also be given the number for their local Children's social care and encouraged to contact them directly. The agency receiving the initial concern should always make a referral to Children's social care and to the lead practitioner if there is one, in case the member of the public does not follow through (which can happen).

Some people may prefer not to give their name to Children's social care, or they may disclose their identity but not wish for it to be revealed to the parent/s of the child concerned. Wherever possible, practitioners should respect the referrer's request for anonymity. However practitioners should not give referrers any guarantees of confidentiality, as there are certain limited circumstances in which the identity of a referrer may have to be given (e.g. the court arena). Consideration for the referrer’s safety may be an issue in some cases.

13. Adult Services Responsibilities in Relation to Children

Adult services and practitioners working with adults need to be competent in identifying the client or patient's role as a parent. They need to be able to consider the impact of the adult's condition or behaviour on:

  • A child's development;
  • Family functioning;
  • The adult's parenting capacity.

Where a practitioner working with adults has concerns about the parent's capacity to care for the child and considers that the child is likely to be harmed or is being harmed, they should immediately refer the child to the police or Children's social care, in accordance with their agency's child protection procedures.

Requests for information about a child, which are often made to health practitioners such as GPs or specialist services for mental health or substance misuse, by Children’s Social Care should be directed to the correct practitioner and not dealt with by administrative staff or intermediaries.

Adult Services, whether commissioning and provider organisations, employ safeguarding children practitioners to take the lead on safeguarding children matters. The roles and responsibilities of designated and named safeguarding children practitioners should be clear and accessible to all staff and made known to partner agencies to assist in the process of sharing information.

Further Information

Abuse in Faith Settings

Click here to be directed to the appropriate section of the document library from where you can download the Information/form required.

  • Early Help and Eligibility Criteria and Levels of Need for referrals to Children’s Social Care Services for Bournemouth and Poole;
  • Thresholds for intervention by Children’s Services Social Care for Dorset Children’s Services Social Care;
  • Children and Young Peoples Partnership, Dorset Inter-agency referral form;
  • Children in Need Bournemouth and Poole Inter-Agency Referral form.

Related Chapter

Overweight and Obese Children Procedure

Amendments to this Chapter

This chapter was reviewed and updated in August 2016. Section 7, Obesity has been removed and a new chapter covering this issue has been added to the manual contents list.