From 2011 – 2012 over 600,000 children were referred to local authority children’s social care services because of concerns about their welfare. This number decreased by 1.9% for the year end 31st March 2013. See the most recent statistics from the Department of Education.
In this post we look at the routes of referral and what happens when a referral is made.
Structure of child protection in England
The Department of Education is the government department which is responsible for children’s welfare. It will consider what changes to the law and policy are needed and issue guidance for those agencies who deal with children such as schools and local authorities.
The Children Act 2004 set up Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCB) to ensure all the relevant agencies work together, such as local authorities, health authorities and the police. Each LSCB has to produce an annual report.
The key statutory agency involved in child protection is the local authority (LA). Each LA has a Director of Children’s Services (DCS) who has ultimate responsibility for the provision of local education and social services for children. An elected local councillor with be the ‘lead member’ and the DCS, the lead member and the LSCB work together to produce and implement child protection procedures.
Who reports concerns about child protection?
- By calling the child protection team of their Local Authority; the emergency team can be called out of hours. The telephone numbers should be easily available; or
- If it is an emergency, call the police; or
- telephone the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.T
There is a useful article from the Guardian, discussing what members of the public can do if they witness something that makes them worried about a child.
The police have special powers to take a child into police protection for up to 72 hours without getting the court’s permission first. They should only exercise these powers in truly urgent and exceptional circumstances. They have the power to take a child to a place of safety – such as a hospital – or stop someone else trying to take the child away from a place of safety. You can find the police powers set out in section 46 of the Children Act 1989.
Schools and hospitals
All professionals who have regular contact with children ought to have clear procedures in place for how they will respond to any worries about a child they see. There should be someone who is clearly identified as the designated child protection teacher or nurse/doctor who will deal with the concern when it is first reported.
There is at the current time no legal requirement to report suspected child abuse. There are many who believe that this should change – see for example the campaign following the death of Daniel Pelka.
Here is a useful article from the Patient.co.uk website for doctors which discusses how to recognise abuse or a child at risk.
Risk assessments by Cafcass
Under section 16A of the Children Act 1989, if you are involved in ‘private law’ proceedings – i.e. you are asking the court to help resolve a dispute between parents about their children – an officer of Cafcass may have to carry out a risk assessment if he or she has cause to believe a child is at risk of harm and may have to then refer the matter on to Children’s Services.
What happens when the referral is made to the SW Team?
The team must decide quickly what action to take; they have one working day. If the team decides it needs more information to make a decision it will start a process of further assessment.
The initial assessment should be done within 10 working days of the referral. If this assessment indicates serious concerns then a strategy discussion takes place to decide whether or not to start an inquiry under section 47 of the Children Act 1989. Usually a ‘core assessment’ should take place to gather the relevant information from the parents, the child (if old enough) and other professionals. Core Assessments should be finished within 35 working days of the referral.
If the section 47 enquiry shows there are serious worries about the child, the LA then has decide what to do to protect the child. The more serious and urgent concerns should mean that the LA make an application to the court for a care or supervision order. Other concerns may mean that the LA write out a ‘child protection plan’ so that everyone knows what they need to do to keep an eye on the situation or to take active steps to stop it getting any worse.
If the situation is VERY urgent, the LA can apply to the court for an Emergency Protection Order under section 44 of the Children Act which gives the LA permission to remove a child from home for up to 8 days. Another emergency option is to apply to the court under section 38A of the Children Act for an exclusion order to ban someone from remaining in or coming to the family home. Or the LA could ask the police for help, as the police could use their special powers to remove a child for 72 hours.
Have a look at this ‘map’ of the child protection system from the Children’s Legal Centre.
Child protection conferences and plans
If the outcome of the section 47 investigation confirms that the situation is worrying enough to need continued LA involvement, then a child protection conference must be held within 15 working days of the last strategy discussion. The family, and all the relevant professionals will be invited to this meeting, as well as the child if he is old enough to understand what is going on.
Those at the conference will need to decide whether a child protection plan is needed. These plans replaced the child protection register in April 2008, but the criteria for inclusion remains the same.
Plans should be agreed by everyone where possible and set out
- the intended short and long term outcomes are for the child
- how children’s services will monitor the child’s welfare
- what needs to change to reduce the risk of harm to the child; and
- what support will be offered to the family.
The child protection plan should be regularly reviewed; the first review should happen within 3 months and then at six monthly intervals after that.
What happens if the situation doesn’t get better?
Then the LA will need to seriously think about asking the court to make a care or supervision order, which could mean that the child is taken away from the family. If the LA decide that things are so serious that they need to go to court, they should start the ‘Pre-Proceedings Procedure’ and they will explain to the parents in a letter why they are so concerned.
This information from the Government explains the pre-proceedings procedure and what parents need to do.
If the situation suddenly gets very bad then the LA may decide it needs to act very quickly and may apply for an Emergency Protection Order, as explained above.