Chapter one: Introduction - working together
This section covers the legislative background that directs how we work with children, young people and their families, and the key definitions that apply to safeguarding children.
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 the local authority is under a duty to make enquiries to decide whether they should take action to safeguard or to promote the welfare of a child who is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm.
A court may make a Care Order (committing the child to the care of the local authority) or Supervision Order (putting the child under the supervision of a social worker or probation officer) 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 (S31).
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, the presence or degree of threat, and/or coercion, sadism, and bizarre or unusual elements in child sexual abuse. 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 ill-treatment.
Sometimes a single traumatic event may constitute significant harm, for example, a violent assault, suffocation or poisoning. More often, significant harm is a compilation of significant events, both acute and long-standing, 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 emotional, physical or sexual abuse that causes impairment to the extent of constituting significant harm. In each case, it is necessary to consider any ill-treatment alongside the family's strengths and support, as well as an assessment of the likelihood and capacity for change and improvements in parenting and the care of children and young people.
Section 31 of the Children Act 1989 as amended by the Adoption and Children Act 2002.
'Harm' means ill treatment or the impairment of health or development, including for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another:
'development' means physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development
'health' means physical or mental health
'ill-treatment' includes sexual abuse and forms of ill treatment which are not physical
Under section 31(10) of the Act.
Where the question of whether harm suffered by a child is significant turns on the child's health and development, his health or development shall be compared with that which could reasonably be expected of a similar child.
To understand and identify significant harm, it is necessary to consider:
The nature of harm, in terms of maltreatment or failure to provide adequate care
The impact on the child's health and development
The child's development within the context of their family and wider environment
Any special needs, such as a medical condition, communication impairment or disability that may affect the child's development and care within the family
The capacity of parents to meet adequately the child's needs
And the wider and environmental family context
The child's reactions, his or her perceptions, and wishes and feelings should be ascertained and the local authority should give them due consideration so far as reasonably practicable and consistent with the child's welfare and having regard to the child's age and understanding
To do this depends on effectively communicating with children and young people including those who find it difficult to do so because of their age, impairment or their particular psychological or social situation. This may involve using interpreters and drawing upon the expertise of early years workers or those working with disabled children.
It is necessary to create the right atmosphere when meeting and communicating with children, to help them feel at ease and reduce any pressure from parents, carers or others. Children will need reassurance that they will not be victimised for sharing information or asking for help or protection; this applies to children living in families as well as those in institutional settings, including custody.
It is essential that any accounts of adverse experiences coming from children are as accurate and complete as possible. Accuracy is key, for without it effective decisions cannot be made and, equally, inaccurate accounts can lead to children remaining unsafe, or to the possibility of wrongful actions being taken that affect children and adults.
Reference: Jones, DPH (2003) Communicating with vulnerable children: a guide for practitioners, pp.1-2, London, Gaskell [PDF] (52K)