Initiate enquiries into significant harm

Initiate enquiries into significant harm

Key points

Enquiries into significant harm are conducted under Section 47 of the Children Act 1989. They are often referred to as child protection enquiries, and should be led by a qualified and experienced social worker. The enquiry should be completed as part of a core assessment.

The timescale for completion of a core assessment is 35 days but the social worker will have only 15 days at most before a child protection conference, if one is to be held. The child protection enquiry is only the beginning of the core assessment, and should concentrate on deciding whether the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. It should cover, as far as possible, the three dimensions in the assessment framework:

  • child development
  • parenting capacity
  • family and environmental factors.

Workers should be aware of the potential needs and safety of any other children in the home and should also consider other children that the alleged offender may have (or have had) contact with.

Police and social workers carrying out the child protection enquiry should do their utmost to get co-operation and participation from family members and other professionals. They should be prepared to explain and justify their actions and demonstrate how their actions will benefit the child.

It is not necessary to get the family’s consent to make enquiries of other professionals involved with the child, but the relationship with parents will be much better if they have given consent. If it is not given, a decision must be made by the social worker’s manager on how to proceed.

When professionals are contacted by SW carrying out a Section 47 enquiry they have a duty to co-operate and should share information appropriate to safeguard the welfare of the child. Please see information sharing.

All children who there are concerns about should be seen and spoken to alone, unless doing so would seriously damage any criminal investigation. If a child is not seen and spoken to alone, the reason why not must be recorded on the case file.

Parents and children should be informed that they can access these procedures. They should also be told that they are entitled to advice, advocacy and support from independent sources. Where these sources are known to exist, they should be given details of them.

Where a child is living in a residential establishment, the possible impact on other children living in the establishment should be considered.

It may be apparent at any point during the core assessment that the child is suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm in which case a strategy discussion should be held.

How to do it

Child protection enquiries should always be carried out so as to minimise distress to the child, and ensure that families are treated sensitively and with respect. Workers should explain the purpose of enquiries to parents and children and be prepared to answer questions openly, unless doing so would affect the safety of the child. Remember that, in the great majority of cases, children remain with their families, even where concerns about abuse or neglect have been proven.

Enquiries should always include separate discussions, away from their parents, with the children who are the subject of concern. They should also include interviews with parents and observation of the interactions between parents and children.

It is particularly important not to ask a child closed questions (ones which can be answered yes or no). So ’can you tell me what happened?’ is a helpful question but ’did daddy hit you?’ is not. Nor should anything be said that might enable a lawyer, if the case comes to court, to suggest that the professionals were ’putting words into the mouth’ of the child.

Where a child or parent is disabled, or where English is not their first language, it will often be necessary to provide someone with the relevant communication or language skills. If an interpreter is used, they must not be a member or friend of the family.

The social worker should

  • inform parents of the reasons for the enquiries at the earliest opportunity
  • seek consent to see or talk with the children alone if appropriate
  • seek consent to contact other relevant agencies regarding the concerns.

Unless doing so would place the child at increased risk of significant harm, or prejudice enquiries under Section 47 or a police investigation

If consent is not given social workers have a duty to talk to children alone and collect and share information with other agencies. They should inform parents of this fact.

At the end of the enquiry the social worker and their manager need to decide what to do next. They should decide this in discussion with all who have carried out, or been significantly involved in, the enquiries, including foster carers and the child and parents themselves. This should be recorded on the Outcome of Section 47 Enquiry record (2002). Possible outcomes of Section 47 Enquiry are

It is important for all the professionals dealing with the child during the enquiry to record any contact that they have and feed this back to the social worker.