In this article
Social work is a regulated profession in which social workers are uniquely educated and qualified to support children and families in meeting some of life’s biggest challenges. Social workers working with children have a central role within the local authorities, with a duty to promote, support and safeguard the wellbeing of all children in need in their area so that they can live free from harm, abuse and neglect. As a social worker, you need to understand your responsibilities around child safeguarding and the standards that you need to follow.
What is safeguarding?
Safeguarding is an area of child social work activity concerned with the care and protection of children. Child safeguarding applies to all children up to the age of 18 years whether living with their families, in state care, or living independently. It also applies to unborn babies.
Safeguarding children is defined in Working Together to Safeguard Children as “protecting children from maltreatment; preventing impairment of children’s health or development; ensuring that children are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care.”
Duties to safeguard are required by professional regulators and service regulators and are supported by law. Local authorities are responsible for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of all children and young people in their area. Child safeguarding is a set of actions that can be taken to encourage children’s welfare and protect them from harm.
- Preventing children’s health and development from being damaged
- Making sure that children are safe and well cared for as they grow up
- Doing things to make sure that children have the best outcomes
- Protecting children from abuse and harm
The Care Act 2014 lists six key principles of safeguarding. These are intended to form a core set of standards for anyone who has a responsibility for safeguarding. Although these principles have been designed with a focus on vulnerable adults, they should be applied to any type of vulnerable individual, children included.
The principles are as follows:
- Accountability – in the event of a disclosure, if a young person entrusts you with information that you know could be indicative of abuse, you must be clear with the individual that you need to report what you have heard.
- Empowerment – it’s important for any person who has been a victim of abuse to feel that they have control over their situation. Support and encouragement are key to effective working with a victim of abuse or neglect.
- Partnership – it is important to work in partnership with your local authority and all services or organisations in your community that might be able to assist in detecting and reporting abuse.
- Prevention – it is sometimes possible to take action before harm has come to an individual. If you know the signs and indicators of abuse, you will understand when something is not quite right and will be better placed to report any concerns for an individual’s wellbeing.
- Proportionality – when a safeguarding incident occurs, you should report your concerns in a manner that is appropriate for the risk presented. For example, if you suspect that a child is in immediate danger, dialling 999 is the recommended response.
- Protection – it is crucial to be an ally for individuals who have experienced or who are at risk of abuse. Supporting and representing these individuals in the appropriate manner can help to protect them from further harm.
What risk factors make someone more likely to experience abuse?
Any child can be at risk of abuse; however, there are a number of factors that can increase a child’s vulnerability to abuse and neglect, including but not limited to:
- Socioeconomic factors such as poverty, poor housing and deprivation.
- Child factors, for example disabled children are more vulnerable to abuse or neglect.
- Family factors such as parental/carer substance misuse problems, parental/carer mental health problems and domestic abuse. These factors may be compounded if the parent/carer lacks support from family or friends and experiences social isolation.
- The parent or carer does not engage with services.
- There have been one or more previous episodes of child abuse or neglect.
- The parent or carer has a mental health or substance misuse problem which has a significant impact on the tasks of parenting.
- There is chronic parental stress.
- The parent or carer experienced abuse or neglect as a child.
- A family history of maltreatment.
- Being in care, a looked-after child.
- A history of offending, either parent or child.
The types of abuse children can encounter
Statutory guidance across the four countries of the UK describes four main categories of abuse, and these definitions will normally be reflected in local organisations’ policies and procedures.
The four categories are:
- Physical harm/abuse – this may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child/young person. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces, illness in a child/young person. Harm can also occur due to practices linked to faith and culture, for example, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
- Emotional harm/abuse – this is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child/young person such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child/young person’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to children 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 the 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 capacity, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child from participating in normal social interaction. It may involve seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another. It may involve serious bullying, including cyberbullying, causing children/young people frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children/young people. Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child/young person, though it may occur alone.
- Sexual abuse – this 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 penetrative acts, for example rape or oral sex, or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, pornographic 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.
- Neglect – this is the persistent failure to meet a child/young person’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child/young person’s development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy, for example, as a result of maternal substance abuse, maternal mental ill health or learning difficulties or a cluster of such issues. Where there is domestic abuse and violence towards a carer, the needs of the child may be neglected. 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/young person from physical and emotional harm or danger
– Ensure adequate supervision, including the use of inadequate caregivers
– Ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment – also including neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child/young person’s basic emotional needs
What child safeguarding issues do social workers need to be aware of?
Issues that social workers working with children need to be aware of can range from being low risk, such as children and families who would benefit from a little extra help and support but are not “in need”, through to children who need extra support so that they can reach a good level of health and development and stay safe, and children who need to be protected from harm or who cannot live at home.
Examples of these may include, but are not limited to:
- Children affected by difficult family circumstances, bullying or harassment
- Children with mild disabilities or special educational needs or who need extra support at school
- Children who may be involved in anti-social behaviour
- Families with low incomes
- Children with lifelong disabilities
- Children receiving poor quality care that is affecting their development
- Children whose behaviour causes concern and who are beyond their parents’ control
- Children whose care is affected by their parents’ use of drugs or alcohol
- Children whose care is affected by their parents’ mental or physical illness
- Families facing serious problems and crises
- Pregnant women whose lifestyle may affect the baby’s development
- Children who need to be looked after because there is no-one able to care for them
- Children living with high levels of domestic abuse and violence
- Children who are believed to be being abused or harmed
- Children who are at risk of trafficking, child sexual exploitation, forced marriage or FGM
- Children who are in police protection
- Where it is thought that an unborn child may be at risk of harm
The roles and responsibilities of a social worker in regard to child safeguarding
Social workers receive information, known as referrals, from other professionals such as teachers or medical staff and from members of the public if they are concerned that a child is being harmed or at risk of being harmed. Social workers then have a duty by law to investigate the situation or circumstances that have led to the referral.
- Complete an assessment / child protection investigation in partnership with, for example, the police, and talk to the child or young person and family members and visit the family home.
- Contact all agencies that are directly involved with the child and ask them for information about the child’s welfare.
- In some situations, involve the police who also have a duty to investigate circumstances where it is believed a child has been harmed.
There are a number of categories of harm that social workers investigate and these can include physical, emotional or sexual abuse and/or neglect. These categories include children witnessing domestic violence.
Children and family social workers either directly provide or facilitate access to a wide range of services to support vulnerable children and families, increase parents’ competence and confidence, improve children’s day-to-day experiences and help them recover from the impact of abuse and neglect.
Social workers also have the responsibility of assessing the needs of children identified as being “children in need”. In fulfilling this responsibility, social workers have a number of key roles.
- Investigating referrals
- Co-ordinating multi-agency risk assessments
- Arranging Child Protection Case Conferences
- Maintaining the Child Protection Register
- Supervising children on behalf of the Children’s Hearing
Social workers play a key role in helping to ensure that suitable care arrangements are put in place by identifying appropriate placements, assessing and supporting kinship carers and foster carers and supporting children within these placements.
The child safeguarding issues social workers may come across
Understanding what abuse and neglect might look like and how to recognise warning signs is an important aspect of safeguarding. Signs of abuse can range from injury to changes in the way a child acts. Some examples social workers might encounter may include, but are not limited to:
Abuse is 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. Abuse can take place wholly online, or technology may be used to facilitate offline abuse. Children may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children.
Bruising is the most common presentation in children who have been physically abused, although other injuries can include burns, fractures or unexplained bleeding.
Infants under 12 months are at increased risk of non-accidental injury. Coping with a crying baby can be very stressful for parents. Serious Case Reviews show that crying is the main trigger for babies being shaken.
Fabricated or induced illness is when a parent or carer fakes, or creates, the symptoms of an illness in their child. In fabricated illness the perpetrator does not directly harm the child but reports a clinical story to doctors which is eventually established to be fabricated. In induced illness the perpetrator inflicts direct hands-on harm on the child.
Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development. It can include ignoring a child. 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 from participating in normal social interaction. Emotional abuse is the second most common reason for children needing protection from abuse in the UK.
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, or whether or not the child is aware of what is happening.
Neglect, which is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, is 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 caregivers
- Ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment
It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs.
Where should social workers go with a child safeguarding concern?
If you encounter a safeguarding incident at any point, whether that is while providing care or when interacting with a vulnerable individual, you will need to take responsibility for the situation and provide immediate action to ensure the child in question is properly protected. It is vital that abuse is reported, as it can stop further abuse and ensure that those involved receive support. Overall, it is your professional responsibility.
When information is received, by way of a referral, which indicates that there are concerns about the safety and wellbeing of a child, children’s services have 24 hours to decide what type of response is required.
In making this decision, the social worker will have to determine whether:
- The child(ren) requires immediate protection and thus urgent and immediate action is required.
- The child(ren) is/are in need.
- There are reasonable grounds to suspect that the child(ren) is/are suffering, or is/are likely to suffer, significant harm and whether further enquiries need to be made.
- Any services which the child(ren) and/or family require and what they are.
- Whether any further specialist assessments are needed to help children’s services determine what further action to take.
- Whether any action needs to be taken.
- If there is no further action they can take, whether to refer the matter to a more appropriate agency.
Unless the child or children in question requires immediate protection, the majority of cases will begin with a social worker conducting a multi-agency assessment under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. The assessment needs to be carried out within 45 days from the point of referral. This was previously known as an initial assessment or core assessment. The purpose of the assessment is to gather information and to analyse the needs of the child or children and/or their family and the nature and level of any risk of harm to the child or children.
In the majority of local authorities, the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) is the single point of contact for all professionals to report safeguarding concerns.
The range of organisations that make up a MASH can include but is not limited to:
- Social services for children and adults
- Local police authorities
- Local Authority Early Help
- Education and Early Years
- NHS Trusts
- Young Minds
- National Probation Service
The Children Act 2004 required all local authorities across England and Wales to set up a Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB). The task of each LSCB is to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people in their area. Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) are organisations that bring together senior representatives from health, education, social care, police, probation and the voluntary sector. They meet regularly to ensure that agencies are working together to safeguard children and promote their welfare. Adult health and social care services are vital partners in LSCBs.
What legislation do social workers have to follow in regard to child safeguarding?
The central piece of legislation guiding social workers working with children is the 1989 Children Act. The key element of it for this guide is its focus on a “Child in need” and a “Child in need of protection”.
Section 17 of the Act places a general duty on all local authorities to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need”. Basically, a “child in need” is a child who needs additional support from the local authority to meet their potential.
Section 47 of the Act requires the local authority to investigate the child’s circumstances where they have “reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm”, and to “take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare”. Local authorities have a duty to provide a level and range of services to safeguard children and promote their welfare. Consequently, a local authority has to investigate any concerns or allegations that suggest a child is likely to suffer physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or neglect, and to take action to prevent this.
Local authorities also have some responsibilities to young people over 18 years, for example, those with disabilities and those who have been “looked after”.
Services offered as part of child social care may therefore include:
- Services for looked-after children, including fostering and residential care
- Court liaison and advisory services
- Child protection
- Family support
- Services for children with disabilities
Working Together to Safeguard Children 2010 – the way that agencies and organisations should work together to carry out their duties and responsibilities under the 1989 Children Act and other legislation is set out in a document called Working Together to Safeguard Children.
It sets out the responsibilities of all agencies in the protection of children, and is aimed at staff in organisations that are responsible for commissioning or providing services to:
- Children, young people and adults who are parents/carers
- Organisations that have a particular responsibility for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and young people
Human Rights Act 1998 – all health and social care needs to be conducted in a way that is mindful of the Human Rights Act.
Sexual Offences Act 2003 – this Act modernised the law by prohibiting any sexual activity between a care worker and a person with a mental disorder while the relationship of care continues. A relationship of care exists where one person has a mental disorder and another person provides care.
It applies to people working both on a paid and an unpaid basis and includes:
- Social workers
- Care workers in homes
- Workers providing services in clinics or hospitals
GDPR and information sharing – all agencies have a responsibility to inform child social care and to share information with other agencies if they are concerned that a child is in need or is at risk of harm. Good practice shows that they should always discuss this with the parents/carers and the child, if they have sufficient understanding. However, if you are concerned that this could increase the risk to the child, you should share their information and get advice from child social care services. You may need to pass on information without the consent of the family if you think it is necessary to protect the child.
Why is safeguarding training important?
It is important that we all understand safeguarding, and know what to do should safeguarding concerns arise.
Safeguarding induction and training is essential for all staff appropriate to their role, including:
- Information on types of harm, abuse and neglect
- How to spot abuse
- How to respond to concerns
- Who to report concerns to
Training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained, and to the care and support needs of the children and families that they are working with. An example of appropriate safeguarding training includes Safeguarding Children Level 2, designed for people who are working with children and teaches the skills needed to safeguard children that are at higher risk of abuse.
Managers should evaluate changes in understanding and confidence before and after training, assessing this:
- Immediately after the training
- In regular long-term evaluations, for example as part of supervision sessions
- Annually, for example as part of the performance management/appraisal process
Line managers should provide feedback through supervision and appraisals, acknowledging how social workers have learned from their experience of identifying, reporting and managing child safeguarding concerns.
How often should social workers renew their child safeguarding training?
Managers should assess social workers’ child safeguarding knowledge annually, and run refresher training if needed. To help social workers increase their confidence in managing child safeguarding concerns, they should at a minimum refresh their safeguarding training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).