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Section 47

Where a child is suspected to be suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm, the local authority is required by Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 to make enquiries, to enable it to decide whether it should take any action to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child. The enquiry will involve an assessment of the child’s needs and the ability of those caring for the child to meet them. The aim is to decide whether any action should be taken to safeguard the child. The child’s parents/carers will be interviewed, as well as the child (unless the child is too young). The assessment will also include information from the child’s school, doctor and other professionals.

Serious case review

Serious case reviews (SCRs) are undertaken by local safeguarding children boards for every case where abuse or neglect is known (or suspected) and either:

  • a child dies, or
  • a child is seriously harmed and there are concerns about how organisations or professionals worked together to protect the child.

In addition, an SCR must be undertaken is a child dies in custody, in police custody, on remand or following sentencing, in a Young Offender Institution, in a secure training centre or a secure children's home or where the child was detained under the Mental Health Act 2005. 

An SCR is undertaken in order to establish whether there are lessons to be learned from the case; to identify what those lessons are; and how they will be acted upon and improve inter-agency working.

Sexual abuse

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 (e.g. rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing.

Sexual abuse includes non-contact activities, such as: involving children in looking at or producing pornographic materials, 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.

Sexual abuse also includes abuse of children through sexual exploitation. Penetrative sex where one of the partners is under the age of 16 is illegal, although prosecution of similar age, consenting partners is not usual. However, where a child is under the age of 13 it is classified as rape.

Significant harm

The Children Act 1989 introduced the concept of significant harm as the threshold which justifies compulsory intervention in family life in the best interests of children. Section 47 of the Act places a duty on local authorities to make enquiries, or cause enquiries to be made, where it has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer significant harm.

There are no absolute criteria for establishing significant harm. Whether the harm, or likely harm, suffered by the child is significant is determined by comparing the child’s health or development with that which could reasonably be expected of a similar child.

‘Harm’ can include the effect of seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of someone else, for example where there are concerns of domestic violence and abuse.

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 which interrupt, change or damage the child's physical and psychological development.

When considering the severity of ill-treatment, it can be useful to consider:

  • 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.

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 that it constitutes significant harm.

To understand and establish ‘significant harm’, professionals should consider a range of factors including:

  • the family context, including protective factors
  • the child’s development within the context of his or her family and wider social and cultural environment
  • any special needs, such as a medical condition, communication difficulty or disability that may affect the child’s development and care within the family
  • the nature of harm, in terms of ill-treatment or failure to provide adequate care
  • the impact on the child’s health and development
  • the capacity of the parent or carer to adequately meet the child’s needs.
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