Child protection system in England

Last updated: 01 Jul 2022

The Department for Education (DfE) is responsible for child protection in England. It sets out policy, legislation and statutory guidance on how the child protection system should work.

Local safeguarding partners are responsible for child protection policy, procedure and guidance at a local level.

The local safeguarding arrangements are led by three statutory safeguarding partners:

  • the local authority
  • the integrated care board (ICB, previously clinical commissioning group or 'CCG')
  • the police.

Working together with other relevant agencies, they must co-ordinate and ensure the effectiveness of work to protect and promote the welfare of children, including making arrangements to identify and support children at risk of harm.

In May 2022, two government-commissioned reviews were published about the child protection system in England:

  • The National review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson looked at how and why the services intended to protect children were not able to do so (Hudson and Child Safeguarding Review Panel, 2022).
  • The independent review of children’s social care looked at the changes needed to better protect and support children and young people (MacAlister, 2022).

The government is currently pulling together its responses to learning from the two reviews (DfE, 2022a; DfE 2022b).

> Read the CASPAR briefing on the independent review of children’s social care.

> Read the CASPAR briefing on the National review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson.

Reporting concerns

Reporting concerns

In England, people working with children are expected to report concerns about a child’s welfare to the relevant agencies.

Duty to protect children

The key guidance for child protection is Working together to safeguard children (Department for Education, 2018). This states:

  • everyone who works with children has a responsibility for keeping them safe
  • everyone who comes into contact with children and families has a role to play in sharing information and identifying concerns.

In addition, section 11 of the Children Act 2004 places a statutory duty on certain agencies to co-operate to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. This includes:

  • local authorities
  • NHS services and trusts
  • police
  • probation services and young offenders institutions.

People who work in these agencies and who do not report suspected cases of abuse or neglect may be subject to disciplinary proceedings but do not currently face criminal penalties.

Mandatory reporting

It is mandatory for all regulated health and social care professionals and teachers in England to report 'known cases' of female genital mutilation (FGM) in under 18s to the police (Home Office, 2016).

> Find out more about FGM

How to report concerns about a child’s welfare

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice. 
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in. 
  • Contact the police.

Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

Working together to safeguard children states that local authority children’s services should give feedback to anyone who has made a child protection referral to them on the decisions they have taken (Department for Education, 2018).

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse for more details

Referrals and investigations

Referrals and investigations

Working together to safeguard children (Department for Education, 2018) highlights the importance of providing early help to promote the welfare of children. Local organisations and agencies should work together to:

  • identify children and families who would benefit from early help
  • undertake an assessment
  • provide targeted early help services.

If a child has complex needs, it may be appropriate for the local authority to provide support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (children in need).

Where there are child protection concerns, the local authority must make enquiries and decide if any action must be taken under section 47 of the Children Act 1989.

Assessing child welfare and child protection concerns

It is the responsibility of the local authority to investigate any concerns raised about a child’s welfare. 

If the child is not in immediate danger, there will be an assessment of the child’s needs. Within one working day of a referral being received, a local authority social worker should acknowledge receipt to the referrer and make a decision about next steps and the type of response required. This will include determining whether:

  • the child requires immediate protection and urgent action is required
  • the child is in need and should be assessed under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 
  • there is reasonable cause to suspect that the child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, and whether enquires must be made and the child assessed under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 
  • any services are required by the child and family and what type of services 
  • further specialist assessments are required to help the local authority to decide what further action to take.

Assessing the risk of significant harm

If information gathered during an assessment suggests that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, the local authority should hold a strategy discussion to enable it to decide, with other agencies, whether it must undertake a section 47 enquiry.

A Section 47 enquiry refers to Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 and involves social workers gathering evidence and speaking with the child, family and other relevant professionals to determine if any interventions may be beneficial to the child's welfare.

All assessments should be completed within 45 working days from the point of referral into local authority children's social care.

If the child is in immediate danger the local authority or an authorised person (including the NSPCC) can take the following action through the courts:

  • an emergency protection order can be issued to immediately remove a child to a place of safety.
  • an exclusion order can be issued to remove the abuser from the family home.
  • a child assessment order can be issued for a children's social worker to assess the child’s needs without the parents' or carers' consent.
  • the police can remove a child to a place of safety for up to 72 hours without obtaining a court order.
  • a female genital mutilation protection order (FGMPO) can be applied for through a family court and offers the means of protecting actual or potential victims from FGM under the civil law.

Child protection conferences

A child protection conference is held if a child is assessed as being at risk of significant harm. It may also take place where there are concerns about an unborn child.

At the case conference relevant professionals can share information, identify risks and outline what needs to be done to protect the child.

In England, this must happen within 15 working days of the strategy discussion.

Professionals draft a child protection plan which the core group will develop and implement.

A core group is set up of family members and professionals.

Child protection measures

Child protection measures

Child protection plan

A child protection plan sets out what action needs to be taken, by when and by whom (including family members), to keep the child safe from harm and to promote their welfare.

The plan will be reviewed at regular child protection conferences until the child is no longer considered at risk of significant harm or until they are taken into care.

Care proceedings

In some cases, professionals may conclude that the parents or carers are not able to provide safe or appropriate care for their child and the local authority will decide to take the child into care.

Unless the level of risk requires the courts to get involved immediately, care proceedings will only start after extensive efforts to keep the child with their family.

If the child is still at risk following these efforts then the parents will be invited to a pre-proceedings meeting as a final attempt to avoid going to court.

> Find out more about children in care

Voluntary accommodation

A child may be taken in to care voluntarily through Section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

A local authority must provide accommodation for children who do not have anywhere suitable to live. This includes children who have nobody to look after them or whose parents are unable to look after them for a period of time, due to illness or other problems.

Under Section 20 a parent retains all their legal rights and can require the child’s return at any stage.

Going to court

Care proceedings are usually held in the Family Court although more complex cases may be held in the High Court.

The court will make sure the child has a children's guardian. The guardian's job is to look after the child's interests. If the child is mature enough they can appoint their own solicitor to represent their wishes.

The child's social worker will make a care plan to help the court decide how the child should be cared for.

> Read our information about Gillick competency and Fraser guidelines

Care orders

If the courts agree that it's necessary, they can make an order giving the local authority parental responsibility for a child. There are four types of care order.

Interim care order

At the initial hearing the court may decide that an interim care order is needed to set out what should happen to the child during proceedings.

This is awarded for eight weeks initially. The social worker and an officer from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) among others will try to understand why the child might be at risk and what can be done to keep them safe.

The social worker and Cafcass officer will then produce reports on what they think should happen to the child, after consulting with the parents, child and family and friends.

This will include whether they think the child should be taken into care or stay with the family.

The judge will decide how long the interim care order will last and how often it will be reviewed.

Concurrent planning

While the interim care order is in place, professionals can work together with the family to see if the child can return home. Other options that may be explored are rehabilitation and placement.

Rehabilitation aims to return the child to the birth family, while placements offer options for fostering or adoption.

Care order

The court will only make a full care order if they are convinced:

  • the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm
  • making an order would be better for the child than making no order

and that the level of harm is due to either:

  • the care the child is receiving or likely to receive if the care order isn't made; or
  • the child is beyond parental control.

A care order gives the local authority shared parental responsibility with the parents, but the local authority has the power to decide how much involvement a parent should have with their child.

  • Placement order. This allows a child to be placed with prospective adopters prior to an adoption order, if the local authority believes this is the best option for the child.
  • Adoption order. This transfers parental responsibility to the adoptive parents. It's made by a court following extensive enquiries, based on the best interests of the child.

At the point of the adoption the care order ends and the adoptive parents take over sole parental responsibility.

Unless an adoption order is made or the child returns home, care orders last until the child turns 18. Local authorities have a duty to continue to promote the welfare of care-leavers until the age of 21, or 25 if the young person wants to.

Legislation and guidance

Legislation and guidance

The Children Act 1989 provides the legislative framework for child protection in England. Key principles established by the Act include:

  • the paramount nature of the child’s welfare
  • the expectations and requirements around duties of care to children.

This is strengthened by the Children Act 2004, which encourages partnerships between agencies and creates more accountability, by:

  • placing a duty on local authorities to appoint children’s services members who are ultimately accountable for the delivery of services
  • placing a duty on local authorities and their partners to co-operate in safeguarding and promoting the wellbeing of children and young people.

Both of these acts are amended by the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which received Royal Assent on 27 April 2017. Key provisions include:

  • the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel was established to review and report on serious child protection cases that are complex or of national importance (Sections 12 to 15).
  • the previous model of Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards (LSCBs) has been replaced by local safeguarding partners who will publish reports on local safeguarding practice reviews (Section 17).
  • child death review partners are required to review each death of a child normally resident in their area and identify matters that are relevant to public health and safety and children locally (Section 24).
  • local authorities must appoint personal advisers for care leavers up to the age of 25 (Section 3).
  • Social Work England is created as a regulatory body for the social work profession in England (Section 36).
  • relationships education will be provided to primary school children and relationships and sex education will be provided (instead of sex education) in secondary schools (Section 34).

Policy and guidance

Working together to safeguard children (PDF) (Department for Education, 2018)

The Department for Education (DfE) published an updated version of the key statutory guidance for anyone working with children in England in July 2018. It sets out how organisations and individuals should work together and how practitioners should conduct the assessment of children.

This latest guidance updates the previous version published in 2015.

The main changes are:

  • three safeguarding partners: chief officers of police, integrated care boards (ICBs, previously clinical commissioning groups or 'CCGs') and local authorities replace local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs), working together with relevant agencies to protect the welfare of children in their area (Chapter 3)
  • child death review partners are required to make provisions to review child deaths, replacing the previous requirement on LSCBs (Chapter 5, Section 6)
  • responsibility for overseeing lessons learned from serious child safeguarding incidents lies with the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel at a national level, and with the safeguarding partners at a local level (Chapter 4, Section 5)
  • early years providers are required to have policies and procedures to safeguard children in place (Chapter 2, Section 14). This relates to children from birth up to 1st September following the date on which they turn 5-years-old.

Other amendments include:

  • integrated care boards should employ or contract the expertise of designated health professionals for safeguarding children
  • children's homes must follow the Guide to the Children’s Homes Regulations, including the quality standards (Department for Education, 2015)
  • multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA), including governing bodies of maintained schools, police, prison and probation services, should work closely with other relevant agencies to manage the risks posed by violent and sexual offenders within the community.

> Read our CASPAR briefing on key changes to the statutory Working together to safeguard children guidance

> Find out more about the key legislation guidance for schools

What to do if you’re worried a child is being abused: advice for practitioners (PDF) (Department of Education, 2015) 

This describes the indicators of abuse and neglect and the actions to take if you think a child is being abused or neglected. It's relevant for anyone who comes into contact with children and families while working and applies to the statutory, voluntary and independent sectors.

Mandatory reporting of female genital mutilation (FGM) (PDF) (Home Office, 2016)

This guidance gives health and social care professionals, teachers and the police information on their responsibilities under the female genital mutilation mandatory reporting duty, which came into force 31 October 2015.

> Find out more about FGM

Keep up-to-date with new legislation and guidance by signing up to CASPAR, our current awareness service for policy, practice and research.

References and resources

References and resources

Department for Education (DfE) (2022a) Letter from the Secretary of State for Education to Annie Hudson, Chair of the independent Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel on the national review (PDF). London: DfE

Department for Education (DfE) (2022b) Minister Quince oral statement on children's social care review. [Accessed 30/06/2022]

Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (2022) Child protection in England: national review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson. London: Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel.

MacAlister, J. (2022) The independent review of children's social care: final report. The independent review of children's social care.

Department for Education (DfE) (2018) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). London: HM Government.

Department for Education (DfE) (2015) Guide to the Children’s Homes Regulations including the quality standards (PDF)London: HM Government.

Department for Education (DfE) (2015) What to do if you’re worried a child is being abused: advice for practitioners (PDF). London: HM Government.

Home Office (2016) Mandatory reporting of female genital mutilation: procedural information (PDF). London: HM Government.

Further reading

Child protection plan register statistics
Our series of factsheets pulls together the most up-to-date statistics on children who are the subject to child protection plan or on a child protection register for each of the UK nations.

For further reading about the child protection system in England, search the NSPCC Library catalogue using the keywords "child protection", "child protection services", "child law", "social policy", "England".

> Find out more about the Library and Information Service