Child protection system in Northern Ireland

Last updated: 22 Feb 2021

The Northern Ireland Executive, through the Department of Health, is responsible for child protection in Northern Ireland. They set out policy, legislation and statutory guidance on how the child protection system should work.

The Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) co-ordinates and ensures the effectiveness of work to protect and promote the welfare of children.

The board includes representatives from health, social care, the police, the probation board, youth justice, education, district councils and the NSPCC. The SBNI is responsible for developing policies and procedures to improve how different agencies work together.

Reporting concerns

Reporting concerns

Guidance on reporting safeguarding concerns in Northern Ireland can be found in Cooperating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland (2017). (This is augmented by more detailed operation guidance contained in the SBNI Core Policy and Procedures (2018)).

Chapter six contains information on raising concerns and making referrals to the relevant agencies.

How to report a concern

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 to report concerns about a child. All schools in Northern Ireland should have a designated child protection teacher.
  • 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 the relevant Health and Social Care Trust (HSCT) Gateway Services team. In circumstances that are not an emergency, the HSCT gateway services team is the first point of contact for all new referrals to children’s social services.
  • Contact the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The police can make an emergency protective response if there is an immediate concern about the safety of a child.

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.

Not reporting a relevant offence to the police, including those against children, is an offence in Northern Ireland.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

Referrals and investigations

Referrals and investigations

Assessing a child's needs

The Understanding the needs of children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) guidance can be used to assess a child’s needs (Department of Health, 2011).

The framework is designed to help identify a child's needs at an early stage and prevent problems from escalating. The assessment can then be used to make referrals to children's social services.

The UNOCINI guidance on thresholds of needs model (2010) can be used to decide the level of need and how best to help and support the child or young person.

Assessing the risk of harm

When the Health and Social Care Trust (HSCT) Gateway Service receives a referral about a child, they will first assess if the child is at immediate risk of danger.

If the child is not in immediate danger, the HSCT Gateway Service should carry out an initial assessment within 10 working days. They will use all the available information to decide what further action is required.

As part of this process, they must consider whether the Joint Protocol should be implemented. This is a framework for joint investigative working between the police and social workers (HSCB, Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) and NSPCC Northern Ireland, 2018).

Following the results of the assessment, the HSCT Gateway Service may:

  • take no further child protection action if the child hasn't been harmed and isn't considered to be at risk of harm. They may offer additional support instead
  • make the child a child in need. This means the child and their family are entitled to receive extra support from the relevant agencies
  • provide additional social work support to the child and their family. A pathway assessment will be carried out to give an in-depth assessment of their needs
  • provide time-limited intervention. 

Where there are allegations of abuse and neglect, or if a crime is suspected, the HSCT Gateway Service must report the referral to Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and a strategy discussion must take place within 24 hours to decide how to proceed.

The strategy discussion may involve a range of professionals working with the family. Its purpose is to ensure an early exchange of information and clarify what action needs to be taken by the PSNI and the HSCT (either separately or together).

The following action can be taken through the courts:

  • Emergency protection order, child assessment order, interim care order or supervision order. The HSCT Gateway Service can use any of these orders to remove and/or protect a child. The NSPCC also has powers as an authorised person to apply for these orders.
  • Excluding a named individual. Articles 57A and 63A of The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 give a court the power to exclude a named individual suspected of abuse from a child’s home.
  • Removal by police. The police are able to remove the child in an emergency but this is only done in exceptional circumstances.

Case conferences

If the child is at risk of significant harm, a case conference is held. Relevant professionals can then share information, identify risks and outline what needs to be done to protect the child.

The initial case conference should take place within 15 working days of the child protection referral. At this point the responsibility of the case is transferred to the Family Intervention Team.

If professionals at the initial case conference decide a child is at risk of significant harm they will add the child to the child protection register, and draw up a child protection plan.

Case conferences should continue at regular intervals until either:

  • the child is no longer considered at risk of significant harm; or
  • until the child is taken into care.
Child protection measures

Child protection measures

Child protection register

In Northern Ireland the child protection register (CPR) is a confidential list of all children in the local area who have been identified as being at risk of significant harm. It allows authorised individuals to check if a child they are working with is known to be at risk.

If a child is added to the CPR they must also have a child protection plan, which sets out what action needs to be taken by whom and when, in order to safeguard the child and promote their welfare.

Care proceedings

Depending on the outcome of the child protection conference, it may be necessary to take the child into care to help keep them safe.

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 into care voluntarily through Article 21 of The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

The Health and Social Care Trust (HSCT) Gateway Service 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 Article 22 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 proceedings Court and more complex cases may be held in Family Care Centres or the High Court.

The court will make sure the child has a guardian ad litem (appointed to them). The guardian's job is to look after the child's interests. If the child is mature enough they are allowed to 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 may make an order giving the local HSCT parental responsibility for a child.

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, and must be renewed every four weeks, allowing for investigation and further plans to be made. The HSCT will produce a care plan.

In some cases the child may continue living at home with the parents under specified conditions. However, if the conditions aren't met then the HSCT is able to intervene without having to obtain a separate care order.

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 their birth family, while placements offer options for fostering or adoption.

Full care order

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

  • the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm
  • 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.

Placement order

This allows a child to be placed with prospective adopters prior to an adoption order, should the local authority believe this is the best option for the child.

Adoption order

This transfers parental responsibility to the adoptive parents. Courts only make adoption orders following extensive enquiries, based on the best interest of the child.

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

Unless an adoption order is made or the child returns home, care orders last until the child turns 18. HSCTs have a duty to continue to promote the welfare of care-leavers until the age of 21.

Legislation and guidance

Legislation and guidance

The legislative framework for Northern Ireland’s child protection system is set out in The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. This sets out parental responsibilities and rights and the duties and powers public authorities have to support children.

The creation of the regional Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) was set out in law in the Safeguarding Board Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. This also established five Safeguarding Panels to support the SBNIs work at a Health and Social Care Trust level (HSCT).

The Children’s Services Co-operation Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 requires public authorities to co-operate in contributing to the wellbeing of children and young people, in the areas of:

  • physical and mental health
  • enjoyment of play and leisure
  • learning and achievement
  • living conditions, rights, and economic wellbeing.

Under Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, it is an offence not to report a ‘relevant offence’ to the police. This includes offences against children.

Policy and guidance

For information on child protection guidance during the coronavirus pandemic, read our Coronavirus (COVID-19) briefing.

Co-operating to Safeguard Children and young people in Northern Ireland (Department of Health, 2017)

This provides the overarching policy framework for safeguarding children and young people in the statutory, private, independent, community, voluntary and faith sectors. It replaces guidance published in 2003.

Children and Young People’s Strategy 2020-2030 (Department of Education, 2021)

This sets out the strategic framework to improve the wellbeing of all children and young people in Northern Ireland. This states that children should:

  • live in a society which respects their rights
  • be healthy
  • enjoy learning and achieving
  • have safety and stability
  • have economic and environmental wellbeing
  • be contributing positively to the community and society.

Revised regional core child protection policies and procedures for Northern Ireland (Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, 2018)

This explains the actions that must be taken when there are concerns about the welfare of a child/young person, including:

  • core procedures
  • individuals who pose a risk to children and young people
  • learning and improvement to support and develop child protection
  • the roles and responsibilities of the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland
  • interagency guidance and protocols.

> Find out more about the key legislation guidance for schools 

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 of Education (2021) Children and Young People's Strategy 2020-2030 [Accessed 04/02/2021].

Department of Health (2010) Thresholds of need model. [Accessed 04/02/2021].

Department of Health (2011) Understanding the needs of children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) guidance (PDF). [Belfast]: Northern Ireland Executive government.

Department of Health (2017) Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland. [Belfast]: Northern Ireland Executive government.

Health and Social Care Board (HSCB), Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) and NSPCC Northern Ireland (2018) Protocol for joint investigation by social workers and police officers of alleged and suspected cases of child abuse – Northern Ireland (PDF). [Belfast]: HSCB.

Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) (2018) Revised regional core child protection policies and procedures for Northern Ireland. [Accessed 04/02/2021].

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 Northern Ireland, search the NSPCC Library catalogue using the keywords "child protection", "child protection services", "child law", "social policy", "Northern Ireland".

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.