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Child protection system in Northern Ireland

Last updated: 05 Jul 2023

The Northern Ireland Executive, through the Department of Health (DoH), 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.

In June 2023, Professor Ray Jones and an independent review panel published their final report on Northern Ireland’s children’s social care services. The independent review looked at the difficulties facing the service; collated the experiences of children, families, and various service providers; and set out recommendations for reform.

> Read the CASPAR briefing on the report of the independent review of children's social care services in Northern Ireland

The Department of Health responded to the review’s recommendations by stating that some of the challenges identified in the report are already being addressed, and there would be a public consultation on the recommended organisational and service changes (Department of Health, 2023).

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 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 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 child protection specialists 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

If your organisation doesn't have a clear safeguarding procedure or you're concerned about how child protection issues are being handled in your own, or another, organisation, contact the Whistleblowing Advice Line to discuss your concerns.

> Find out about the Whistleblowing Advice Line on the NSPCC website

When you're not sure

The NSPCC Helpline can help when you're not sure if a situation needs a safeguarding response. Our child protection specialists are here to support you whether you're seeking advice, sharing concerns about a child, or looking for reassurance.

Whatever the need, reason or feeling, you can contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing

Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you. Depending on what you share, our experts will talk you through which local services can help, advise you on next steps, or make referrals to children's services and the police.

> Find out more about how the NSPCC Helpline can support you


Referrals and investigations

Referrals and investigations

Assessing a child's needs

Local authorities have a legal duty to investigate concerns about a child and assess the risk of harm. As new information comes to light, the risks to the child must be re-assessed.

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

The framework helps people working with children to identify a child's needs at an early stage and prevent problems from escalating. If significant risk factors are identified during a preliminary assessment, the framework can also be used to make a referral to children's social services and to help children’s social services make decisions about the appropriate response.

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.

If there are concerns that a child may be suffering, or at risk of suffering, a significant harm, it is not necessary to complete an UNOCINI assessment before making an urgent referral. However, the referral will need to be confirmed in writing via the UNOCINI referral form within 24 hours of an urgent referral being made.

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.

If at any point during the initial assessment there is reason to suspect a child or young person is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, a child protection investigation must take place. A referral to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) should also be made. 

As part of this process, police and social services must consider whether the Protocol for joint investigation by social workers and police officers of alleged and suspected cases of child abuse (also referred to as the Joint protocol) should be implemented. (HSCB, Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) and NSPCC Northern Ireland, 2021).

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.

If a child is in immediate danger, 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.

Child protection case conferences

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

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

If professionals at the initial child protection 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.

If a child’s name is placed on the child protection register, then a review child protection case conference should be held within 3 months.

Review child protection case conferences should continue at regular intervals of at least every 6 months, until the child is no longer considered at risk of significant harm or they have reached 18 years of age.

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

It may be necessary to apply for a court order to take a 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. If parents agree that their child should be taken into care then a court order is not required.

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 of The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, a parent whose child has been taken into care voluntarily 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, which gives the local HSCT parental responsibility for a child, alongside the parents.

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 8 weeks and must be renewed every 4 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.

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
  • the harm, or likelihood of harm, is due to either:
    • the level or parental care the child is receiving, or is likely to receive if the care order isn’t made; or
    • the child being beyond parental control.

Care orders last until the child turns 18 unless:

  • an adoption order is made; or
  • a court discharges the care order.

HSCTs have a duty to continue to promote the welfare of care-leavers until the age of 21.

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.

Freeing order

If parents do not consent to an adoption, the HSCT must apply for a freeing order, which gives parental responsibility solely to the HSCT.

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.

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 (HSCT) level.

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

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.

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.

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

This guidance, first published in 2018, 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 09/03/2022].

Department of Health (2010) Thresholds of need model. [Accessed 09/03/2022].

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.

Department of Health (2023) Department welcomes Children’s Social Care Services review report. [Accessed 28/06/2023].

Health and Social Care Board (HSCB), Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) and NSPCC Northern Ireland (2021) 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) Regional core child protection policies and procedures for Northern Ireland. [Accessed 09/03/2022].

Jones, R. (2023) Report of the independent review of children's social care services in Northern Ireland. [Accessed 27/06/2023]

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".

> Find out more about the Library and Information Service