Protecting children from abuse by someone in a position of trust or authority

Last updated: 22 Jan 2019 Topics: Safeguarding and child protection

'Position of trust' is a legal term that refers to certain roles and settings where an adult has regular and direct contact with children. Examples of positions of trust include:

  • teachers
  • care workers
  • youth justice workers
  • social workers
  • doctors.

It's against the law for someone in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with a child in their care, even if that child is over the age of consent (16 or over).

There are many roles which are not legally defined as being positions of trust, such as swimming coaches or faith group leaders. This means it's not currently against the law for people in these roles to have a sexual relationship with a 16– or 17-year-old in their care.

Closing the loophole

We believe it should be illegal for anyone who has a position of authority over children to have a sexual relationship with them and we're campaigning to change the law.

> Find our more about our Close the Loophole campaign

Keeping children and young people safe

Although most people who work or volunteer with children have their best interests at heart, organisations that work with children have a responsibility to prevent anyone who is in a position of authority from abusing a child. This page explains how to recognise if someone in your organisation is abusing their position, what to do if you have concerns and the steps you need to take to keep children safe.

 

Recognising

Recognising abuse

Your organisation should make sure everyone understands the signs that someone could be using their position to abuse children.

Examples of situations that may cause concern include a member of staff or volunteer:

  • giving a child or young person extra special attention or preferential treatment, or acting as their confidante
  • frequently spending time on their own with a child or young person, particularly if this is in private or isolated areas
  • spending time outside their working or volunteering hours alone with a child or young person
  • transporting a child or young person to or from meetings or activities on their own
  • making friends with a child or young person's parents or carers and/or visiting them at home
  • giving gifts, money, toys, cards or letters to a child or young person
  • using texts, telephone calls, emails or social networking sites to communicate with a child or young person
  • being overly affectionate with a child or young person
  • flirting with or making suggestive remarks or sexual comments around a child or young person.

You may also hear other children and young people making jokes or references about a member of staff and a specific child.

If someone is behaving in any of the ways listed above, this may not mean they are grooming or abusing a child. But all the adults involved in your organisation should understand what appropriate behaviour looks like.

Codes of conduct

It's good practice to have a code of conduct for all staff and volunteers which sets out your organisation's expectations clearly.

> Look at our example behaviour code for adults

Vulnerabilities and risk factors

Although any child can experience abuse, some may be more vulnerable.

If a perpetrator perceives a particular child or young person as being isolated or in need of emotional support, they may use it as an opportunity to build a trusting relationship and groom the child for abuse.

> Find out more about the signs of grooming

Responding

Responding to concerns

If you're concerned about someone within your school or organisation abusing a position of trust or a position of authority, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. 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. If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999.

Make sure you record any concerns you may have about another member of staff or volunteer's behaviour and report them to your nominated child protection lead, your supervisor/line manager or a member of senior management.

You should do this even if you have a good relationship with the colleague involved or are worried about upsetting them. Remember that children's safety is paramount.

> Find our more about recognising and responding to abuse 

Investigating concerns

Organisations should investigate any concerns raised against staff or volunteers, regardless of who the person is, what position they hold or how long they've been involved in the organisation.

Allegations made against an adult

Any allegation that an employee or volunteer has behaved in a way that has harmed, or may have harmed, a child must be taken seriously and dealt with sensitively and promptly.

> Find out more about managing allegations of abuse 

Prevention

Preventing abuse

Safeguarding policies and procedures

To prevent staff and volunteers from abusing their position there are things schools and organisations can do:

Adopt an organisation-wide approach to safeguarding
This sends a clear message to staff and volunteers that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated and your organisation prioritises keeping children safe.
> Find out more about safeguarding and child protection

Have robust safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures in place
Having the written policies and procedures enable you to respond quickly and effectively to any concerns, disclosures or allegations in order to support everyone involved.
> Find out more about writing a safeguarding policy statement

Make sure all staff and volunteers have attended child protection training
Appropriate training helps ensure everyone understands how to spot the signs of child abuse or grooming and knows what to do if they have any concerns.
> Find out more about available child protection training courses

Have clear guidelines or a code of conduct for staff and volunteers
This helps promote an ethos of appropriate behaviour where staff and volunteers maintain the right boundaries with children and young people, in- and outside of your organisation (including on social media).
> Find out more about behaviour codes for adults working with children

Keep accurate records of all incidents and concerns arising in relation to members of staff or volunteers
Accurate records will enable you to consider all the available information when investigating concerns and recognise any patterns of behaviour.
> Find out more about managing allegations of abuse

Have a whistleblowing policy
This will help staff and volunteers to confidentially disclose any wrongdoing they may be aware of, including concerns they may have about the behaviour of a colleague.
> Find out more about the Whistleblowing Advice Line on the NSPCC website 

Safer recruitment

Organisations can prevent unsuitable people from working with children by having safer recruitment policies and procedures in place and providing staff with appropriate induction, training and supervision.

> Find out more about safer recruitment 

Legislation, policy and guidance

Legislation on abuse in positions of trust

Key legislation

Across the UK it is illegal for those in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with a child in their care, even if the child is above the age of consent (16 or 17) (Sexual Offences Act 2003; Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008; Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009).

The legislation sets out which roles and settings are classed as 'positions of trust'. This includes settings such as:

  • hospitals
  • independent clinics
  • residential care homes
  • voluntary homes or children's homes
  • residential family centres
  • schools and educational institutions.

The position of trust law does not currently cover all roles and settings that may give an adult a position of authority over children and young people. For example, sports coaches, driving instructors and youth workers are not currently classed as positions of trust.

> Find out more about our campaign to Close the Loophole

> Find out more about the legislation protecting children from sexual abuse 

Key guidance

Statutory guidance across the UK highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect. This includes having robust procedures in place to prevent and respond to abuse by someone in a position of trust or authority.

All organisations that work with children in the UK are required to make a referral to their national disclosure and barring service if they remove an individual from working with children because the person poses a risk of harm (Department for Education, 2018; Department of Health, 2017; Scottish Government, 2014; Welsh Government, 2016).

Safe working practices

There is also good practice guidance to help those who work with children form appropriate relationships.

The Safer Recruitment Consortium has published guidance for safer working practice for those in education settings (PDF). The guidance includes information oncommunicating with children (including via technology) and safeguarding in one to one situations (Safer Recruitment Consortium, 2015).

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) has published non-statutory guidance on Cyberbullying (PDF) which includes information on how those who work in a position of trust in schools can protect their reputation online and communicate appropriately with students (DfE, 2014).

The Education Authority (EA) Northern Ireland has published non-statutory guidance for schools around codes of conduct (PDF) for staff. Topics covered include maintaining professional boundaries and communication with pupils (including the use of technology) (Whitehead, 2013).

References and resources

References and resources

Department for Education (DfE) (2014) Cyber bullying: advice for headteachers and school staff (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE).

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

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

Safer Recruitment Consortium (2015) Guidance for safer working practice for those working with children and young people in education settings (PDF). [London]: Safer Recruitment Consortium. 

Scottish Government (2014) National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF). Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.

Welsh Government (2016) Working together to safeguard people: volume 5: handling individual cases to protect children at risk (PDF). Cardiff: Welsh Government.

Whitehead, J. (2013) Power and positions of trust: guidance on the code of conduct for staff working (PDF). Belfast: Education Authority (EA).

Elearning

Our elearning courses will help develop your understanding of how to protect children from abuse of positions of trust:

Support for children and young people

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online. You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards

Related resources

> Find out more about protecting children from grooming 

> Find out more about protecting children from sexual abuse 

> Find out more about recognising and responding to abuse 

> Find more about our Close the Loophole campaign 

> Find out more about safer recruitment