Children’s Services – Referral, assessments and outcomes


This page explains the duties of Children’s Services once a child protection referral is made. It describes the assessment process and timescales and explains possible outcomes of a child protection investigation.


If you think a child is in immediate danger call the police on 999, your local Children’s Services or the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000

Children’s Services have a legal duty to investigate situations where a concern has been expressed about the safety and well-being of a child. The child protection investigation is predominantly the responsibility of social workers within Children’s Services, however they do work closely with the Police, health workers and other professionals who are connected to the child and/or family.

What happens when Children’s Services receive a referral?

 When information is received, by way of a referral, which indicates that there are concerns about the safety and well-being of a child, Children’s Services have 24 hours to decide what type of response is required. In making this decision, the social worker will have to determine whether:

  • the child(ren) require immediate protection and thus urgent and immediate action is required;
  • the child(ren) is/are in need;
  • there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the child(ren) is/are suffering, or is/are likely to suffer, significant harm and whether further enquiries need to be made;
  • any services which the child(ren) and/or family require and what they are;
  • whether any further specialist assessments are needed to help Children’s Services determine what further action to take;
  • whether any action needs to be taken; and
  • if there is no further action they can take, whether to refer the matter to a more appropriate agency.

What happens if Children’s Services decide to conduct an assessment following a referral?

Unless the child or children in question requires immediate protection, the majority of cases will begin with a social worker conducting a multi-agency assessment under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. The assessment needs to be carried out within 45 days from the point of referral. This was previously known as an initial assessment or core assessment.

The purpose of the assessment is to gather information and to analyse the needs of the child or children and/or their family and the nature and level of any risk of harm to the child or children.

Each Local Authority will have their own child protection procedure and protocols for assessment. However, the investigation will generally require that a social worker:

  • visit the family and discuss the allegations which have been made;
  • conduct an interview with the child away from the family;
  • liaise with other professionals who are involved with the child and/or family;
  • assess the developmental needs of the child;
  • assess the ability of the parents to respond to the child’s needs; and
  • consider the impact the family, the family history, the wider family and environmental factors are having on the parents’ capacity to respond to their child’s needs and the child’s developmental progress.

What if I do not want my child to be interviewed independently?

Every assessment must be informed by the views of the child, as well as the family.

Children’s Services are legally required under the Children Act 1989 to ascertain the child’s wishes and feelings about the provision of services. The Working Together to Safeguard Children Guidancestates that children should be seen alone, wherever possible.

When talking to the child, the social workers must observe and communicate with them in a manner appropriate to his age and understanding.


Further guidance can be found via

Further Policies and Guidelines

Children Act 1989

Sets out many of the duties, powers and responsibilities local authorities hold in respect of their looked after children and care leavers.

In 2015 new regulations relating to the Children Act came in to force. Among other things, these regulations set out arrangements for local authorities considering ceasing to look after a child. View the Children Act 1989

Children (Leaving Care) 2000

Sets out duties local authorities have to support young people leaving care from 16 to 21 years of age.

View the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000

Adoption and Children Act 2002

Updated the legal framework for domestic and inter-country adoption, and places a duty on local authorities to maintain an adoption service and provide adoption support services.

View the Adoption and Children Act 2002

Children and Adoption Act 2006

Gives courts more flexible powers to facilitate child contact and enforce contact orders when separated parents are in dispute.

View the Children and Adoption Act 2006

Children and Young Persons Act 2008

Legislates for the recommendations in the Department for Education and Skill’s 2007 Care Matters white paper to provide high quality care and services for children in care.

View the Children and Young Persons Act 2008

Download the Care Matters white paper (PDF)

Children and Families Act 2014

Encourages ‘fostering for adoption’ which allows approved adopters to foster children while they wait for court approval to adopt. Introduces a 26 week time limit for the courts to decide whether or not a child should be taken into care. In some cases, this limit may be extended by eight weeks. Introduces ‘staying put’ arrangements which allow children in care to stay with their foster families until the age of 21 years. This is provided that both the young person and the foster family are happy to do so.

View the Children and Families Act 2014

The Children’s Homes (England) Regulations 2015

Sets out duties for those providing residential children’s homes for children.

View The Children’s Homes (England) Regulations 2015


If a parent does not provide consent for the social worker to speak to the child on their own, professionals may become more concerned for the child’s safety and well-being. This can result in Children’s Services escalating their involvement, for example, an order can be sought form the court to make sure that the child is safe.

What possible outcomes are there of an assessment by Children’s Services?

As a result of the assessment, Children’s Services will decide one of the following:

  • that the child is not ‘In Need’. In this case, Children’s Services will take no further action other than, where appropriate, to provide information and advice in accordance with the local Common Assessment Framework.
  • that the child is ‘In Need’, but it has been determined that the child is not suffering, or considered likely to suffer, significant harm. In this case, Children’s Services will determine the support which will be provided and draw up a ‘Child In Need’ plan accordingly. that the child is ‘In Need’ and that there are concerns that the child is suffering, or considered likely to suffer, significant harm. In which case, Children’s Services will initiate a Strategy Discussion to determine whether a Section 47 investigation is necessary; and consider whether any immediate protective action is also required.

Strategy Discussion

A strategy discussion is arranged when Children’s Services has reasonable cause to believe that a child is at risk of suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. The discussion is led by Children’s Services and it can involve other agencies such as the Police, health and education providers.

The aim of the meeting is to:

  • share information between the agencies involved;
  • decide what further steps should be taken to safeguard the child concerned, including any immediate action where appropriate;
  • plan the Section 47 investigation (if one is to be undertaken), including the need for further information;
  • determine when the child will be interviewed alone by the lead social worker (where appropriate given the age of the child); and
  • determine what information from the Strategy Discussion will be shared with the family, unless such information sharing may place a child at increased risk of harm or jeopardise any criminal investigation.

Parents and family will not be invited to participate or attend the strategy discussion.

Section 47 investigation

Under section 47 Children Act 1989, the Local Authority is under a duty to make enquiries and to investigate if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. The purpose of these enquiries is for the Local Authority to determine whether it needs to take any further action to promote or safeguard the child’s welfare.

A child can be placed on a ‘Child Protection Plan’ if the outcome of the section 47 investigation has determined that the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.

How will Children’s Services decide whether the child is at risk of harm?

 Harm is defined as:

“The ill-treatment, or the impairment of health or development, including for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another.”

  • “development” means physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development;
  • “health” means physical or mental health;
  • “ill-treatment” includes sexual abuse and forms of ill-treatment which are not physical.’ (s31 (9) Children Act 1989)

Where the question of whether the harm suffered by a child is significant turns on the child’s health or development, it is necessary to compare his health or development with what could reasonably be expected of a similar child (s31 (10) Children Act 1989).

For more information see:

See the Government Guide on children with SEND


This statutory guidance applies to:

  • local authorities
  • children’s services directors
  • children’s services social workers
  • front-line managers who have particular responsibilities in relation to looked-after children
  • managers and commissioners of services for looked-after children

Statutory guidance sets out what you must do to comply with the law. You should follow the guidance unless you have a very good reason not to.

The guidance is also relevant to Children’s Trust partner agencies and to providers of services to looked-after children, including private, voluntary and public sector providers and foster carers.

The document consolidates a number of separate documents we’ve previously published, including ‘Delegation of authority to foster carers’.

This is volume 2 in a series of 5 related statutory guidance publications:


The child protection system across the UK

Each UK nation is responsible for its own policies and laws around education, health and social welfare. This covers most aspects of safeguarding and child protection.

Laws are passed to prevent behaviour that can harm children or require action to protect children. Guidance sets out what organisations should do to play their part to keep children safe.

Although the child protection systems are different in each nation, they are all based on similar principles.

Child protection in England Care proceedings

If the local authority believes that a child is at risk of significant harm they may decide that it’s 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 these efforts have failed then the parents will be invited to a pre-proceedings meeting as a final attempt to avoid going to court.

Pre-proceedings meeting

A pre-proceedings meeting takes place between the local authority, the parents and the parents’ lawyer to discuss with the parents how they can change the way they look after their child and what support and help is needed from the local authority.

If both sides agree, they will write a formal agreement that both the parents and the local authority have to follow. If parents don’t agree to the changes, or don’t follow the agreement, the local authority will probably ask the court to take the child into care.

If the courts agree that it’s necessary, they can make an order giving the local authority parental responsibility for a child.

Parental responsibility

Parental responsibility is a set of legal rights and responsibilities, including making sure a child has somewhere to live, is looked after, and kept safe.

Parental responsibility gives the right to make important decisions about a child’s life like:

  • who looks after them
  • where they live
  • how they are educated.

Legal definitions for the 4 nations:

Going to court

Care proceedings are usually held in the Family Court and 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 judged to be mature enough they will also be 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.

Care plans

Before a child is taken into care the local authority will produce a plan for the future care of the child. The parents and the child should be involved in developing the care plan (also known as a child plan in Scotland and a care and support plan in Wales).

The plan should show how the child’s needs would be met in care, including their health, education and contact with family members.

Plans must be reviewed and maintained.

Legal definitions for the 4 nations:

At the first (initial) hearing the court may decide that a temporary (interim) care order is needed to set out what should happen to the child during proceedings:

interim care order

The first step is usually to apply to the courts for an interim care order. An interim care order is awarded for 8 weeks. It must be renewed every 4 weeks. This will allow time for matters to be investigated further and plans to be made. The Trust will produce a care plan. This will detail:

  • where the child will live
  • arrangements for attending school
  • arrangements for seeing parents.

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 Trust is able to intervene without having to obtain a separate care order.

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

care order

If social services think a care order is necessary they will ask the court for a full care order to be made. The court will only make a full care order if they are convinced that the threshold criteria is met:

  • the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm
  • making an order would be better for the child than making no order at all (presumption of “no order”)

and, that 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 parental responsibility for a child. Parental responsibility is shared with the parents, but the local authority has the power to decide how much involvement a parent should have with their child and how far the parents can use their parental responsibility.

Once a care order has been made, the child’s care plan will be carried out.

placement order

If the local authority believes adoption is the best option for a child, the court can make a placement order. This allows a child to be placed with prospective adopters prior to an adoption order.

adoption order

An adoption order transfers parental responsibility to the adoptive parents. It is only made by a court following extensive enquiries. The sole criteria for deciding if the order should be made, is the best interest 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.

See our children in care pages for more information.

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