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Recognising child abuse or significant harm of a child

Last reviewed dd mmm yyyy. Last edited dd mmm yyyy

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Recognising Abuse or Significant Harm

  • the Children Act 1989 introduced the concept of Significant Harm as the threshold that justifies compulsory intervention in family life in the best interests of children. There are no absolute criteria on which to rely when judging what constitutes significant harm but consideration should be given to the following:

    • the severity of ill-treatment which may include the degree and extent of physical harm, including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another
    • the duration and frequency of abuse and neglect
    • the extent of premeditation

  • child abuse and neglect is a generic term encompassing all ill treatment of children, including serious physical and sexual assaults, as well as cases where the standard of care does not adequately support the child's health or development

  • children may be abused or neglected through the infliction of harm, or through the failure to act to prevent harm

  • abuse can occur in a family or an institutional or community setting. The perpetrator may or may not be known to the child

  • working Together to Safeguard Children (2010) sets out definitions and examples of the four broad categories of abuse which are used as a basis for determining that a child should be subject to a Child Protection Plan:

    • physical abuse

    • emotional abuse

    • neglect

    • sexual abuse

Physical abuse

  • physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child.
  • physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces, illness in a child

Emotional abuse

  • emotional abuse is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child's emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person
    • may include not giving the child opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or 'making fun' of what they say or how they communicate
    • may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children
      • these may include interactions that are beyond the child's developmental capability, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction
    • may involve seeing or hearing the ill treatment of anothe
    • may involve serious bullying (including cyber bullying), causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children
  • some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child, though it may occur alone


  • neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child's basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child's health or development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse. Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to:

    • provide adequate food, clothing and shelter (including exclusion from home or abandonment);

    • protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger;

    • ensure adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate caregivers) or

    • ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment. It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child's basic emotional needs

Sexual abuse

  • sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening
    • the activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing
    • may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet)
  • sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.

Children in Need Section 17

  • children who are defined as being in need , under section 17 of the Children Act 1989,are those whose vulnerability is such that they are unlikely to reach or maintain a satisfactory level of health or development, or their health and development will be significantly impaired, without the provision of services plus those who are disabled

Significant harm Section 47 (Child Protection)

  • there are no absolute criteria on which to rely when judging what constitutes significant harm. Consideration of the severity of ill treatment may include the degree and the extent of physical harm, the duration and frequency of abuse and neglect, the extent of premeditation, and the presence or degree of threat, coercion, sadism and bizarre or unusual elements


  • Bristol CCG Safeguarding Children Policy (Accessed 12/3/2014).
  • Suffolk Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust. Child Safeguarding Policy (Accessed 12/3/2014).
  • Working Together to Safeguard Children (2010)
  • The Children Act 1989 and 2004.

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