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3.1 Recognition of Abuse and Neglect

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This policy is currently under review


The Concept of Significant Harm


The Children Act 1989 provides the legal framework for defining the situations in which a local authority has a duty to make enquiries about what, if any, action to take to safeguard or promote a child's welfare.


Section 47 of the Act requires that if a local authority has 'reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives or is found in their area is suffering or is likely to suffer Significant Harm,  the authority shall make, or cause to be made, such enquiries as they consider necessary…'


In Section 31 Children Act 1989 as amended by the Adoption and Children Act 2002:

  • 'Harm' means 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' includes physical and mental health;
  • 'Ill treatment' includes Sexual Abuse and forms of ill treatment, which are not physical; and
  • Where the question of whether harm suffered by the child is significant turns on the child's health and development, his/her health and development must be compared with that which could reasonably be expected of a similar child.

There are no absolute criteria on which to rely to determine what constitutes Significant Harm. It is often a compilation of significant events, both acute and longstanding, which impact on the child's physical and psychological development. Children's Social Care must consider all the circumstances when determining whether a referral about abuse and / or neglect to a child satisfies the criteria for a section 47 Enquiry - for further details, please see Section 47 Enquiries Procedure.

Categories of Abuse and Neglect


Abuse and neglect are forms of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may cause or neglect a child by inflicting harm, or failing to act to prevent harm. Children may be abused in a family, or in an institutional or community setting; by those known to them or, more rarely by a stranger. They may be abused by an adult or adults or another child or children.


Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018 includes definitions of the four broad categories of abuse which are used for the purposes of recognition:


These categories overlap and an abused child does frequently suffer more than one type of abuse. This chapter provides definitions of these categories and information to help identify potential abuse and neglect and the required response.

Physical Abuse


Physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child.


It may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces illness in a child. This unusual and potentially dangerous form of abuse is described as fabricated or induced illness in a child (see Fabricated or Induced Illness Procedure).

See also Recognising Physical Abuse 

Emotional Abuse


Emotional abuse involves 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. It 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. It 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. It may involve seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another. It may involve serious 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.

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 penetration (for example rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They 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. Sexual abuse can take place online, and technology can be used to facilitate offline abuse. Sexual Abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of Sexual Abuse, as can their children.


The Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced a range of new sexual offences designed to address all inappropriate activity with children.


Child Sexual Abuse includes:

  • Rape, vaginal, anal or oral penetration committed by a male on a female or male without consent (this is the only sexual offence that can be committed exclusively by a man, as the penetration must be by a penis);
  • Sexual assault by penetration: penetration of the vagina or anus with a part of the body or anything else (this is a new offence that replaces indecent assault and recognises the seriousness of penetration);
  • Sexual assault:  touching a person sexually without consent (this also replaces the offence of indecent assault and covers non-penetrative touching of a victim and would include fondling, masturbation, digital penetration and oral genital contact);
  • Sexual activity with a child:  a person 18 or over intentionally sexually touching a child under 16 (this offence replaces the offences of indecent assault and unlawful sexual intercourse - a separate offence deals with the situation where both persons involved are under 18 and reduces the penalty); these offences include situations where there is consent between the parties; where this consent exists, and the parties are of a similar age, it is not anticipated that any criminal proceedings will take place;
  • Causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity:  a person aged 18 or over  making a child under 16 commit a sexual act on another person (including making a child touch the offender);
  • Other forms of sexual activity e.g. taking indecent photographs of children or exposing children to abusive images of children.

In law children under 16 years of age cannot consent to any sexual activity occurring, although in practice young people may be involved in sexual contact to which, as individuals, they may have agreed.  Children under 13 years cannot in law under any circumstances consent to sexual activity and specific offences, including rape, exist for child victims under this age (see Sexually Active Children Procedure).



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 and development.


Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance misuse. Once the child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to:

  • Provide adequate food and clothing, 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 care-takers;
  • Ensure access appropriate medical care or treatment.

It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child's basic emotional needs.


Severe neglect of young children is associated with major impairment of growth and intellectual development. Persistent neglect can lead to serious impairment of health and development, long-term difficulties with social functioning, relationships and educational progress. Neglect can also result, in extreme cases, in death.

Risk Indicators


The factors described in this section are frequently found in cases of child abuse. Their presence is not proof that abuse has occurred, but:

  • Must be regarded as indicators of possible Significant Harm;
  • Must prompt the professional to seek further information;
  • Justify the need for careful assessment and discussion with designated / named / lead person, manager, (or in the absence of all those individuals, an experienced colleague);
  • May require consultation with and/or referral to Children's Social Care - see the Making a Referral Procedure.

In an abusive relationship the child may:

  • Appear frightened of the parent(s);
  • Act in a way that is inappropriate to her/his age and development  (though full account needs to be taken of different patterns of development and different ethnic groups).

The parent or carer may:

  • Persistently avoid child health services and treatment of the child's illnesses;
  • Have unrealistic expectations of the child;
  • Frequently complain about / to the child and fail to provide attention or praise (a high criticism / low warmth environment);
  • Be absent;
  • Be misusing substances;
  • Persistently refuse to allow access on home visits;
  • Be involved in domestic abuse;
  • Be socially isolated.

Consideration must be given to the impact on the care of the child of any issues / problems affecting parenting e.g. domestic abuse which may include physical violence; coercive and controlling behaviour, substance misuse, mental health problems, learning disabilities, childhood experiences of severe neglect or abuse; including sexual abuse. Consideration should be given to whether the parent is able to understand and predict risk and subsequently make appropriate decisions to protect their child from harm


Staff should be aware of the potential risk to children when individuals, previously known or suspected to have abused children, move into or have substantial access in the household (see Risk Management of Known Offenders and Those who Pose a Risk).


Staff should be aware of the potential risk to children of witnessing, or being injured as a result of domestic abuse when a new partner is introduced into the family home, or has substantial access to the children and is known as a perpetrator of domestic abuse. Individuals who have been in an abusive relationship are more likely to enter into other unhealthy or abusive relationship. If concerns are raised an application under Clare’s Law should be made as either a ‘right to know’ made by professionals or a ‘right to ask’, made by individuals, so the parent can understand any risks posed by their new partner to make an informed choice about the relationship.


It should be recognised that those who pose a risk to children often will not be honest with others. Staff should be mindful of this. Of particular note are carers who present a risk due to either fabricating or inducing illnesses within the children they are responsible for - see Fabricated or Induced Illness Procedure.


Practitioners should, in particular, be alert to the potential need for early help for a child who:

  • is disabled and has specific additional needs
  • has special educational needs (whether or not they have a statutory Education, Health and Care Plan)
  • is a young carer
  • is showing signs of being drawn into anti-social or criminal behaviour, including gang involvement and association with organised crime groups
  • is frequently missing/goes missing from care or from home
  • is at risk of modern slavery - National Referral Mechanism Digital Referral System: Report Modern Slavery, trafficking or exploitation
  • is at risk of being radicalised or exploited
  • is in a family circumstance presenting challenges for the child, such as drug and alcohol misuse, adult mental health issues and domestic abuse
  • is misusing drugs or alcohol themselves
  • has returned home to their family from care
  • is a privately fostered child

Recognising Physical Abuse


This section provides information about the sites and characteristics of physical injuries that may be observed in abused children. It is intended primarily to assist staff in the recognition of bruises, burns and bites which should be referred to Children's Social Care and / or require medical assessment.


Further useful information can be found on the RCPCH website, about a series of systematic reviews defining the evidence base for the recognition and investigation of physical child abuse and neglect.

The following are bruises/injuries/burns that should prompt a thorough assessment:

  • Not independantly mobile Babies
  • Unexplained sub-conjunctival haemorrhages and other eye injuries
  • Buttocks
  • Forearm, upper arm & hands
  • Face, neck & ears
  • Abdomen (soft tummy area) or hip
  • The backs of legs & feet

See 'Bruising' below for more information on brusing.

Babies and young children can also sustain serious head injuries as a result of abusive head trauma. Physical signs include reduced conscious levels, vomiting, irritability, apnoea (a pause/temporary stopping or of breathing) or irregular breathing.

The following are often regarded as indicators of concern:

  • Reluctance to give information or mention previous injuries.
  • Family use of different doctors and A&E departments;
  • Repeated presentation of minor injuries (which may represent a 'cry for help' and if ignored could lead to a more serious injury) or may represent fabricated or induced illness (see Fabricated or Induced Illness Procedure);
  • Parents who are absent without good reason when their child is presented for treatment;
  • Parents / carers who are uninterested or undisturbed by an accident or injury;
  • Unexplained delay in seeking treatment;
  • Several different explanations provided for an injury;
  • An explanation which is inconsistent with an injury;
  • Injuries that are suspected or reported to be as a result of domestic abuse within their own (age 16 & 17 yrs) or parent/carer (s) relationship. Consideration should also be given to abusive relationships of other young people age 15 and under; although not defined as domestic abuse may be indicative of need for additional support.
  • For all young people wider contextual safeguarding risks should be considered when there is an unexplained injury; consider individual vulnerabilities e.g. exploitation into criminality/gangs/drugs/sexual; radicalisation; who has brought them/come with them for treatment

Acute Life Threatening Event


Most acute life threatening events have a medical or physiological basis, although a precise explanation is not always found. Some have unnatural causes and assessment should always include consideration of these through careful history taking, examination and investigation similar to the list for unexplained deaths.

Child protection checks must be initiated for the child and any siblings. Any suspicions must be reported immediately to the duty social worker.



Children can have accidental bruising, but the following must be considered as highly suspicious of a non-accidental injury unless there is an adequate explanation provided and experienced medical opinion sought:

  • Any bruising or other soft tissue injury to a pre-crawling or pre-walking (immobile) infant or non-mobile disabled child;
  • Bruising in or around the mouth, particularly in small babies may indicate force feeding;
  • Bruising around the eyes or injury on the eyes (including sub-conjunctival haemorrhages)
  • Linear marks, haemorrhages or pale scars may be caused by ligature, especially at wrists, ankles, neck, male genitalia;
  • Bruising or tears on, around, or behind, the earlobe(s) indicating injury by blunt force trauma,  pulling or twisting;
  • Broken teeth and mouth injuries (a torn frenulum - the flap of tissue in the midline under the upper lip - is highly suspicious);
  • Bruising on the genitalia, arms, buttocks and thighs may be an indicator of physical and sexual abuse.
  • Bruises that are accompanied by petechiae (small pinpoint red spots), in the absence of underlying bleeding disorders.
  • Areas that were rarely bruised accidentally in disabled children were lower legs, ears, neck, chin, anterior chest and genitalia and therefore NAI should be strongly considered.
  • Multiple bruises of uniform shape
  • Multiple bruises in clusters
  • Bruises that carry the imprint of implement used or a ligature
  •  Bruises that are seen away from bony prominences
  •  Bruises to the face, abdomen, arms, buttocks, ears, neck, and hands



Bruises are difficult to age accurately because they change colour at differing rates.

Bite Marks

  • Bite marks can leave clear impressions of the teeth. Human bite marks are oval or crescent shaped. Those over 3cm in diameter are more likely to have been caused by an adult or older child.te treatment or adequate explanation.

A medical opinion from a forensic dentist / odontologist should be sought where there is any doubt over the origin of the bite.

Burns and Scalds


It can be difficult to distinguish between accidental and non- accidental burns and scalds, and will always require experienced medical opinion. Any burn with a clear outline may be suspicious e.g:

  • Circular burns from cigarettes are characteristically punched out lesions 0.6 - 0.7 cm in diameter, and healing, usually leaves a scar;
  • Friction burns resulting from being dragged;
  • Linear burns from hot metal rods or electrical fire elements;
  • Burns of uniform depth over a large area;
  • Scalds that have a line indicating immersion or poured liquid (a child getting into hot water of her/his own accord will struggle to get out and cause splash marks);
  • Old scars indicating previous burns / scalds which did not have appropriate treatment or adequate explanation.

Scalds to the buttocks of a small child, particularly in the absence of burns to the feet, are indicative of dipping into a hot liquid or bath.



Fractures may cause pain, swelling and discolouration over a bone or joint.


Non-mobile children rarely sustain fractures.


There are grounds for concern if:

  • The history provided is vague, non-existent or inconsistent with the fracture type;
  • There are multiple fractures or old fractures (in the absence of major trauma, birth injury or underlying bone disease);
  • Medical attention is sought after a period of delay when a fracture has caused symptoms e.g. swelling, pain or loss of movement;
  • There is an unexplained fracture in the first year of life.



A large number of scars or scars of different sizes or ages, or on different parts of the body, may suggest abuse.

Shaken Baby Syndrome


Shaking and/or inflicting an impact injury on a baby often results in no visible external injury. Nevertheless, significant internal injuries may be caused, e.g. intra-cranial bleeding, brain injury, small fractures to the ends of the long bones, other fractures (such as ribs and neck) and retinal haemorrhages. Signs and symptoms can be non-specific, which may result in a delay in seeking advice.


The infant can present with:

  • Lethargy;
  • Poor feeding;
  • Vomiting;
  • Stops in breathing (apnoea);
  • Pallor;
  • Variable consciousness;
  • Irritability;
  • Convulsions.

In suspected cases it is essential that a full paediatric assessment is carried out including an ophthalmological examination, blood tests and CT/MRI scans/skeletal survey (according to the RCR/RCPCH guidance).

Self-Harming and Siblings


Caution must be used when interpreting an explanation by parents/carers that an injury or series of injuries was self-inflicted or caused by a sibling. This is especially important in young or disabled children not able to offer a reliable explanation themselves.


Due consideration must be given to the possibility that the injury may:

  • Be non-accidental, particularly if the explanation appears discrepant for the nature of the injury;
  • Possibly have occurred in circumstances where neglect is a consideration.

In these circumstances a referral to Children's Social Care should be made in accordance with the Making a Referral Procedure 

Recognising Emotional Abuse


Emotional Abuse may be difficult to recognise, as the signs are usually behavioural rather than physical.


Indicators of Emotional Abuse are also often associated with other forms of abuse.


Recognition of Emotional Abuse is usually based on observations over time and the following offer some associated indicators:

Parent / Carer and Child Relationship Factors

  • Abnormal attachment between a child and parent / carer e.g. anxious, indiscriminate or failure to attach;
  • Persistent negative comments about the child or 'scape-goating' within the family;
  • Inappropriate or inconsistent expectations of the child e.g. over-protection or limited exploration.

Child Presentation Concerns

  • Delay in achieving developmental, cognitive and / or other educational milestones;
  • Failure to thrive / faltering growth;
  • Behavioural problems e.g. aggression, attention seeking;
  • Frozen watchfulness, particularly in preschool children;
  • Low self-esteem, lack of confidence, fearful, distressed, anxious;
  • Poor relationships with peers, including withdrawn or isolated behaviour.

Parent / Carer Related Issues

  • Dysfunctional family relationships including domestic violence;
  • Parental problems that may lead to lack of awareness of child's needs e.g. mental illness, substance misuse, learning difficulties;
  • Parent or carer emotionally or psychologically distant from the child;
  • Contextual factors may include:
  • Child left unsupervised / unattended;
  • Child left with multiple carers;
  • Child regularly late attending, or, not being collected from school;
  • Child repeatedly reported lost / missing;
  • Parent/carer regularly unaware of child's whereabouts;
  • Child regularly not available for meetings with childcare workers.

Recognising Sexual Abuse

Please also see:



Children of all ages may be sexually abused and are frequently scared to say anything due to guilt and/or fear. This is particularly difficult for a child to talk about and full account should be taken of the cultural sensitivities of any individual child / family.


Recognition can be difficult, unless the child discloses and is believed. There may be no physical signs and indications are likely to be emotional / behavioural.


Evidence of neglect is built up over a period of time and can cover different aspects of parenting.


Where there are any concerns about the neglect of a child in a household, consideration must be given to the possibility that other children in the household may also be at risk of neglect or abuse.


Behavioural Indicators

  • Inappropriate sexualised conduct;
  • Sexually explicit behaviour, play or conversation, inappropriate to the child's age;
  • Continual and inappropriate or excessive masturbation;
  • Self-harm (including eating disorder), self-mutilation and suicide attempts;
  • Involvement in sex work or indiscriminate choice of sexual partners;
  • An anxious unwillingness to remove clothes for - e.g. sports events (but this may be related to cultural norms or physical difficulties);
  • Running away.

Physical Indicators

  • Pain or itching of genital area;
  • Vaginal discharge;
  • Sexually transmitted infections;
  • Blood on underclothes;
  • Pregnancy;
  • Physical symptoms e.g. injuries to genital or anal area, bruising to buttocks, abdomen and thighs, sexually transmitted infection, presence of semen on vagina, anus, external genitalia or clothing.

Recognising Neglect


Evidence of neglect is built up over a period of time and can cover different aspects of parenting.


Child Related Indicators

  • An unkempt, inadequately clothed, dirty or smelly child;
  • A child who is perceived to be frequently hungry;
  • A child who is observed to be listless, apathetic and unresponsive with no apparent medical cause; displaying anxious attachment; aggression or indiscriminate friendliness;
  • Failure of a child to grow or develop within normal expected patterns with an accompanying weight loss or speech / language delay;
  • Recurrent / untreated infections or skin conditions e.g. severe nappy rash, eczema or persistent head lice / scabies;
  • Unmanaged / untreated health / medical conditions including poor dental health;
  • Frequent accidents or injuries;
  • A child frequently absent from or late at school;
  • Poor self esteem;
  • A child who thrives away from the home environment.

Indicators in the Care Provided

  • Failure by parents or carers to meet basic essential needs e.g. adequate food, clothes, warmth, hygiene, sleep;
  • Failure by parents or carers to meet the child's health and medical needs e.g. poor dental health, failure to attend or keep appointments with health visitor, GP or hospital, lack of GP registration, failure to seek or comply with appropriate medical treatment;
  • A dangerous or hazardous home environment including failure to use home safety equipment, risk from animals;
  • Poor state of home environment e.g. unhygienic facilities, lack of appropriate sleeping arrangements, inadequate ventilation (including passive smoking) and lack of adequate heating;
  • A lack of opportunities for child to play and learn;
  • Child left with adults who are intoxicated or violent;
  • Child abandoned or left alone for excessive periods;
  • Neglect of pets.

Where there are any concerns about the neglect of a child in a household, consideration must be given to the possibility that other children in the household may also be at risk of neglect or abuse.



Obesity in children is an increasingly common problem in the general population and differentiating when there is a Safeguarding issue can be difficult and complex. Neglect can result in poor supervision of food intake, or an inappropriate diet being offered to the child with resultant excessive weight gain. A sedentary lifestyle with limited opportunity for physical activity, when combined with an inappropriate diet, can result in excessive weight gain.

It is important to take into account:

  1. The impact of the obesity on the child, particularly evidence that the child is developing medical complications (e.g. undue breathlessness), restrictions in day to day activities or social/emotional difficulties as a result of their obesity;
  2. The context / is there other evidence  of emotional harm or neglect.

Excessive calorie intake is the cause of most childhood obesity. In a very small proportion of obese children there is an underlying medical cause. The parent/carer is responsible for monitoring their child's diet and seeking appropriate advice/support if the child or adolescent is overweight or obese. The management of obesity in children therefore requires parental engagement to enable and support their child to adopt healthy eating patterns, participate in age appropriate levels of physical activity and attend medical and dietetic appointments as necessary. Parental failure to engage with an appropriate management plan in a child who is severely obese and/or is developing serious complications of obesity should be considered a safeguarding issue.

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