National Care Service - children's social services: overview

Overview of social services provided to children and families in Scotland. It forms one of a collection of contextual papers about social care and related areas in Scotland, linking to the National Care Service consultation.

This document is part of a collection

Child Protection

Child Protection refers to a range of processes involved in considering, assessing, planning, and taking necessary action to protect a child from abuse or neglect. These processes are usually initiated when a concern about harm or risk of harm to a child has been raised, and police and/or social work have been notified. If there is likelihood of significant harm, an inter-agency discussion[3] will commence – the formal process of information sharing, assessment, analysis, and decision-making following reported concern.

If the likelihood of significant harm to the child or others is present, initial plans are made about: investigation; joint investigative interviews; health assessment; the needs of the child and others involved in this context; as well as any immediate protective action.

2.1 Inter-agency referral discussions

An inter-agency referral discussion (IRD) is the start of the formal process of information sharing, assessment, analysis and decision-making following reported concern about abuse or neglect of a child or young person up to the age of 18 years, in relation to familial and non-familial concerns, and of siblings or other children within the same context. This includes an unborn baby that may be exposed to current or future risk.

An IRD involves significant system interrogation, analysis and multi-agency decision making by the three core agencies; Social Work, Police, and Health. It also places a requirement on social work to seek the views of education colleagues and any other relevant agencies. Seeking views from the child (where possible) and their main care givers is central to this process.

Currently there are no published Official Statistics relating to IRD due to historical variation in the approach to IRD across Scotland, both in definition and in practice. National Guidance for Child Protection[4], revised and published in 2021, outlines how statutory and non-government agencies should work together with parents, families and communities to prevent harm and to protect children from abuse and neglect, including in relation to IRD. Therefore, future statistical data collection is intended to include IRD numbers to reflect child protection activity across Scotland.

2.2 Child Protection Investigation

A Child Protection Investigation is a multi-agency assessment which takes places when inter-agency discussions decide that the child is at risk of significant harm[5]. This enables core agencies (e.g. police and social work) to gather information to inform risk assessment and needs of the child, as well as need for protective action.

In 2021, 11,726 Child Protection Investigations took place (rate of 12.8 per 1,000 of child population[6]).

2.3 Child Protection Case Conference

If, following an investigation, a child is deemed to be at risk of significant harm a case conference[7] will be held. This is a formal multi-disciplinary meeting during which core agency professionals and the family of the child will share information, identify risks and outline what action needs to be taken to protect the child (e.g. decide whether a child should be registered on the Child Protection Register, and whether referral to the Reporter is necessary for consideration of compulsory supervision measures).

In 2021, 4,397 initial[8] and pre-birth[9] case conferences were held. The most common concerns identified at these case conferences are set out in Chart 1.

Chart 1. Concerns identified at case conferences of children registered during 2021
This figure summarises the types of concerns identified at case conferences for children registered to the child protection register during 2021. Of all concerns identified, the order of the most to least common concerns were as follows: domestic abuse, parental mental health problems, parental substance misuse,  neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, non-engaging family, other concerns, sexual abuse, child sexual exploitation, child placing self at risk, and child exploitation.

Multiple concerns can be recorded per child.

2.4 Child Protection Orders (CPO)

A CPO is sought in emergency and high risk situations, where protection measures need to be put in place immediately to protect the child. Applications for CPOs are made in the Sheriff Court. A CPO may grant authority for a child to be removed from home to a safe place, or prevent the removal of the child from a place of safety. If granted by a Sheriff, a CPO leads to a referral to the Reporter and consideration of compulsory measures of supervision.

In 2021, 570 CPOs were granted. Of these, 99 (17%) related to children under the age of 20 days, 210 (37%) children under 1 year old, and 249 (44%) children under 2 years old (Chart 2). A significant proportion of CPOs are granted for very young children reflecting their high vulnerability and need for immediate protection.

Chart 2. Children with CPOs granted by age in 2021
This bar chart summarises the number of children and young people who were granted Child Protection Orders during 2021 by age. It shows that most CPOs were granted for children under the age of 1 years.

Source: SCRA Official Statistics 2020/21 report

2.5 New registrations on the Child Protection Register

If a case conference concludes significant risk of harm is present, the child will be added to the Child Protection Register.

In 2021, 3,324 (76%) of all initial and pre-birth case conferences resulted in a registration.

2.6 Children on the Child Protection Register

As at 31 July 2021, 2,104 children were on the Register (rate of 2.3 per 1,000 of child population[10]) – the lowest this figure has been since 2002. Over the past decade, the number of children on the Register has fluctuated (Chart 3).

Chart 3. Number of children on the Register by age, 2011-2021 (at 31 July)
This line graph compares the number of children on the child protection register by age between 2011 and 2021. Although these patterns fluctuate from year to year, broadly, this shows that in 2021, the overall number of children on the child protection register was the lowest since 2011.

2.7 Demographic profiles of children on the Register

In 2021, 48% of children on the Register were male and 47% were female. A further 5% of were not yet born. The largest proportion of children on the Register were aged 4 and under, or unborn (52%; Chart 4).

Chart 4. Age of children on the Register, at 31 July 2021
This pie chart provides the breakdowns of age of children on the Child Protection Register as at 31 July 2021. Of all age groups, the order of the most to least common age groups were as follows: 0-4 years (47%), 5-11 years (35%), 12-15 years (12%), unborns (5%), and 16+ years (1%).

In 2021, the majority (71%) of children on the Register were recorded as being white, though it should be noted that ethnicity was not known for 24% of children (Table 1).

Table 1. Children on the Register by ethnic group, at 31 July 2021
Ethnic Group Number Percentage % all children in Scotland (2011 Census)
White 1,490 71% 94%
Mixed or Multiple Ethnicity 45 2% 1%
Asian, Asian Scottish or Asian British 28 1% 3%
African, Caribbean or Black 22 1% 1%
Other Ethnic Background 18 1% 0%
Not known 501 24% 0%
Total 2,104 100% 100%

Scotland percentages refer to ages 0 to 15 and are based on the 2011 census

Due to rounding, the percentage totals may not equal the sum of their parts.

In 2021, 4% of children on the Register were recorded as having a disability, though disability status was not yet assessed for 46% of children (Table 2).

Table 2. Children on the Register by disability status, at 31 July 2021
Disability Number Percentage
Yes 81 4%
No 1,042 50%
Not yet assessed 967 46%
Not known/recorded 14 1%
Total 2,104 100%

This is defined as having a mental or physical impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Due to rounding, the percentage totals may not equal the sum of their parts.


For queries relating to a child at risk of harm please contact the appropriate local authority directly.

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