Children's hearings training resource manual: volume 2

Volume 2 is a children's hearings handbook, focusing on the problems that some children face, the environment in which they live, their needs and their rights.

12 Child Abuse and Child Protection

Child abuse is a term that covers a wide range of different conditions from neglect to sexual abuse. It is also a concept that has changed over time.

'Throughout history there are accounts of the customary extremes in the chastisement of children. Pepys beat his boy until he (Pepys) was out of breath: John Wesley, Frederick the Great, Lady Jane Gray, and many others in adult life complained bitterly of their treatment in childhood. It is always taken for granted that the parents and guardians of children had every right to treat their children as they saw fit.'

S K Radbill, A History of Child Abuse & Infanticide 1968

Knowledge of the different ways in which adults might abuse children has developed greatly since the identification in America by Kempe in the 1960s of 'the battered baby syndrome'. This was greeted with horrified disbelief around the world. The mid 1980's saw the gradual public recognition of sexual abuse of children. The same pattern of high profile media attention and widespread public denial followed by gradual acceptance of the existence of the problem starting with the Maria Caldwell Inquiry in 1974; the Cleveland, Rochdale and Orkney Inquiries in the 80s and 90s; the Kennedy McFarlane, Dumfries, inquiry in 1997; the Victoria Climbié inquiry in 2003; the Western Isles child abuse enquiry in 2005 and the 'baby P' case in 2007.

During the thirty years of the children's hearings system, statistics have shown a dramatic change in the balance of referrals to the children's reporter. In the early years most children referred to hearings were alleged to have committed an offence. By the early 1990s this balance had shifted to one where more children were referred on care and protection matters than for offence grounds. Currently the offence ground account for only 20% of referrals. ( SCRA annual report 2010/11)

By their very nature, cases involving neglect or abuse are likely to require compulsory intervention to protect children and are therefore most likely to be referred to hearings by the reporter. They will probably also be the most complex and difficult cases to handle, and the most stressful for all concerned.


Abuse takes many forms. Concerns are relevant if the child is suffering, even if the parents' behaviour is not deliberate or they have their own problems - e.g. immaturity, alcohol / drug abuse, mental health problems. A child may be at risk of significant harm which can have both short and long term effects and in extreme situations may result in permanent damage or death.

Significant Harm

"Significant harm is a compilation of events, both acute and long-standing, which interact with the child's ongoing development, and interrupt, alter or impair physical and psychological development."

(A Bentovim (1991) Significant Harm: Management and Outcome Edit. Adcock, White, Hollows)

Being a victim of significant harm is likely to have a profound effect on the child's view of him or herself as a person and on their future life including:

  • making and sustaining relationships
  • communication skills
  • attitude towards authority figures
  • sense of self and self-esteem
  • capacity to judge people and situations
  • sense of responsibility
  • morality.

Physical Injury

Actual or attempted physical injury to a child, including the administration of toxic substances, where there is knowledge, or reasonable suspicion that the injury was inflicted or knowingly not prevented.

Physical Neglect / Abuse

This occurs when a child's essential needs are not met either by commission or omission and this is likely to cause impairment to physical health and development. The term 'non-organic failure to thrive is no longer used as a separate category of abuse, it being generally covered by other categories. It's use referred to situations where, without specific identifiable causes, a child was not thriving, but did so when moved to alternative carers, often making significant growth spurts to do so.

Key issues:

  • learned patterns of behaviour - the scapegoat, the provoker, the hider, the caretaker
  • these learned behaviours often mean they are either
    • particularly vulnerable to further abuse if alternative ways of having their needs met are not learned or
    • the child learns to hide their own needs and care for others
  • each of these children runs the risk of not having their needs for safe dependency met.

Major considerations:

  • is the child basically loved but over-chastised on a one off basis or
  • is the physical abuse the only physical contact received in an otherwise neglectful environment?

Healthy recovery in the former is much more likely than in the latter.

Emotional / Psychological Abuse

This comprises failure to provide for the child's basic emotional needs such as to have an effect on the behaviour and development of the child.

Emotional abuse

"Sustained, repetitive inappropriate emotional response to the child's expression of emotion and its accompanying expressive behaviour." Keiran O'Hagan

Psychological abuse

"Sustained, repetitive inappropriate behaviour which damages or substantially reduces the creative developmental potential of crucially important mental faculties and mental processes of a child, including intelligence, recognition, memory, attention, language and moral development."

Key Issues:

  • the attachment relations at home available to the child
  • the effects of the parenting on this child's development - how might emotional abuse harm the child's development?
  • what signs might we see in reports and / or parents' accounts of their child in the hearing?
  • considering when compulsory supervision might be necessary.

What helps:

  • identifying gaps in development
  • creating an environment which reverses negative messages regarding the child's worth
  • nurturing which meets the stage the child has reached in emotional terms
  • reaching out to the child to build self esteem
  • confirming progress and setting realistically stepped challenges for achievement
  • working with parents to help them understand gaps
  • modelling nurturing parenting while giving parents a real place with the child.

Sexual Abuse

Any child may be deemed to have been sexually abused when any person(s), by design or neglect, exploits the child, directly or indirectly, in any activity intended to lead to sexual arousal or other forms of gratification of that person or any other person(s) including organised networks. This definition holds whether or not there has been genital contact and whether or not the child is said to have initiated, or consented to the behaviour.

This will also include allowing children to view, or exposing them to, pornographic materials, DVDs etc.

Focusing on whether compulsory supervision is necessary - for example:

  • if the child is not supported at home / is blamed / is scapegoated
  • is likely to be under pressure to withdraw allegations
  • voluntary measures are NOT likely to allow for the matter to be considered in a way that is "in the child's best interests".
  • the child's view may be: "I can't stop this because of threats", "I'm bad", "I'm dirty", "This happens to everyone else".

Factors affecting the impact of abuse:

  • age of child
  • relationship to abuser
  • duration and frequency of abuse
  • use of force
  • type of abuse
  • degree of disbelief
  • degree to which child re-victimised by the system.

Effects of sexual abuse on development of the victim / survivor:

  • lack of self esteem
  • poor sense of self and boundaries
  • inability to express full range of feelings
  • communication problems
  • impaired capacity to judge people and situations
  • sense of responsibility for what has happened
  • moral development / sexual development / making and sustaining relationships
  • authority issues

What helps?

  • believing the child
  • affirmation of feelings
  • increasing self-esteem
  • recognising abuser's responsibility
  • recognising survival tactics
  • identifying triggers
  • identifying communication patterns
  • building new ways of coping with stress and asking for support.

Forced Marriage

A forced marriage takes place when the bride, groom or both do not want to get married but are forced to do so by others, usually their families. People forced into marriage may be tricked into going abroad, physically threatened and/or emotionally blackmailed to do so.

Forced marriage is wrong and cannot be justified on any religious or cultural basis. This is not an arranged marriage - in an arranged marriage both the bride and groom choose whether or not they want to marry the person suggested to them by their families. In a forced marriage there is no freedom of choice.

Where it is suspected that a child is being or may be forced into a forced marriage or forced civil partnership or is, or is likely to become, a member of the same household as such a child, this may be subject to specific section 67 ground - see "Legislation and Procedures".

Multiple Abuse

Children may experience a combination of several of these types of abuse. Emotional abuse, for example is usually a feature of other types of abuse.

New Technology

Children may be at risk of abuse from a variety of new technologies. Known sometimes as 'cyber bullying' this may involve: abusive texts, emails or other messages; creating abusive and hurtful websites; photographing children inappropriately or persuading children to pose for inappropriate pictures and also the posting of these online; the impersonation of younger people via social networking sites, with a view to meeting privately for the purposes of other abuse.

Offenders may be adults or other children.


Children may come to hearings on grounds that they have committed offences against other children. They may well be in need of skilled professional help and panel members need to know where this is available. If offences have been committed against younger siblings, panel members will have to consider the welfare of these children and the effect of the events on the whole family.


The incidence of domestic abuse is significant:

  • For Scotland as a whole, in the year 2009/2010 there were 51,926 recorded incidents
  • Strathclyde Police recorded 29,000 cases in the year 2011/12, an increase of 6.8% over the previous year

The Children's Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 contains a specific ground that:

(f) the child has, or is likely to have, a close connection with a person who has carried out domestic abuse

The term 'abuse', is defined as in the 'Protection from Abuse (Scotland) Act 2001' - "abuse" includes violence, harassment, threatening conduct, and any other conduct giving rise, or likely to give rise, to physical or mental injury, fear, alarm or distress.

The reasons behind this ground are that domestic abuse does not just affect the adults concerned. Where women are abused, in over 50% of cases so too are their children and 90% of violent situations are witnessed by children. Children themselves can be assaulted because they just get in the way, they are victims of a separate assault or it is a combined assault. In a third of cases children are trying to protect their mothers.

Effects of domestic abuse on children include: feelings of guilt; shame; powerlessness; anger; responsibility; feelings of fear/anxiety leading to low self esteem and lack of confidence; nightmares; disrupted sleep patterns; bed wetting; eating disorders; depression; withdrawal; passivity; aggression; disruptive behaviour; disruption at school - too bruised to attend; caring for mother/siblings; moving home; suicidal/self harm feelings. It can also involve isolation from friends. Children may act out violence with friends/family and feel betrayal when their mother supports the abusing partner. For some children the answer is running away or leaving home as soon as they can.

For further information, see:


  • use reports and the hearing process to weigh up risks of 'significant harm'
  • consider the degree of protection available to the child
  • consider what changes are required to meet the child's needs:
    • does either parent perceive/acknowledge that there is a problem
    • have reasonable steps been made to support parents in understanding the needs of the child
    • do parents understand the significance of their responses to the child
    • what must change to meet the child's needs
    • what signs of improvement will you be looking for
    • how will you know when things have improved
  • assess the capacity of the parents to make the changes:
    • do they understand the concerns
    • are they willing to make changes
    • have attempts been made to help them and with what success
    • are the expected changes to their behaviour reasonable in the light of the child's needs and the parents' circumstances
  • consider what is the least detrimental intervention to the child to take now to protect their best interests:
    • is there a realistic care plan to maintain collaboration and co-operation from parents
    • how will this alternative care meet the child's needs
  • consider what measures if any need to be attached to a compulsory supervision order.


It is helpful if panel members:

  • are very clear about areas of concern - e.g. lack of affection or encouragement, excessive chastisement
  • are clear about expectations - what will parents be expected to do?
  • have considered how will we know when things have improved?
  • think about parent's behaviour in relation to CONTACT when the child is away from home
  • Look out for any positive indicators that the child is doing well
    • 'good enough' attachment in early years
    • pleasure in the relationship
    • 'availability' of carers
    • realistic expectations by parents
    • setting of healthy limits for child by parent.

What panel members do not do in the hearing

  • make a diagnosis
  • probe for disclosure
  • assess 'signs' in the hearing
  • offer therapy.

What panel members do in the hearing

  • identify the areas of concern
  • consider how best to protect the child both short term and long term
  • make clear what expectations the hearing has and of whom
  • identify how improvement will be assessed (contact might be significant).

We acknowledge the work, support and permission of Sally Wassell in preparing this section.


Panel members will deal with cases involving a variety of forms of child abuse. However, not all children at risk of abuse, or who have been abused, come to hearings. Other processes may have been introduced before a child is considered in need of compulsory supervision and is referred to the children's reporter. Child abuse and neglect also have implications for other agencies, such as social work, education, health, the police and the procurator fiscal. Each of these agencies makes a distinctive contribution to safeguarding children's welfare within a context of shared understanding and collaboration.

In all investigations or child protection plans, the child's welfare is the paramount consideration. Children with disabilities or whose racial, ethnic or cultural background is different may have additional needs which require careful consideration. Churches and other voluntary organisations in Scotland work with children and provide a wide range of services and programmes aimed at preventing or reducing the risk of child abuse or neglect, or in helping families recover from child abuse.

What mechanisms are in place to ensure joint working to protect children?

Child Protection Committees

Local authorities are required, either on their own, or in collaboration with other authorities, to have an inter-agency child protection committee. These committees have clear procedures and guidance for dealing with child protection referrals and for providing advice across the agencies. The agencies are also required to provide appropriate training for their staff. Procedures need to be flexible so that, in appropriate circumstances, families can be diverted away from the child protection system when it is not, or is no longer required, or to be brought in when necessary.

There must also be procedures for liaison and co-operation between staff undertaking child protection inquiries and the children's reporter. The agencies involved in the child protection committees, jointly and separately, maintain records on the child protection referral and the outcome. The child protection committee also arranges access to specialist advice across agencies.

The locality reporter manager is usually a member of the local child protection committee. The reporter may take action to protect a child in certain cases when the procurator fiscal is not able to bring criminal proceedings because of lack of sufficient evidence. If a children's hearing makes a compulsory supervision order in respect of a child, the local authority should ensure that all other agencies involved with the child and family are informed.

Child Protection Case Conferences

Multi-agency case conferences are an essential feature of inter-agency co-operation to protect children. They enable agencies to consider all information about allegations or suspicions of child abuse and neglect and the outcome of child protection inquiries. They assist planning to help families and welfare agencies ensure that a child at risk is properly protected from harm and, when necessary, to ensure that concerns are registered (see below). Parents and carers and, where appropriate, children are encouraged to attend case conferences about their family.

Case conferences should take account of children's views and feelings, having regard to their age and understanding.

Protection, treatment and other services for the child and family should be based on a comprehensive assessment of the child's and family's needs, including an assessment of the level of risk to the child. Child protection plans are formulated to protect the child from harm or further risk of harm.

Amongst the options available to agencies is the convening of a case conference about an unborn child if there appears to be a risk of significant harm to the child when he or she is born. The case conference may decide that the child's name should be placed on the child protection register when he or she is born and agree an inter-agency child protection plan. The conference may recommend that the local authority seek a child protection order at birth.

Child Protection Register

Local authorities are responsible for maintaining a central register, known as the child protection register, of all children who are the subject of an inter-agency child protection plan. The authority may have its own register or may maintain a combined register with other authorities.

The decision to place a child's name on the register should be taken by a child protection case conference, or the chair of the conference, when there are reasonable grounds to believe or suspect that a child has been suffering, or will suffer, abuse and neglect, or the child is at risk of suffering abuse or neglect, and an inter-agency agreement is needed to protect the child. One or more of the categories for registration must be met and it must be considered that, for the child's safety, an inter-agency child protection plan is required. The child protection plan provides a framework for inter-agency assessment, casework and review.

The register is maintained by the social work service and must be held separately and in secure conditions. Access to the register is available twenty-four hours a day.

The keeper of the register (a designated local authority official) should notify other local authorities in writing when a registered family moves into or out of their area.

The keeper is also responsible for attempting to trace a registered child whose whereabouts have become unknown.

Joint Investigation - Police, Social Work and Health

Joint investigation is a process whereby social work, police and health professionals plan and carry out their respective tasks together when responding to complex or substantial child protection referrals. In any such investigation the welfare of any child or children at risk is the paramount consideration.

The police and social work service should share and evaluate jointly all relevant information at an initial planning meeting, involving health services wherever possible since medical information and assessment may assist the planning and management of any inquiry. Planning should consider the child's needs, risk, and the conduct of the child protection inquiries and any criminal investigation.


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