What is safeguarding?

Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is defined as: protecting children from maltreatment, preventing impairment of children’s health or development and ensuring children are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care. 


Child protection is a part of safeguarding and promoting welfare. It refers to the activity that is undertaken to protect specific children who are suffering, or are likely to suffer, significant harm.

The majority of children and young people who reside in England and Wales, have their needs met fully by their parents, extended family and friends and the communities within which they grow. These children and their families may, from time to time, require the support of professional services such as Social Care, education, health, police, mental health, or voluntary organisations. These children are supported by their families and the communities of which they are a part to continue to grow and achieve their full potential. These children often have experiences that can be responded to successfully by good partnership working between the child, family and the professionals from within a single agency.

A small proportion of children and young people will experience complex difficulties for which their families and the communities in which they reside will have a compromised ability to respond. These difficulties can be either caused or compounded by the adults involved in their day to day life.

These children and young people need an integrated approach from professionals, many of who are already working with the child, young person and their family as a single agency representative. The needs of these children are multi-faceted and require a number of different agencies to work together to support them, their needs and those of their parents/carers.

What does safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children mean?

Key definitions


In the Children Acts 1989 and 2004 respectively, and Working Together to Safeguard Children 2010, a child is anyone who has not yet reached their 18th birthday. ‘Children’ therefore means ‘children and young people’ throughout. The fact that a child has reached 16 years of age; is living independently or is in further education; is a member of the armed forces; is in hospital or in custody in the secure estate for children and young people, does not change his or her status or entitlement to services or protection under the Children Act 1989.

Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is defined in Working Together to Safeguard Children, 2010 as:

  • protecting children from maltreatment,
  • preventing impairment of children’s health or development,
  • ensuring that children are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care,
  • and undertaking that role so as to enable those children to have optimum life chances and to enter adulthood successfully.

Protecting children from maltreatment is important in preventing the impairment of health or development though that in itself may be insufficient to ensure that children are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care. These aspects of safeguarding and promoting welfare are cumulative, and all contribute to the 5 outcomes laid out in Working Together 2010 as:

  • be healthy;
  • stay safe;
  • enjoy and achieve;
  • make a positive contribution; and
  • achieve economic wellbeing.

Child protection is a part of safeguarding and promoting welfare. This refers to the activity that is undertaken to protect specific children who are suffering, or are likely to suffer, significant harm.

Effective child protection is essential as part of wider work to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. However, all agencies and individuals should aim to proactively safeguard and promote the welfare of children so that the need for action to protect children from harm is reduced.

Children in need

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 (section 17(10) of the Children Act 1989), plus those who are disabled. The critical factors to be taken into account in deciding whether a child is in need under the Children Act 1989 are:
  • what will happen to a child’s health or development without services being provided; and
  • the likely effect the services will have on the child’s standard of health and development.

Local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need.

The concept of significant harm

Some children are in need because they are suffering, or likely to suffer, 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, and gives local authorities a duty to make enquiries to decide whether they should take action to safeguard or promote the welfare of a child who is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm.

A court may make a care order (committing the child to the care of the local authority) or supervision order (putting the child under the supervision of a social worker or a probation officer) in respect of a child if it is satisfied that:

  • the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and
  • that harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to a lack of adequate parental care or control (section 31).

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. Each of these elements has been associated with more severe effects on the child, and/or relatively greater difficulty in helping the child overcome the adverse impact of the maltreatment.

Sometimes, a single traumatic event may constitute significant harm, for example, a violent assault, suffocation or poisoning. More often, significant harm is a compilation of significant events, both acute and long-standing, which interrupt, change or damage the child’s physical and psychological development. Some children live in family and social circumstances where their health and development are neglected. For them, it is the corrosiveness of long-term emotional, physical or sexual abuse that causes impairment to the extent of constituting significant harm. In each case, it is necessary to consider any maltreatment alongside the child’s own assessment of his or her safety and welfare, the family’s strengths and supports, as well as an assessment of the likelihood and capacity for change and improvements in parenting and the care of children and young people.

Young people at serious risk of harm from community based violence such as gang, group and knife crime are likely to have significant needs. Agencies and professionals need to ensure that the safeguarding process responds effectively to the needs of children at risk of suffering violence within the community. This may involve both the perpetrators and victims of violent activity.

Under section 31(9) of the 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’ means physical or mental health; and

ill treatment’ includes sexual abuse and forms of ill-treatment which are not physical.

Under section 31(10) of the Act:

Where the question of whether harm suffered by a child is significant turns on the child’s health and development, his health or development shall be compared with that which could reasonably be expected of a similar child.

To understand and identify significant harm, it is necessary to consider:

  • the nature of harm, in terms of maltreatment or failure to provide adequate care;
  • the impact on the child’s health and development;
  • the child’s development within the context of their family and wider environment;
  • any special needs, such as a medical condition, communication impairment or disability, that may affect the child’s development and care within the family;
  • the capacity of parents to meet adequately the child’s needs; and
  • the wider and environmental family context.

The child’s reactions, his or her perceptions, and wishes and feelings should be ascertained and the local authority should give them due consideration, so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with the child’s welfare and having regard to the child’s age and understanding.

To do this depends on communicating effectively with children and young people, including those who find it difficult to do so because of their age, an impairment, or their particular psychological or social situation. This may involve using interpreters and drawing upon the expertise of early years workers or those working with disabled children. It is necessary to create the right atmosphere when meeting and communicating with children, to help them feel at ease and reduce any pressure from parents, carers or others. Children will need reassurance that they will not be victimised for sharing information or asking for help or protection; this applies to children living in families as well as those in institutional settings, including custody.

It is essential that any accounts of adverse experiences coming from children are as accurate and complete as possible. Accuracy is key, for without it effective decisions cannot be made and, equally, inaccurate accounts can lead to children remaining unsafe, or to the possibility of wrongful actions being taken that affect children and adults.

What is abuse and neglect?

Abuse and neglect are forms of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting harm, or by 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 for example, via the internet. They may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children.

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. 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 (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.

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 penetrative acts (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 (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.


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 care-givers); or
  • ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment.
It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs.[1]

[1] This information was taken from Chapter 1, 1.19 – 1.36, pg 34 -39, Working Together to Safeguard Children, March 2010, HM Government

SB 27-04-11