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What amounts to ‘Significant harm’ in children’s law? 

What amounts to ‘Significant harm’ in children’s law? 

Harm is defined as the ill-treatment or impairment of health or development including for example impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another.

The Children’s Act 1989 introduced Significant Harm as the threshold that justifies compulsory intervention in family life in the best interest of children.

The different types of ‘Significant harm’? 

Physical Abuse, Sexual Abuse, Emotional Abuse and Neglect are all categories of Significant Harm. Physical abuse inflicts pain or injury to a child.It could also be giving a child harmful substances such as drugs, alcohol, or poison. Sexual abuse is when a child is pressured, forced, or tricked into taking part in any kind of sexual activity. Emotional abuse is when a parent or carer behaves in a way that is likely to seriously affect the child’s emotional development. It could be from constant rejection, continual or severe criticism and witnessing domestic abuse.

Neglect involves continuous failure to meet a child’s basic needs. It could be not taking a child to see a doctor when they need to go. Not giving the child enough to eat or drink. Not ensuring the child receives an education. Not keeping the child clean.

If neglect or abuse was established, then the child may be sent to live with a relative or a foster parent or be adopted. However, the child goes home if the safety and quality of parenting improves.

What are the criteria for ‘Significant harm’?

There are no absolute criteria on which to rely when judging what constitutes Significant Harm. Sometimes a single traumatic event may constitute Significant Harm. In other circumstances, Significant Harm is caused by the cumulative effect of significant events, both acute and long-standing, or the damaging impact of neglect which interrupt and change or damage the child’s physical and psychological development.

There are various reasons that can lead the local authority into making an application to the court to take a child into care. A child could be taken into care if the local authority had reason to believe that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer Significant Harm.

What are the statistics for intervention by local authority?

National Statistics from the Annual Children in Need Census shows that as of 31 March 2021 there were:

  • 50,010 Child Protection Plans.
  • 41 Child Protection Plans per 10,000 children between 0 and 17.
  • 597,760 Referrals to Children’s Social Care Services.
  • 168,960 concerns about domestic violence towards the parent.

What is a Children’s Guardian?

A Children’s Guardian from Cafcass (Cafcass) represents the right and interests of the child in care proceedings. They get to know the child and their family before the hearing.

The Children’s Guardian appoints a solicitor for the child advises the court about what needs to be done before making decision; tells the court what they think would be best for the child.

The Children’s Guardian will usually spend time with the child and their family. They will inform the court whether they had not seen the child before they write their report. They may talk with those that Know the family like teachers, social workers, and health visitors.

They may attend meetings about the child check records and read the council’s case file, recommend other independent professionals that can help the court with advice.

When will the local authority get involved?

Section 31A of the Children Act 1989 provides that when an application is made on which a care order might be made with respect to a child, the appropriate local authority must, within such time as the court may direct, prepare a plan (“a care plan”) for the future care of the child. And while the application is pending, the local authority must keep any care plan prepared by them under review and if they are of the opinion some change is required, revise the plan, or make a new plan accordingly. A care plan must give any prescribed information and do so in the prescribed manner.

The council can start care proceedings if they are worried about a child. They can apply for a care order meaning that the Council will have parental responsibility for the child and can also determine where the child can live. An application is made for a placement order if they believe that the child should be adopted.

An interim order can be made initially whereby the council asks the family court to make a court order, and if the court agrees then the council can take the child into care on a temporary basis which can be up to 8 weeks at first.

In deciding what happens to a child it could take up to 26 weeks before a court decides or longer in complex cases. While this is happening a social worker, an officer, from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service tries to understand the reasons why the child may be at risk. They will also find a way of making the child safe.

They will also speak with the parents, the child and maybe family members or friends about looking after the child and living safely at home or getting support for the parents.

The social worker and Cafcass will each write a report for the court outlining what they think should happen to the child. They will state whether they think the child should be taken into care or stay with the family. After all this then there will be a court hearing.

At the hearing the judge will look at the reports and listen to everyone involved in the case including the child; the parents; solicitors representing parents and children; the council social worker and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) officer.

The child will return home if the judge decides that they are safe. If not, then the council will find them a new home. Which may be with; other members of the family; friends; a new family; a children’s home or a foster care.

How can SMQ Legal help your children?

If your children are subject to care proceedings, you have the right to your own solicitor. It is important to seek legal advice as soon as possible. The sooner you involve an experienced legal team, the better the chances of your family staying together. At SMQ Legal we support families and can represent them at all stages of a care case.