While research suggests that child abuse figures continue to rise, we know that most crimes aren’t reported, detected or prosecuted, so the true picture could be far worse. The Departmental guidance has been recently updated and provides non-statutory advice to help practitioners identify child abuse and neglect and take appropriate action in response. Elizabeth Walker looks at this new guidance aimed at anyone whose work brings them into contact with children and families, including those who work in early years, education and schools.

Guiding principles

Child abuse and neglect can have major long-term impacts on all aspects of a child's health, development and wellbeing. The updated guidance document What To Do if You’re Worried a Child Is Being Abused sets out the principles that early years practitioners should follow to ensure best practice in safeguarding the children in their care.

Practitioners should ensure that that they are alert to the signs of abuse and neglect and that they question the behaviour of children and parents. Staff should also make sure that they know where to turn to ask for help, and that they refer to children’s social care or to the police, if a child is suspected to be at risk of harm or is in immediate danger. Early years provisions should work within the local multi-agency safeguarding arrangements and be guided by the following key principles.

  • Children have a right to be safe and should be protected from all forms of abuse and neglect.

  • Safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility.

  • It is better to help children as early as possible, before issues escalate and become more damaging.

  • Children and families are best supported and protected when there is a co-ordinated response from all relevant agencies.

Identifying abuse and neglect

Child welfare concerns may arise in many different contexts, and can vary greatly in terms of their nature and seriousness. Children may be abused in a family or in an institutional or community setting, by those known to them or by a stranger, including via the internet. They may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children. An abused child will often experience more than one type of abuse, as well as other difficulties in their lives. Abuse and neglect can happen over a period of time, but can also be a one-off event.

The warning signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect can vary from child to child. By understanding the warning signs, practitioners can respond to problems as early as possible and provide the right support and services for the child and their family. It is important to recognise that a warning sign does not automatically mean a child is being abused.

The following signs might be indicators of abuse or neglect.

  • Children whose behaviour changes — they may become aggressive, challenging, disruptive, withdrawn or clingy, or they might have difficulty sleeping or start wetting the bed.

  • Children wearing clothes that are ill-fitting and/or dirty.

  • Children with consistently poor hygiene.

  • Children who make strong efforts to avoid specific family members or friends, without an obvious reason.

  • Children who do not want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities.

  • Children who are show a sudden lack of concentration or they appear to be tired and hungry.

  • Children who talk about being left home alone, with inappropriate carers or with strangers.

  • Children who reach developmental milestones, such as learning to speak or walk, late, with no medical reason.

  • Children who are regularly absent from their early years provision or school.

  • Children who are reluctant to go home.

  • Children with poor attendance and punctuality, or who are consistently late being picked up.

  • Parents who are dismissive and non-responsive to practitioners’ concerns.

  • Parents who collect their children when drunk, or under the influence of drugs.

  • Children who are concerned for younger siblings without explaining why.

  • Children who talk about running away.

  • Children who shy away from being touched or flinch at sudden movements.

There are four main categories of abuse and neglect.

  1. Physical abuse.

  2. Emotional abuse.

  3. Sexual abuse.

  4. Neglect.

Each has its own specific warning indicators, which practitioners should be alert to, and the updated guidance sets out the full descriptions.

Taking action

There are four steps to identify and respond to possible abuse or neglect, as follows.

  • Step 1: Be alert to signs of abuse and neglect. The first step is to be alert to the signs of abuse and neglect, to have read the relevant guidance and to understand the procedures set out in the local multi-agency safeguarding arrangements. Practitioners should also consider what training would support their role.

  • Step 2: Questioning behaviours. The signs of child abuse might not always be obvious and a child might not tell anyone what is happening to him or her. Practitioners should therefore question behaviours if something seems unusual and try to speak to the child, alone, if appropriate, to seek further information.

  • Step 3: Ask for help. If there are concerns about a child, this should be discussed with a manager, a named or designated professional or a designated member of staff. For early years practitioners, the EYFS sets out that providers should ensure that they have a practitioner who is designated to take a lead responsibility for safeguarding children who should liaise with local statutory children’s services agencies. Next steps might involve undertaking an early help assessment or making a referral directly to children’s social care/the police.

    If a member of staff has concerns about the safety or welfare of a child and feels that these concerns are not being acted upon by their manager or named/designated safeguarding lead, it is their responsibility to take action.

    Childminders should take responsibility themselves and should notify children’s social care (and, in emergencies, the police) if they have concerns about the safety or welfare of a child.

  • Step 4: Refer to children’s social care. If, at any time, a child is believed to be in need, or being harmed or is likely to be, a referral should be made immediately to local authority children’s social care. This referral can be made by any practitioner. If there are further signs of potential abuse and neglect, this should be reported and referred again.

It may not always be appropriate to go through all four stages sequentially. If a child is in immediate danger or is at risk of harm, a referral should be made immediately to children’s social care and/or the police. All concerns and discussions about a child’s welfare, the decisions made and the reasons for those decisions should be recorded in writing.

It is important to remember that throughout the four stages, sharing information is a vital part of any practitioner’s role. The decisions about how much information to share, with whom and when can have a profound impact on people’s lives. Practitioners should weigh up what might happen if the information is shared against the consequences of not sharing the information. Early sharing of information is key to providing effective early help where there are emerging problems.

Further information is available at:

Last reviewed 19 June 2015