Jenni Whitehead discusses the difficulties faced by named persons, or child protection coordinators, in talking to children’s parents about their concerns and the need to follow child protection procedures

I have just finished running the first of this term’s two-day named persons’ course and on reflection I realised just how much concern there was about talking to parents about concerns of possible abuse. Some of the questions that came up are listed in the box below, right. The majority of participants on this course were brand-new named persons so it was important to address these very real concerns in detail and the debate that followed was really very useful and interesting in terms of the different views shared. In principle all participants agreed that parents should be told that a child protection referral had been made. The difficult questions were about when the parent should be told and by whom.

Children in need versus child protection

A child in need of protection is always a ‘child in need’. However, a child can be ‘in need’ without being in need of protection.

The definition of a child in need is basically a child who is in need of services. A CAF assessment may be carried out by a nominated professional to gain a basic understanding of a child’s needs and this assessment and subsequent referrals to services will require the consent of the parent, or, in respect of older young people, their own consent.

If a named person makes a child protection referral, the issue of consent is more complex. The named person needs to make a professional judgement as to whether it is appropriate to ask the consent of the parent before referring. This decision is based on the named person’s assessment of the situation and their knowledge of the child and their family.

In many cases named persons feel it inappropriate to ask the consent of the parent, but need to be clear about their reasons for deciding not to ask consent.

There are times when the named person has a relationship with the parent that allows them to judge the situation as one where it is entirely appropriate to ask the consent of the parent before making a child protection referral. However in many situations (in my experience), named persons decide that it is not appropriate on the grounds that asking for consent may put the child at risk of abuse or further abuse, or on the grounds that they believe the parent will refuse to give consent and asking for consent feels inappropriate, as in such circumstances they would still make the referral.

Concerns about talking to parents

  • Do we have to talk to parents before making a referral?
  • Do we have to get the consent of the parent in order to make a referral?
  • Can we talk to children’s social care first?
  • Are there times when we shouldn’t talk to parents at all?
  • Aren’t we putting children at more risk when we talk to parents?

Telling the parent that a referral is going to
be made or has been made is different from asking consent and the general consensus is that parents should be told by the referring agency. However, most local authorities agree that in some circumstances, ie sexual abuse or forced marriage, it is not appropriate to talk to the parent at all before seeking advice from child protection agencies.

One of the participants asked: ‘What if you are concerned about a health issue that appears not to have been addressed by the parent. You see it as a “child in need” situation as opposed to a “child in need of protection” but when you ask the consent of the parent to make a referral the parent refuses to give consent.’

In such a situation you would need to try to discuss with the parent what it is that stops them from seeking the service. There may be a very good reason for them not seeking help themselves. You would also need to consider the likely outcome for the child if the health issue is not addressed. Is the parent acting neglectfully by not seeking help for their child? Will not seeking such help cause an impairment of health and development?

If the answer to either of these questions is yes then child protection procedures should be considered.

Asking the consent of young people
The same difficult questions arise in respect of young people. In theory if a young person is deemed Fraser competent, named persons should consider whether or not they should seek the consent of the young person before making a child protection referral. The Children Act 1989 advises that we should seek and take seriously the views of young people. It doesn’t say we should always make decision based solely on the young person’s wishes. A young person may refuse to give consent and again it is important to try to explore why a young person would not wish us to refer to another agency to get them help or a service.

To be deemed  Fraser competent a young person must be of an age and stage of development where they can understand the decision they are making. Understanding the decision they are making includes understanding the likely or possible outcome of the decision.

Young people may be scared of the processes that come into play if they give consent to their school to make a child protection referral and it is important to address these issues with them. However, at the end of the day, a named person must make a professional judgement based on the principle that the child’s needs are paramount and where a young person talks about being abused child protection procedures must be operated.

To take an example: the oldest of three siblings discloses that she has been sexually abused by her father. She is in the sixth form, nearly 18 and about to apply for university, so she is presumably capable of making and understanding decisions. If this young person refuses to give consent for a referral to be made and we decide to respect her wishes on the grounds that she is Fraser competent, where does this leave the other two children or indeed any other children that her father comes into contact with?

Working in partnership with parents
The Children Act 1989 and subsequent child care/protection guidance reinforce the idea of working in partnership with parents. Partnership working is obviously important in developing preventative methods of working. CAF assessments are an example of partnership working between parent and professional, both seeking the best outcome for the child. If a parent is to believe that they are in partnership with a professional they would need to believe that the professional would consult them before passing on any information to another agency and that they would have some influence in what information is shared. Unfortunately, some parents do not act in the best interest of their child, some abuse their position of power over children and partnership is not always achievable. At the point of initial referral it is the referring agency that needs to decide whether to consult the parent, seek consent from the parent, tell the parent or whether to seek advice from other agencies first. 

If in your professional judgement you feel it is too risky to talk to parents before speaking to children’s social care, don’t. Be prepared to stand your ground on this, list your reasons for not speaking to parents first and have the list in front of you when you make the referral.

I am not suggesting that you should be prepared for a battle, but children’s social care will ask why you haven’t discussed the issue with parents because this helps them to understand the situation.

Clearly, someone has to talk to parents and these early discussions with social workers give the opportunity to make clear decisions about who will speak to them, when and how.

So what do we say to parents?
Words are sometimes really hard to find when approaching a parent about child protection issues and the participants on my course wanted examples! First, however, make sure your policies are clear (see box).

Explaining your child protection policies to parents

Make sure that your child protection policies are clear. Include child protection issues in the handbook you give out to new and prospective parents. Include a paragraph that explains that all schools have a statutory duty to safeguard children’s welfare. Explain that where a school has concerns about the safety and or wellbeing of a pupil it has a duty to report those concerns to children’s social care.

For these types of conversations it is usually best to meet the parent in school where other people are on hand and could be asked for support.

Be straightforward. Explain the nature of your concerns:

  • ‘I need to talk to you about the injury to Jane’s face. Can you tell me what happened to her?’
  • ‘Peter has been very lethargic in class and says he cannot sleep, have you any ideas what might be troubling him?’
  • ‘Rubina’s behaviour has changed dramatically over the last few weeks. She has gone from
  • being a happy, outgoing child to a very quiet, withdrawn child. Have you any idea what could have caused this?’
  • ‘Where I am concerned about a child’s welfare I have to inform children’s social care, this is a statutory duty that all schools have. You may have read this in the parents’ handbook.’
  • ‘William told a member of staff that he had been hit with a belt last night and because of what he said I have informed children’s social care. All schools are expected to talk to children’s social care when children say things like this and children’s social care have asked me to talk to you about this. Can you tell me what happened?’

Follow the concept of ‘reasonable parent’: tell them you know that as a parent they will want to get to the bottom of the matter.

You will have noticed that none of these sentences mention child abuse or child protection, the reason being that to do so may inflame the situation or may put the parent on so much edge that they are unable to offer an explanation.

This way of wording questions works on the basis that parents know that you cannot ignore what you have seen or heard because you have a duty to report your concerns but that you are being honest with the parent and that you are ready to hear their explanation.

It probably goes without saying that even the most carefully worded message that you have informed or intend to refer to children’s social care can be met with anger and hostility and other members of staff need to know where you are, what you are doing and to be prepared to offer you support.

If your previous experience of the parent suggests that they pose a risk do not see them by yourself. Ask for support from other colleagues or from children’s social care.

Talking to parents: general guidelines

In general and where possible discuss concern with parents unless to do so could put a child or yourself at risk of harm

  • knowledge of family
  • any threats or fears
  • possibility of child being silenced
  • child not wanting parents contacted at this stage
  • any possibility evidence may be destroyed/contaminated.

Generally do not contact parents:

  • where discussion would impede a police investigation or social work enquiry
  • where sexual abuse is suspected
  • where organised or multiple abuse is suspected
  • where the fabrication of an illness is suspected
  • where forced marriage is suspected

Do not delay referral where it is not possible to contact parents/carers

If in doubt discuss with LA designated CP officer

We are unable to publish reader comments about individual child protection concerns on this website. If you are worried about a child please call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 for help and advice. Alternatively you can contact your Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) through your local council.