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 the child.’
Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 places the local authority under a duty to make enquiries, or cause enquiries to be made, where it has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.
There are no absolute criteria for establishing significant harm. Whether the harm or likely harm suffered by the child is significant is determined by comparing the child’s health or development with that which could reasonably be expected of a similar child. Professionals must also take account of the child’s reactions, and his/her perceptions and wishes and feelings, according to their age and understanding.
It is only, therefore, through assessment that it is possible to establish whether a child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.
Professional judgements about significant harm are made following the completion of an assessment when the information collated is analysed and conclusions drawn. The analysis is informed by:
It is impossible to be prescriptive about the professional judgements that should be formed in different situations because of the interplay of a number of variable factors. Sometimes, a single traumatic event may constitute significant harm, e.g. 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 a 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. Others may suffer significant harm from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another, for example in cases of domestic abuse. In all cases, to decide whether the child is suffering or is at risk of suffering significant harm, an assessment must examine all relevant factors in the family:
The Common Assessment Framework (2006) and the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families (2000) provide the basis for the systematic assessment of children and families. All the areas of information included in the Frameworks need to be included in the assessment for an informed analysis to be completed. Consultation should always take place with other agencies and with line managers so that professional judgements benefit from as full a picture and analysis as possible.