The Local Safeguarding Children Board

Working to keep West Cheshire's children and young people safe

What is 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 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:

  • Research evidence;
  • Practice guidance;
  • Legislation and regulations;
  • Practice experience;
  • Training.

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 degree and extent of physical harm or neglect;
  • The duration and frequency of abuse and neglect - one off incident or continuing;
  • The extent of premeditation;
  • The presence or degree of threat, force, sadism and bizarre/unusual elements;
  • Contributing factors to incidents;
  • The past history of the perpetrator or family;
  • The risk factors in the family;
  • The wider and environmental family context;
  • The child’s development within the context of their family and wider social environment;
  • Any special needs, such as a medical condition, communication difficulty or disability that may affect the child’s development and care within the family;
  • The age of the child and their resilience;
  • The impact on the child’s health and development;
  • The capacity of the parental carer to adequately meet the child’s needs;
  • The acknowledgement by the parent/carer of the problem;
  • The co-operation of the parents/carers;
  • The likelihood of and capacity for change and improvements in parenting and care of the child;
  • Whether there is an identified protector;
  • The family’s strengths and support networks;
  • The child’s views of how safe they are and what is in their best interests.

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.


Working Together 2010 Chapter1 Para 1.26 – 1.31.