Investigation of allegations of child abuse

If the team leader decides after initial inquiries that no immediate action should be taken this must be discussed with the co-ordinator, children services, and endorsed by the latter.

Non-qualified members of staff should not carry out the investigation. However, their knowledge of the family can inform the investigation.

Referrals of child abuse are not always clear or complete. Consideration should be given by the team leader to a worker interviewing the person who made the referral in the first instance if further information or clarification is required. This should not be done if the nature of the referral warrants an immediate approach to the family or if the information given is sufficient.

Where the level of concern is sufficient to warrant use of child protection procedures the team leader should consult with police. Agreement should be reached on how the investigation should proceed. This may take the form of qualified social workers undertaking the initial stages of the investigation and thereafter collaborating with the police or a joint investigation by police and social work.

Throughout the course of the investigation where there is indication that a parent or other relative has harmed a child efforts should be made for the police to interview the parent/relative to avoid contamination of evidence. Ideally, the police should approach the allegedly abusing parent/relative with full information. Whilst the ideal option is for social work to avoid contact with the parent/relative to allow the police to interview the parent/relative first, it is recognised that sometimes this will not be possible and social work must visit the family to ensure child protection prior to the police approaching the suspect. In these circumstances the team leader should discuss with the police the level of detail about the alleged offence that can be discussed with the parent/relative. Both police and social work should bear in mind that the safety and welfare of the child is paramount and takes precedence over evidence issues.

Timescales should be agreed. It is the responsibility of the team leader to ensure that timescales are being met throughout the investigation.

If it is agreed that social work should proceed without the police initially, the team leader should brief two qualified social workers on how to proceed. One of the social workers must have completed the basic child protection course.

The main task of the police is to attempt to ascertain if a crime has been committed and gather evidence which may be used in the criminal court or for referral to the reporter. However, the police also require to have the protection and welfare of the child to the fore when conducting investigations.

In certain circumstances the police can use their discretion and decide not to proceed with a criminal charge. A report would usually be sent to the procurator fiscal outlining the mitigating circumstances of the referral. They have no discretion as far as the reporter is concerned. They must investigate instances where a child may be in need of compulsory measures of supervision (Section 53 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995.)

The main task of social work is to protect children from future harm. This involves attempting to ascertain if a child has been abused, is likely to have been abused, or is likely to be abused in the immediate future, and if so, to make plans to protect the child. This means gathering information for one or more of the following purposes:

    • to decide whether intervention or further action is necessary
    • to inform an assessment of the child and family situation with a view to providing supports to assist the family to look after the child at home where possible
    • to inform an assessment of any immediate risk to the child
    • to support an application for a child protection order, child assessment order or exclusion order if required
    • to pass to the reporter who may proceed to a children’s hearing.

In practice social work and police roles overlap in investigations.

Sometimes the criminal conviction of the abusing adult is important in the protection of children. In these circumstances, social workers can best support the police by utilising their skills in communicating with children at the joint interviewing stage. If children are interviewed in a skilled manner and feel able to talk about any abuse then this evidence may assist in a possible conviction.

Investigations which are child-centred are more likely to have credibility at court and therefore there is greater likelihood of a conviction.

The standard of evidence for criminal court is “beyond reasonable doubt”. The standard of evidence for the children’s hearing is “on the balance of probabilities”. It may be possible to protect children via the children’s hearing system or by making application for an exclusion order when there is insufficient evidence for a criminal conviction.