Significant harm

What is harm and significant harm in a child protection context?

Child protection is closely linked to the risk of significant harm. Significant harm is a complex matter and subject to professional judgement based on a multiagency assessment of the circumstances of the child and their family. Where there are concerns about harm, abuse or neglect, these must be shared with the relevant agencies so that they can decide together whether the harm is, or is likely to be, significant.

Significant harm can result from a specific incident, a series of incidents or an accumulation of concerns over a period of time. It is essential that when considering the presence or likelihood of significant harm that the impact (or potential impact) on the child takes priority and not simply the alleged abusive behaviour.

In order to understand the concept of significant harm, it is helpful to look first at the relevant definitions.

      • “Harm” means the ill treatment or the impairment of the health or development of the child, including, for example, impairment suffered as a result of seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another. In this context, “development” can mean physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development and “health” can mean physical or mental health.
      • Whether the harm suffered, or likely to be suffered, by a child or young person is “significant” is determined by comparing the child‟s health and development with what might be reasonably expected of a similar child.

National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland (2014)

There are no absolute criteria for judging what constitutes significant harm. In assessing the severity of ill treatment or future ill treatment, it may be important to take account of: the degree and extent of physical harm; the duration and frequency of abuse and neglect; the extent of premeditation; and the presence or degree of threat, coercion, sadism and bizarre or unusual elements. Sometimes, a single traumatic event may constitute significant harm, for example, a violent assault, suffocation or poisoning. More often, significant harm results from an accumulation of significant events, both acute and long-standing, that interrupt, change or damage the child’s physical and psychological development.

To understand and identify significant harm, it is necessary to consider:

      • the nature of harm, either through an act of commission or omission;
      • the impact on the child’s health and development, taking into account their age and stage of development;
      • the child’s development within the context of their family and wider environment;
      • the context in which a harmful incident or behaviour occurred;
      • any particular needs, such as a medical condition, communication impairment or disability, that may affect the child’s development, make them more vulnerable to harm or influence the level and type of care provided by the family;
      • the capacity of parents or carers to meet adequately the child’s needs; and
      • the wider and environmental family context.

The reactions, perceptions, wishes and feelings of the child must also be considered, with account taken of their age and level of understanding. This will depend on effective communication, including with those children and young people who find communication difficult because of their age, impairment or particular psychological or social situation. It is important to observe what children do as well as what they say, and to bear in mind that children may experience a strong desire to be loyal to their parents/carers (who may also hold some power over the child). Steps should be taken to ensure that any accounts of adverse experiences given by children are accurate and complete, and that they are recorded fully.

For Child Protection intervention by Social Work Services there needs to be a direct link between “Significant harm” and “Familial Responsibility”. It is only in circumstances that “family” facilitate or contribute to creating the circumstances of likely harm perpetuated by a stranger that Social Work Services may become involved with the Police in a referral initially identified as non-familial.


Familial responsibility definition

This might include a parent/s, extended family member or any other adult known to the child i.e. babysitter etc. The term also extends to adults who work with the child and young people who are accommodated by the local authority i.e. foster parent, children’s unit, residential school etc.