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Child abuse  - police involvement

This advice applies to England

In cases of child abuse, the police must investigate allegations of abuse if a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, from harm. This page tells you more about how the police can get involved, and steps they can take to protect a child in immediate danger.

How might the police get involved?

Someone with concerns about child abuse might report them to the police.  This could be:

  • a concerned adult
  • a specialist organisation such as the NSPCC
  • the local authority child protection team.

Must the police investigate allegations of child abuse?

Police have a legal responsibility to safeguard children under 18, together with other agencies such as the local authority, healthcare professionals and schools. This includes sharing information held by police which is relevant to protect a child from harm.

When a child has been the victim of child abuse within the family, police will often work together with social workers to interview the child or conduct joint visits to the home.

The police will investigate criminal offences such as physical assaults, sexual assaults and neglect of children. They don’t always decide to prosecute because it’s sometimes more appropriate for the family to work with social workers to protect the child.

Whether the police prosecute or not, there will, in some cases, be a need for structured support to protect the child. If so, the local authority may call a child protection conference where professionals and parents can discuss the risks and make decisions. The police are involved in these meetings.

Information about domestic violence is always shared by the police. This is because domestic violence can have a serious impact upon children even if the child is in another room when it happens.

Adults who were abused as a child

An adult who was abused as a child could report the offence to the police so they could investigate to see if the abuser could be prosecuted. There is no time limit to report the abuse, but if it happened a long time ago, it might be difficult for the police to gather evidence against the alleged abuser. There are also legal rules about the evidence which can be used in court – this may mean that some cases of child abuse can’t be prosecuted.

Who can be charged with child abuse?

Anyone aged ten or over can be charged with a criminal offence associated with child abuse. However, it’s is rare for young children to be prosecuted. Decisions about this are always very carefully considered in consultation with Crown Prosecution Service and the local authority child protection team.

What if you report abuse to the police

The police should explain what is likely to happen when you make contact with them with a concern about child abuse.

The police should notify the local authority child protection team when an offence has been committed against a child. This doesn’t always mean that a social worker will get involved with a family but they may offer support or send a letter if necessary.

The police may decide in certain circumstances that it isn’t in the best interests of a child to prosecute. They will discuss this with the child (if the child is old enough) and the parents. In some cases they won’t be able to prosecute because there is not enough evidence.

The abuser may plead guilty to a criminal offence associated with child abuse. If so, the police may give them a caution or the case may go to court.

If a case goes to court, witnesses will have to give evidence and this also means the child who has been abused. There are special ways for a child or vulnerable witnesses to give evidence which can make it easier for them, but the child or witness will be asked questions which can sometimes be difficult for them. If a child has to give evidence and the defendant is then convicted, their sentence will reflect the fact that the child was made to give evidence. But if a defendant pleads guilty, the judge will take into account that they saved the child from having to go through this.

If you are under 18 and being abused, the police may get involved even if you don’t want them to be. This is because most agencies have a legal duty to share information to safeguard children. However the police will always look at the individual circumstances of every case and they will never force a child to give evidence if they don’t want to.

Police protection

The police have the legal power to take a child away from the family home in an emergency. This is called police protection and can last for 72 hours. They can do this if they have a good reason to believe that the child is at risk of significant harm if they don’t remove the child. They can take the child away without getting a court order first. But they have to inform the local authority who then takes responsibility for the child and decides if the child needs to be placed in foster care or if there are other options within the family. The parents will be told if this happens but, in some cases where there’s a great risk, they may not be told where the child has been placed. Social workers will:

  • advise about contact between a child and their parents, and
  • decide what needs to happen after the 72 hours have run out.

If no further concerns are raised, the child must be returned to the parents. But if there are further concerns, other court orders may be necessary.

If the police have accused you of child abuse

If the police have accused you, rightly or wrongly, of child abuse, it’s important to get legal advice. You may get legal aid. If you’ve been arrested, you’ll be offered free and independent legal advice.

If your child has been taken into police protection and you don’t agree with the reasons for this, you may also need legal advice.  But always speak to the social workers to find out what their intentions are.

If you’re unhappy about police conduct

You may be unhappy because of police conduct when they get involved in cases of child abuse. For example, you may think that they are not taking your allegations seriously enough. You may be able to make a complaint about the police. Get specialist advice about this.

Next steps

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