Skip to navigation Skip to content Skip to footer

Child abuse

This advice applies to Scotland

If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call the police on 999

What is child abuse?

Child abuse is the ill-treatment of a child, causing damage to the child's health or personal development. A child can be experiencing abuse if they:

  • have been physically injured
  • are the victim of sexual abuse
  • are the victim of emotional abuse
  • are being neglected.

You are neglecting a child if you fail to take care of them properly. You might be neglecting a child if you leave them alone at home. This does not depend on the age of a child, but on the circumstances, and whether the child is at risk of being harmed. More information about child neglect can be found on the NSPCC website.

See Child abuse: useful organisations for details of organisations who can provide help and support in dealing with Child Abuse. 

Reporting child abuse

If you believe a child is in immediate danger, you should call the police on 999.

If you are worried that a child is being abused and want to report it to someone, you can:

The children's reporter is an official of the government body called the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration (SCRA) which provides a national service. The Children's Reporter receives information about children who might need to be considered for compulsory measures of protection or supervision and decides whether a Children's Hearing needs to be held. More information about the Children's Reporter is available on the SCRA website. More information about the children's hearings system is available on the Children's Hearings Scotland website.

All of these agencies have a duty to investigate concerns about the abuse of a child.

Alternatively you could call one of the helplines listed in our further help section below, to talk over your concerns and get more information and advice about what to do next.

It might be possible to ring a helpline or agency, without giving your full name. If you do give your name, you can ask for it to be kept confidential. 

Reporting child abuse to the social work department 

When you report child abuse to the social work department of the local authority, they must look into it if they think there is a real risk to the safety or well-being of the child. The social work department will decide if the child needs protection and what needs to be done to protect them. If they decide that the child is not at risk, no further action might be taken. 

Their enquiries could last several weeks, and might involve several interviews, family visits or medical examinations. The social work department will interview the child, and might also interview anyone the child has come into contact with. Usually, the social work department will tell a child's parents that they are making enquiries. However, in some cases, they might start making their enquiries before they let the parents know.

In cases of serious abuse, and in all cases of sexual abuse, the social work department will tell the police. Occasionally, the social work department will take urgent action to have the child removed from the family home and placed in the care of the local authority.

Once they have made enquiries and consulted with others, the social work department might decide further action is needed. If they do, a case conference, attended by all relevant professionals, parents/carers and, sometimes, the child, will be called. The case conference will decide whether the child’s name needs to be placed on the child protection register.

Reporting child abuse to the police

If you report child abuse to the police, they must, by law, investigate. If the child is under 16, they will usually involve the local social work department.

As a result of police investigations, legal action might be taken against the abuser. If found guilty, they might receive a prison sentence. Those convicted of sexual abuse will be placed on the Sex Offender's Register. However, there is no guarantee that they will be found guilty. In any case, measures will be put in place to protect the victim from further abuse. More information about the Sex Offenders' Register is available on Police Scotland's website.

The abuse victim might have to give evidence in court, which could be extremely upsetting. However, support is available for victims and witnesses in the form of 'special measures' to make giving evidence less traumatic. For example, you might decide not to appear in court in person but to give evidence via video or live television link. For more information on the support available to victims in court, see the Victim Support Scotland website. For more information about being a victim of crime and the court process in Scotland on the mygov.scot website.

Other people you can report child abuse to

You can also report concerns about child abuse to a number of other people including: health visitors, doctors and other health workers, teachers and other school staff, nursery staff, education welfare officers and educational psychologists.

You should be aware that these people might have to pass on your concerns to the social work department or the police.

If you want to find out if someone is a known sex offender

Keeping Children Safe is a national child sex offender disclosure scheme. It is also known as the Sex Offender Community Disclosure Scheme. It enables parents, carers or guardians of a child under 18 to ask the police if a person who has contact with that child is a registered sex offender or poses a risk to that child. 

Police Scotland have produced an online form for the Sex Offender community Disclosure Scheme that someone can complete to check if someone is a known sex offender.

Children suffering abuse

If you are a child suffering from abuse, you can get free, confidential help by calling ChildLine on 0800 1111. You should call the police on 999 if you are in immediate danger. 

You might also need to get urgent medical help, for example, to deal with injuries, pregnancy testing, emergency contraception or HIV tests. You can get medical help from your GP, the accident and emergency department of your local hospital or a family planning clinic. For more information on your rights to medical care, see Young people - health and personal

If you are under 16 and a health professional suspects you are being abused, they must report it to the police or the social work department, even if you don't want them to.

In some cases, it might be possible to claim financial compensation for being abused. You can get advice about this from the Scottish Child Law Centre. For contact details see, Child abuse: useful organisations.

Investigation after a report of suspected child abuse

Following investigation, the agencies will decide whether further action is needed. If it is decided that further action is needed to protect the child, a case conference is called. A case conference is a meeting attended by all the relevant agencies, the child's parents/carers and sometimes the child. The case conference will decide whether to place the child on the child protection register. 

Child protection register

The child protection register provides information to all relevant agencies (social work, education, police etc) about children who are at risk of harm, and ensures that they communicate with each other about children at risk. It also helps in identifying any future risk to the child, or other children in the household. The register is confidential. 

If the case conference decides that a child’s name needs to be placed on the child protection register, a protection plan will be put together and a decision will be made about whether the case needs to be referred to the Children’s Reporter. For more information on the Children's Reporter, see Reporting child abuse. A protection plan is a plan of what the social worker and other professionals will do to protect the child and meet their needs. 

If the child’s name does not need to be placed on the child protection register, the case will be closed or the family will be offered some form of support.

Child abuse and court proceedings

Where the social work department and/or the police consider that legal proceedings are necessary, there are two types of action which are likely:

  • a referral to the Children’s Hearing system by the children's reporter, where compulsory measures of supervision of the child will be considered
  • criminal proceedings against the alleged abuser.

For more information about the Children's Hearing system in Scotland, see Children who are looked after by the local authority, the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration website and the Children's Hearings Scotland website.

Court orders

When parents or carers do not co-operate with an investigation, or where the child is considered to be at serious risk, the local social work department might obtain a court order, such as a child protection order, to ensure the child’s safety. More information about court orders can be found on the NSPCC website.

Claiming damages for childhood abuse

There is no time limit for making a claim for compensation in the civil courts in Scotland for childhood abuse. A person who suffered abuse when they were under 18 in Scotland might be able to bring a personal injury claim to seek compensation (also known as damages), including in cases of historic abuse. However, no claim can be made for abuse that took place before 26 September 1964.

When considering taking legal action, it is important to get specialist legal advice from a solicitor about the likelihood of your claim being successful. You must also consider whether you can afford to pay for legal advice and court costs and how an award of compensation would affect any benefits you receive.

The Scottish Government and Citizens Advice Scotland have produced an information leaflet available on the gov.scot website . See also Personal injuries and Using a solicitor

There are a number of organisations that can help if you are considering bringing a claim for damages. See Child abuse: useful organisations

Re-housing because of child abuse

If you are looking after a child who is being abused, you could ask your local authority housing department to help with re-housing. However, if you do this, the local authority might make enquiries about the abuse, even if you don't want them to. Depending on the circumstances your local authority might be able to re-house your family, re-house the abuser, or re-house the abuse victim. For more information, see Children who are looked after by the local authority

There are also a number of legal measures you could take to prevent the abuser from staying in your home. If you want to do this, you should get legal advice. A local advice agency such as a law centre or Citizens Advice Bureau, should be able to help you find a local solicitor who is experienced in this area of the law. You could also search for a local solicitor on the Law Society of Scotland website.

If you are the mother or father of a child who is being abused, and you are suffering from domestic abuse, you might be able to move to a refuge or get emergency accommodation from the local authority. If you are in this situation you should get help from an advice agency such as a local Women's aid group. You can find your nearest Women's Aid group on the Scottish Women's Aid website.

Adults who were abused as children

If you were harmed as a child or young person, the effects of this might continue for many years and you might not realise the effects until many years later. 

Child protection procedures do not apply beyond the age of 16, and adults have to contact the police. 

Organisations that provide help and support to adults who were harmed as children include: the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) and the Trauma Counselling Line Scotland (TCLS). Get contact details for useful organisations.

There is no longer a time limit for making a claim for compensation in the civil courts in Scotland for childhood abuse. Adults who suffered abuse as children might be able to bring a personal injury claim for damages.

Adults who suffered abuse as children might also be able to apply to the Scottish government redress scheme. 

Redress scheme for child abuse in care

If you were abused as a child in care in Scotland before December 2004, you might be able to apply to the redress scheme for compensation. This is a scheme set up by the Scottish government.

If youre a relative of someone who was abused as a child in care, you might be able to apply as their next of kin.  

You can apply for a fixed rate redress payment of £10,000 or an individually assessed redress payment of between £20,000 and £100,000. You’ll need to be able to provide evidence that you were living in a relevant care setting before you turned 18. You’ll also need to give a written statement about the abuse you suffered. If you want to apply for the individually assessed redress payment, you’ll need to give a more detailed account of what happened to you, as well as providing more documentary evidence to support your application. 

The Scottish government is working to ensure that redress payments will not affect your benefits, your tax or the assessment of any care home fees. 

If youre offered a redress payment, you’ll be encouraged to get legal advice before you accept it. The scheme will pay for the costs of getting legal advice. 

The scheme can also help with other types of redress, such as an apology or access to therapeutic support. 

The Scottish Government redress scheme case workers can answer questions about the scheme, and give practical and emotional support. Find out more about the redress scheme on mygov.scot.

Further help

Find out more about useful organisations

Did this advice help?
Why wasn't this advice helpful?

Please tell us more about why our advice didn't help.

Did this advice help?

Thank you, your feedback has been submitted.