The Children Act definition of 'significant harm' - interpretations in practice

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Findings from a research study commissioned by the Department of Health into children in need of protection are used as a basis for the exploration of interpretations of the Children Act 1989 definition of ‘significant harm’. Particular attention is paid to thresholds for intervention introduced by the England and Wales Children Act 1989 and its accompanying guidance and to decisions made at child protection conferences. The findings are linked to those from studies which preceded the Act and to more recent discussions about the relationship between services to children ‘in need’ and those to children ‘in need of protection’. A cohort of 105 cases was identified and an examination made of the different ways in which they were processed through the system and decisions made that the children were suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. Conclusions are drawn about the adequacy of the Children Act definitions and post-Children Act practice for protecting children and for the allocation of resources to those most in need of them. The authors note variations in the extent to which individual social workers and social work teams in the areas studied have incorporated the new concepts of the Children Act into their practice. This applies particularly to the extent to which they plan their work around previous abusive actions of parents or their assessment of likely future harm to the child.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-20
Number of pages10
JournalHealth and Social Care in the Community
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1996


  • Child protection
  • Children
  • Children Act
  • Family support
  • Harm
  • Social work

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