Child abuse

This page explains the law on child abuse, including the different forms of abuse and what to do if you are concerned about a child.

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

If a child is not in immediate danger you can contact the  NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 or Children’s Services for the area in which the child lives

What is child abuse?

There are several different forms of child abuse which can cause significant harm to a child. This can include physical, emotional and sexual abuse as well as neglect. 

Physical Abuse

If a child is deliberately hurt causing them physical harm, such as cuts, bruises, broken bones or other injuries, this would be considered a form of physical abuse. 

Physical abuse can include hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning, drowning, suffocating or otherwise causing physical harm to a child. 

It can also include fabricating symptoms of an illness or inducing an illness in a child.

Emotional or Psychological Abuse

Emotional or psychological abuse is the persistent emotional maltreatment or neglect of a child which causes severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development. For example, it might be telling a child that they are worthless, unloved or inadequate or excluding them from activities, silencing them or being overprotective. 

It can also include requiring a child to take on responsibilities which are not appropriate for their age. It can also include witnessing abuse.

Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse involves persuading or forcing a child to take part in sexual activities, or encouraging a child to behave in sexually inappropriate ways. It includes child grooming, causing a child to witness sexual activity, sharing indecent images of children, paying for the sexual services of a child, and encouraging child prostitution or pornography.


Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic and essential needs. It can occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse. It can include a failure to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter, failure to protect a child from physical and emotional harm and failure to provide adequate medical care or treatment.

Teenage relationship abuse

Abusive behaviours within relationships between young people can include similar incidents or patterns of behaviours as adult relationships. For teenagers in particular, abuse to harass or control victims can occur through using technology, this includes social media, or location-based tracking apps, such as Find My Friends. Teenage relationship abuse often occurs outside of a domestic setting. Victims may feel that domestic abuse occurs only between adults who are cohabiting or married. Teenage victims may find it difficult to identify abusive behaviour, for instance, controlling or jealous behaviour may be misconstrued as love.

Domestic abuse in teenage relationships can be just as severe and has the potential to be as life threatening as abuse in adult relationships. Young people who experience domestic abuse do so at a particularly vulnerable point in their lives. They may experience a complex transition from childhood to adulthood which impacts on behaviour and decision making. It may impact on the way that they respond to abuse or if and how they engage with services.

Female Genital Mutilation

FGM is a form of violence against women and girls which is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality. It typically occurs within the context of ‘honour’- based abuse. As FGM is generally inflicted upon children, the Government considers it to be a type of child abuse. However, it is also carried out on women for a variety of reasons such as giving a woman social acceptance before marriage or ensuring her chastity. Whilst FGM may be an isolated incident of abuse within a family, it can be associated with other behaviours that discriminate against, limit or harm women and girls.

What can I do if I think a child is at risk of child abuse?

The police operate a national scheme known as Sarah’s Law or the Child sex offender disclosure scheme where anybody can formally ask the police whether a person who has contact with children has a record for child sex offences. The police can disclose this information to parents, carers or guardians if it would be in the child’s best interests to do so.

The information released must remain confidential and can only be used to safeguard children. The person receiving the information will be required to sign an undertaking agreeing to keeping the information confidential and legal action may be taken if this confidentiality is breached. 

The particular procedure for asking this information will vary according to your local police force. Further guidance on the scheme can be found here

Am I under a duty to report child abuse?

There is no legal duty on an individual to report abuse. However, a person may be under a duty to report an abuse by virtue of their employment.

Some employers are under a duty to have a Child Protection Policy within their workplace which places a duty upon their employees to safeguard and promote the welfare of children; this includes reporting abuse to the relevant authorities. Bodies that are generally under this duty include Schools, colleges, health authorities and health trusts. Further information on this can be found in the Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance.

Will the parents know that I have phoned Children’s Services about their child and will I know what Children’s Services decide to do?

The name of the person reporting the abuse will not be released to the parents or to anyone else, apart from those responsible for investigating the allegation. When informing Children’s Services about any possible abuse, it is usually a good idea to provide your name and address, but you can remain anonymous if you wish. It is very unlikely that Children’s Services will provide further information to the person who disclosed the alleged abuse to them. If Children’s Services do provide further information, it could amount to a breach of confidentiality. 

If you are a parent (and have Parental Responsibility) of the child(ren) about whom you reported as suffering abuse, by virtue of your position and involvement in their lives, you may be kept informed of what action is being taken by Children’s Services. Children’s Services should not disclose who reported abuse if the disclosure was made by an individual.

The NSPCC can make referrals to Children’s Services if there are concerns for a child. This can be done anonymously; Children’s Services will then determine whether further assessment and/or action needs to be taken. 

Concerns can also be raised with the police who can make a referral to Children’s Services. 

What should I do if I know a child is at risk of harm but Children’s Services will not investigate? 

If a person is sure that a child is at risk but Children’s Services will not act further, then that person can:

  • Remind Children’s Services of their duty to act in such situations
  • Make a complaint to the Children’s Director of the Children’s Services department
  • Contact the NSPCC and ask them to make a referral
  • Report the family again to Children’s Services.

If Children’s Services suspect my child has been abused, and come to see me, do I have to speak to them?

A parent does not have to speak to Children’s Services, but it is important to be co-operative. If a parent refuses to cooperate with Children’s Services, they are likely to take further action. If a referral about suspected abuse has been made, Children’s Services cannot ignore the allegations. They must ensure that the child is safe and is not suffering significant harm. 

If Children’s Services want my child to have a medical examination, do I have to agree?

Children’s Services cannot insist that a child has a medical examination without a Court Order or parental consent. If a parent is not happy about Children’s Services taking their child to a doctor, it is possible to arrange for their own GP to conduct a medical examination. It is recommended that the parent agrees to cooperate with a medical examination as refusal could lead to proceedings in court.

Going further

If you wish to initiate a complaint against Children’s Services, detailed information can be found in our How-to Guide. Please note that a fee is charged for this service

This information is correct at the time of writing, 11th January 2024. The law in this area is subject to change.

Coram Children’s Legal Centre cannot be held responsible if changes to the law outdate this publication. Individuals may print or photocopy information in CCLC publications for their personal use.

Professionals, organisations and institutions must obtain permission from the CCLC to print or photocopy our publications in full or in part.

On this page

This information is correct at the time of writing, 11th January 2024. The law in this area is subject to change.

Coram Children’s Legal Centre cannot be held responsible if changes to the law outdate this publication. Individuals may print or photocopy information in CCLC publications for their personal use.

Professionals, organisations and institutions must obtain permission from the CCLC to print or photocopy our publications in full or in part.

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