Child in need or child protection? The never-ending issue of thresholds

Is there a way to effectively bridge the gap in support perceived to exist between child in need and child protection cases?

Photo: Chaiyapruek/Fotolia

The challenge of setting the right child protection thresholds is an issue that rarely goes away.

In recent weeks, Sunderland’s children safeguarding board announced it had reviewed its thresholds in response to findings from multiple serious case reviews.

Ofsted has also picked up problems, with a recent inspection of Wirral’s children’s services warning that “poor application of thresholds” existed at “every point” children accessed social care.

The issue is being felt on the frontline too. A year ago, social workers told Community Care they were feeling pressured to downgrade child protection cases to child in need, a part of the system where children are likely to receive less support.

In a world of decreasing resources and increasing caseloads many were uncomfortable about the risks of downgrading some of their cases.

So how can services make the right judgement calls on where children should sit in services, particularly borderline cases that aren’t necessarily clear cut?


Northumbria university researchers Guy Kirk and Robbie Duschinsky recently analysed what happens to cases on the fringes of the child protection system.

Their report found that children deemed below child protection thresholds, but at the upper ends of children in need, could see their cases drift because the divide between the two categories often took no account of the nuances of individual cases.

“It is well known that those children assessed as falling just below the [child protection] threshold can still have high levels of need and risk, requiring a level of social work involvement beyond the low-resource and low-oversight model that generally accompanies a child in need categorisation,” their report said.

Kirk said one problem is that the child in need category can often be seen as a “residual” category.

“If they’re in the child protection category then they are serious and we need to do something about them, if they’re child in need, they’re not,” he says, explaining how services may think in these circumstances.

“Social workers clearly recognise if you sit down and talk with them that of course children on child in need are not all the same.

“However they also recognise that there’s a tendency within the nature of social work, particularly the pressurised children and families work, to have to prioritise what they are seeing as more important, and that’s child protection cases.”

Different support

Adam Birchall, principal social worker for children in Solihull, says there can be a difference in the support offered between the categories.

The issue of thresholds is linked to this, Birchall says, as is the fact they aren’t nationally agreed.

“Each [Local Safeguarding Children’s Board] has their own. I think it’s really a peculiar dynamic. It means children in different places get different services based on what’s around.”

On a social work level, Birchall doesn’t feel there’s a huge difference in how social workers treat cases, but he feels other professionals can be a bit “panicky” about some cases being on child in need rather than child protection.

“In child protection there is a really clear format, there are meetings, and a child protection plan can only stop when everybody has a say.

“Particularly, as referrals go up, and we’re in this position in children’s social care where you’re going to have to concentrate more on your high end cases, professionals get a bit nervous about wanting a social worker to be involved.”


A team manager in child protection, who chose to remain anonymous, said social work can become dangerous when categories of risk become too “prescriptive”.

“You should visit according to the level of risk, not according to what plan they are on.”

On thresholds, she is unsure about their place in a social work setting, instead saying social work assessments should determine risk, and support and responses should follow the finding of the assessments.

However, she says if people don’t know where things sit it could increase anxiety. “As a tool it can be useful at times, as a bible, no.”

Kirk found similar things in his research: “[Social workers] are talking in terms of categories and thresholds rather than what are the needs here? What do we need to do? What are the risks? How do we best engage with and work with families?

“If you go right back to Munro, she was highlighting the need for social workers to emphasise their professional judgement.”

He says there needs to be a shift away from the discussion on thresholds and categories that would lead to teams of social workers bluntly asking “well is it a child protection?” about a case.

Bridging the gap

A larger part of Kirk’s research was analysing one local authority’s attempt to bridge the gap between child protection and child in need.

The unnamed authority established a ‘Complex Child In Need’ category for cases where the threshold for child protection hadn’t been met, but there were still concerns over the level of risk. It didn’t cost anything, and the protocol helped formalise work for complex children in need cases, which was aligned with child protection procedures.

“What they aimed to do was improve the management of child in need cases where they had ongoing concerns about the safety and welfare of children,” Kirk explains.

“What it seemed to do was operate as a holding space for those families who were just on the borderline – just beneath the threshold in child protection – and it enabled social workers to do some high quality work with families in a relational way.

“It enabled them to either achieve enough change so they were placed back in the ordinary child in need category, or it identified that actually that things were more concerning that they did have to do work with the child protection processes, or alternatively move directly into court proceedings.

“What it seemed to do was enable effective social work practice, or more discerning practice, to take place”.

Birchall shares the view that thresholds should be seen more as a guide for practice, allowing issues to be responded to based on need.

“Children’s lives are fluid, so it’s hard to categorise them because what could be child in need one day may escalate to child protection the next day, or vice versa.”

Plan ‘fairly irrelevant’

The team manager agrees: “Some of them can go into crisis really quickly, we might need to visit [a child in need] more than we visit a child on a child protection plan, the plan is fairly irrelevant in a lot of ways, and sometimes people get hooked on it.

“It’s more about what’s the impact on the child, what’s the risks to the child and us having to respond accordingly. It could be a child on a child protection plan is being visited at the statutory minimum, but you could have a child on a child in need plan where it’s more important to get in and do that work because they are hitting crisis.”

However, Birchall says thresholds are still important for referrals from partners. “Thresholds are a bit better at setting out if this is the case, this is your responsibility to contact somebody other than children’s social work services.”

But he warns sometimes they can be used to help social workers feel more comfortable about prioritising child protection cases.

“Give me child protection cases all day long and I will work them. Give me a child in need plan, and I hate them. I hate them for the reason they can be borderline, they can go on forever, sometimes you can’t quite get the evidence you need…those cases are really difficult.”

Kirk agrees social workers should be wary of the natural human tendency in such cases.

“What social work is about is identifying needs, risk, what is going on with this family in this particular context and then working out well how do we actually engage with and support that to make some changes. That’s what social work is about rather than simply trying to categorise.”

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6 Responses to Child in need or child protection? The never-ending issue of thresholds

  1. Dave October 11, 2016 at 2:20 pm #

    We need to remember we have a ‘Working Together’ policy which regardless of CIN or CP should still mean that children and families receive a Service and not only from a social worker, we all have a role to play in making these families function better..

    Other professionals need to evidence none engagement from families but also evidence impact on these children and remember families are working in agreement at S17 cases.

    Professionals also need to accept that there are times social care need to step back and allow families to soldier on, that’s not to say if the child’s at risk of significant harm there isn’t a role, however some professionals wobble and can not assess what is meant by at risk, this can be evidenced at school term time, the amount of increased referrals to social care at school holidays increase – there comments ‘this family are not being monitored’ but while the cp and com meeting continue the school win absent and on leave.

    There should be a refresh delivered by LASB around thresholds and a pathway plan for people to follow or better still early intervention pathways linking those who work with he children and families including PCSO’s to discuss concerns and to assess those families ho sit between cin and cp.

  2. Rosaline October 13, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

    Children’s Social Care – a challenging entity.

    As an experienced Social Worker and manager, I often ask the question: do the legislations and guidance challenge and negatively impact our thinking or do we over complicate our social work world.

    Social work is complex due to working with humans, we are naturally complex. However my experience of challenge is the leadership of Children’s Social Care. All our legislations and guidances offer ways of walking proportionately with children and families, yet the leadership in the organisations serve to create confusion.

    Thresholds should only be prescriptively used to determine whether the case should be allocated by Children’s Social Care for an assessment. The assessment identifies the need, regardless of the category, it is the role of leaders to support Social Workers to develop a plan, which is meaningful for children and serves to improve their safety and well-being.

    Leaders must be minded to the impact of their decision making, which in turn creates a place of confusion, as the work force has to respond to the organisational deficits.

  3. Nell October 13, 2016 at 8:37 pm #

    The reality of the situation involves an issue touched on here – resources, and most particularly staffing levels. In a world where services are staffed to a level which reflects the need in any area, I have no doubt that there would be a higher number of cases deemed to be child protection. The most contentious difference between CP and CiN (between professionals) is that of statutory visiting. Social workers, as well as partner agencies, feel more confident about the welfare of children when they have the time to spend with them. There simply isn’t that time in todays world of shrinking resources and there is a well intention-ed but flawed idea that CiN do not require such a high level of monitoring or engagement hence the sometimes covert drive to ‘downgrade’ cases. It would be far more effective to simply tailor the level of visits to the needs of the case at the assessment stage whatever the agreed status but this requires caseloads which can be flexible and allow for fluctuations. In short, more staff. We are not likely to get them and although other professionals do have a role, I sometimes think we are pushing it. After all, would we expect a social worker to take on any teaching tasks or carry out a quick medical check on a home visit?

  4. Lauren October 16, 2016 at 9:18 pm #

    Totally agree with Dave

  5. mumma October 26, 2016 at 11:57 pm #

    Is the decision to deem children one way or the other subjective? Or is it objective, and only based on pure evidence (rather than statistical data / predetermined views based on personal experience)?

    As a parent of “children in need” I am intrigued as to quite how the thought process works. We were told by SW that the manager had wanted to go the CP route but that the SW had persuaded them otherwise.

    I have looked at threshold guidance and our children would fall into level 1 (maybe level 1.5 for one child) on a day to day basis. However, SS became involved due to our failings on one occasion. I would like to suggest that CP should be reserved for children obviously needing protection. My reasoning follows…

    As parents who generally try to do their best, and are frequently told our children are a credit to us, any involvement at all from SS is very upsetting. Our stress levels increased, communication between us decreased, and my physical health deteriorated, all predominantly as a result of this “intervention”.

    I understand that SS need to act on concerns. The first visit was a wake up call. However, the ongoing visits and vagueness / lack of transparency from them was difficult. Particularly as SS seemed to be “reading between the lines” into things which were simply not there.

    Every child and every family is different. Please don’t make harsh decisions based on statistics. And please consider the damage that may be done by unnecessary escalation to CP.


  6. Wach October 31, 2016 at 11:00 pm #

    As a parent of a child in care I believe that the thresholds should also be applied to LA/SS.

    My child was placed with carers were there was known drug abuse, assault of another child, etc.

    My child was left with gross decay from the age of 3 to 5 and again from 7 to 10.

    My child was late for school/lessons and failed to attend etc.

    My child was allowed a Facebook account at the age of 9. Nearly 2,000 friends including a sex offender.

    These are child protection issues.

    There is nothing that I can do to protect my child.