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Referrals

1. Introduction

This chapter provides guidance to everyone who works or has contact with children/young people, and/or their families on the action which should be taken where there are concerns that a child/young person has suffered, or is likely to suffer significant harm.

Anyone who has concerns about a child/young person's welfare can make a referral to the local Health and Social Care (HSC Trust) Children's Gateway Single Point of Entry or in urgent situations the police. Where individuals are unsure about whether a concern needs to be referred, they can seek advice from their Designated Safeguarding Lead and/or contact the HSC Trust Children's Gateway Single Point of Entry. Advice can also be obtained from the NSPCC Helpline.

2. The Responsibility to Refer

All staff in statutory/voluntary and community organisations have a responsibility to refer a child/young person to children's social services if they believe or suspect that the child/young person has suffered or is likely to suffer significant harm (see Responding to Abuse and Neglect Policy and Procedure).

In an emergency a referral should be made directly to the police.

When staff make a referral to children's social services, they should include relevant information in respect of the child/young person. Any information they have about the child/young person's developmental/communication needs and the capacity of their parents and carers to meet these within the context of their wider family and environment should be provided as a part of the referral information.

3. Making a Referral to children's social services

Anyone with a concern about the safety or welfare of a child/young person should contact children's social services in the relevant HSC Trust Children's Gateway Single Point of Entry. Referrals outside normal working hours should be made to the Regional Emergency Social Work Service (RESWS). Where the person making the referral is aware that the child/young person is already known to social services, the referral should be made to the social worker involved with the child/young person or, in their absence, to the social worker's manager.

Referrals can be made by the child/young person themselves, staff from both statutory and voluntary/community services, volunteers, as well as family members and members of the public.

Referrals can be made:

  • Directly in person;
  • By telephone; or
  • In writing.

If the child/young person is known to have an allocated social worker, the referral should be made to them or in their absence to the social worker's manager.

Referrals should be acknowledged in writing within five working days. If the referrer has not received an acknowledgement within five working days, they should contact children's social services again.

Advice for Staff Making a Referral

Professionals who make a verbal or telephone referral to children's social services should confirm the referral in writing within 24 hours to Gateway Single Point of Entry (see Referral Form/Referral for Expectant Mothers to Children's Services). In doing so, the referrer should provide information about their concerns and any other relevant information they may have gathered prior to making the referral (Refer to UNOCINI Guidance, Threshold of Needs documents and UNOCINI Forms).

Where a member of staff is making a referral, the parents and if applicable the child/young person's consent should be sought before making the referral, unless this may itself place a child/young person at risk or potentially interfere with or undermine a police investigation. Where staff decide not to seek parental consent before making a referral to children's social services, the decision must be recorded in the child/young person's file with reasons, dated, signed and confirmed in a written referral to children's social services.

4. Receiving a Referral

The Gateway Social Worker receiving a referral should take all available information to enable them to identify (in conjunction with their team leader) whether urgent action is needed to protect or safeguard a child/young person who may be suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and to support an initial assessment of the referral following allocation to a social worker to determine the risk to the child/young person and the level of intervention that may be required.

The Gateway Social Worker receiving the referral will:

  • Give their name, designation and contact details;
  • Help the referrer to give as much information as possible—staff receiving information from those with communication difficulties or where English is not their first language should be sensitive to the needs of the person making the referral;
  • Clarify information that the referrer is reporting directly and whether information has been obtained from a third party;
  • Clarify who knows about the referral;
  • If necessary, explain the role of social services;
  • Explain the process and timescales for social services initial assessment of the referral;
  • Clarify the extent to which the referrer's anonymity can be maintained;
  • Clarify expectations about how and when feedback needs to be given;
  • Inform the referrer about who else he/she may need to contact and provide the relevant telephone number if they need to telephone again;
  • Record the detail of referral information received;
  • Record date and time the referral was received; and
  • Record how the referral was received, e.g. by telephone, in person, anonymous.

Good information taking is essential. Taking time to get all the information necessary can avoid gaps in information that could prove important at a later stage and prevent the need to contact the referrer again, which may not always be possible, e.g. in the case of anonymous referrals.

The person receiving the referral should seek information to enable them to establish, as far as possible:

  • The name and other details of the child/young person to which the concerns relate;
  • The nature of the concerns;
  • How and why the concerns have arisen;
  • Whether the concerns involve allegations of abuse or neglect;
  • Whether there is a need for any urgent action to protect the child/young person or any other child/young person in the household or community.
  • Who has parental responsibility for the child/young person;
  • The child/young person's views, if known;
  • What the child/young person's and the family's needs appear to be, including communication/language needs;
  • Details of other services involved with the child/young person and/or the family.
  • Whether the parents/family are aware of the referral and whether they are in agreement with it or not.

The referrer should be asked for information about:

  • The cause for their concern, including any allegations, their sources, timing and location;
  • The child/young person's current location and emotional and physical condition and whether the referrer believes the child/young person needs immediate protection;
  • The person the referrer believes poses a risk to the child/young person and/or the alleged perpetrator of any abuse;
  • Their own name, address and contact details (including how to contact the referrer again if further clarification is required) and their relationship with the subject(s) of the referral, where the referrer is agreeable to providing this information.

Every effort should be made to obtain details of the identity of the referrer and their relationship with the child/young person concerned, their family and the person believed to pose a risk to the child or the alleged abuser. However, if a referrer is reluctant to provide this information, it is important that they are not deterred from making the referral.

Agency staff may ask for their anonymity to be protected as far as possible because of a genuine threat to self/family. In such instances this anonymity should be protected with an explanation to the staff member that absolute confidentiality cannot be guaranteed as information may become the subject of court processes.

Members of the public may prefer not to give their name to children's social services, or they may disclose their identity but not wish for it to be revealed to the parent(s) of the child/young person concerned. Wherever possible, staff should respect the referrer's request for confidentiality. However staff should not give the referrer any guarantees of confidentiality, as there are certain limited circumstances in which the identity of a referrer may have to be given (e.g. the court arena). Consideration for the referrer's safety may be an issue in some cases.

In addition to providing details about the child/young person about whom they have concerns, the nature of those concerns and their own contact details (where they are agreeable), the referrer should also be asked for as much information as possible to help children's social services make an initial decision about the case. The list below is intended to cover the broad range of information that the referrer might be asked to provide. However, it is unlikely that the person making the referral will have all of this information—a member of the public making a referral to children's social services, for example, is unlikely to have the same information about a child/young person and their family as a healthcare professional making a referral. The Gateway Social Worker receiving the referral must exercise judgement in the questions asked of the referrer and ensure that these are targeted as appropriate in light of the referrer's relationship or connection to the child/young person.

Other information that the referrer could be asked to provide might include:

  • Family address and (where relevant) school/nursery attended;
  • Details of all other children/ young people in the household—for example, their full names (including aliases and spelling variations), date of birth and gender—where the referrer knows this information;
  • The details of those with parental responsibility for the child/young person and any other significant adults who may be involved in caring for the child/young person such as grandparents;
  • Names and date of birth of all household members;
  • Information regarding parental knowledge of, and agreement to, the referral;
  • The child/young person's views and wishes in relation to the referral, if known;
  • Ethnicity and first language of child/young person and parents;
  • Details of other services involved with the child/young person and/or the family;
  • Any specific needs of the child/young person or parents, including any physical, sensory or learning disabilities or communication difficulties.
  • Any significant recent or historical incidents in child/young person or family's life that might be relevant to the concerns;
  • Information on previous or current court orders relating to the child/young person;
  • Information on previous or current court orders, or criminal convictions, relating to the person who is believed to pose a risk to them.

Difficulty in obtaining information from a referrer should not delay any immediate protective measures, preliminary enquiries, engagement and consultation with other agencies as necessary, or seeing the child/young person.

Verbal or telephone referrals from staff should be followed up in writing by the member of staff making the referral within 24 hours. However, action should not be delayed pending receipt of the written referral.

If a member of the public contacts any staff member outside of Children's Gateway Single Point of Entry with concerns about the welfare of a child/young person or an unborn baby, the staff member who receives the contact should always:

  • Gather as much information as possible to be able to make a judgement about the seriousness of the concerns;
  • Take basic details—for example the name, address, gender and date of birth of child/young person; name and contact details for parent(s), and any other information they may have such as the educational setting (e.g. nursery, school) and primary medical practitioner (e.g. GP practice);
  • Record the referral contemporaneously, with the detail of information received and given, separating out fact from opinion as far as possible;
  • Discuss the case with their manager and the agency's designated safeguarding child/young person advisor to decide whether to make a referral to children's social services in line with the procedure outlined above.

5. Acknowledgement of a Referral

Receipt of a referral should be acknowledged in writing within 5 working days.

6. Following a Referral

Role of the Gateway Social Worker Following a Referral

After receiving a referral the Gateway Social Worker, as part of the initial information gathering stage, should immediately check:

  • The Child Protection Register;
  • Social services' computerised and manual records;
  • With all agencies, including their own, that may have information about the child/young person and family—the parents' and, if applicable, the child/young person's consent should be sought before discussing a referral about them with other agencies, unless this may itself place a child/young person at risk of significant harm.

Where a referral is received outside normal office hours the Child Protection Register must be checked and any immediately necessary action must be taken without delay. Any further preliminary checks may have to be undertaken during the following working day.

In the course of this initial information gathering stage, every attempt should be made by the Gateway Social Worker to fill gaps in the referral information, record this fully and pass this to their line manager.

This initial checking and information gathering stage must involve an immediate assessment of any concerns about either the child/young person's health and development, or actual and/or potential harm, which justify further enquiries and/or interventions.

If the child/young person is or has been known to any other HSC Trust, consideration should be given as to what information may be required from that Trust. Liaison should take place with the other Trust and agreement reached about ongoing responsibility.

If the child/young person about whom a referral is made is or has been on the Child Protection Register of another HSC Trust, or is or has been looked after by another HSC Trust, the Children's Gateway Single Point of Entry social worker where the child/young person is found should involve the other HSC Trust for the child/young person without delay. Where there is a reasonable cause to suspect that the child/young person is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm, the HSC Trust in whose area the child/young person has been found is the responsible authority and must make, or cause to be made, such inquiries as it considers necessary to enable it to decide whether it should take any action to safeguard or promote the child/young person's welfare. See Co-operating to Safeguard Children and Young People in Northern Ireland (revised August 2017).

The Gateway Social Worker will pass the referral to the Gateway Social Work Manager following the initial information gathering stage outlined above (or at any point during the information gathering stage where this is considered necessary), to arrange appropriate further action.

Role of Gateway Social Work Manager Following Referral

The Gateway Social Work Manager will take appropriate further action as follows:

  • Allocate the referral immediately to a suitably qualified and experienced social worker—if the child/young person or family is currently known to the HSCTrust, the referral should be progressed by the social worker with case responsibility for the child/young person;
  • Act to ensure the immediate protection of the child/young person, including medical care, if necessary;
  • Agree a contingency plan;
  • Support, advise and supervise the social worker;
  • Take account of all information to make decisions about further action;
  • Discuss with the appropriate line manager (band 8a or above) the need for a Child Protection Case Conference;
  • In conjunction with the Gateway Social Worker agree any decision to refer a child/young person to other services/agencies;
  • Ensure that the referral information is entered on the computer data system on the day of referral.

Seeing the Child/Young Person

The child/young person must be seen and spoken to within 24 hours of children's social services receiving the referral, where the referral information indicates significant harm or the potential of significant harm to the child/young person.

Opening of Case File in Gateway

Following referral, the Gateway Social Work Manager should ensure that a file and record is created in respect of each individual child/young person within 24 hours.

The manager of the social worker responsible for the agreed actions and interventions should read and agree the decisions and actions recorded and countersign and date the child/young person's case file.

7. Initial Assessment Following Allocation

Following allocation of the referral, an initial assessment should be undertaken to determine the need of and risks to the child/young person. This initial assessment should be completed within 10 working days. Refer to Understanding the Needs of Children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) Policy and Procedure.

The assessment and any subsequent actions and decisions should be recorded in the child/young person's file and countersigned by the manager of the social worker to whom the case has been allocated. The manager should be involved in any decision to refer a child/young person to another service or agency.

If at any stage during the initial assessment there is reasonable cause to suspect that the child/young person is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, inquiries under Article 66 of the Children Order must be initiated. Refer to Child Protection Investigation Policy and Procedure.

8. Outcome of a Referral

Children's social services will determine the threshold for intervention based on the UNOCINI Framework following receipt of the referral. On completion of the initial assessment, the Gateway Social Worker should inform the referrer in writing about the outcome of the referral including, where appropriate, the proposed action, who will be undertaking it, and timescales. Feedback must be consistent with the rights to confidentiality of the child/young person and their family.

Referral outcomes about a child/young person typically fall in to one of four categories and pathways:

Referral Outcome Pathway
No further action N/A
Early intervention / prevention / family support Part IV and Schedule 2 of the Children Order - UNOCINI Level 1
Child in Need Article 18 of the Children Order - UNOCINI Level 2
Child Protection Article 66 of the Children Order - UNOCINI Level 3


The Gateway Social Worker should inform, in writing, all the relevant agencies involved in the assessment process. The child/young person and family should also be informed in writing of the outcome of the referral as appropriate.

If the referrer is a member of the public and disagrees with the decisions made by children's social services about the outcome of the referral, they may consider making a complaint under the HSC Complaints procedure. If staff disagree with the decisions made by children's social services about the outcome of a referral they may wish to raise the matter in accordance with each agency's Policies and Procedures.

The child/young person and parents should be informed about local procedures for raising complaints, and local advocacy services. This should be communicated verbally and in writing.

Where the outcome of the referral leads to a continuing assessment, see the Understanding the Needs of Children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) Policy and Procedure.

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