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3.15 Children who Exhibit Harmful Behaviour (Including Sexual, Physical and Emotional)


  1. Introduction
  2. Key Principles
  3. Definitions
  4. Referral and Child and Family Assessments
  5. Strategy Discussion/Meeting
  6. Child Protection Assessments and Child and Family Assessments in Relation to the Alleged Abusing Child/Young Person
  7. Decisions about the Alleged Abusing Child/Young Person
  8. Criminal Proceedings
  9. The Child Victim 
  10. Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA)

1. Introduction

Work with children and young people who abuse others should recognise that such children are likely to have considerable needs themselves, and also that they may pose a significant risk of harm to other children or adults.

Research evidence suggests that children who abuse others may have suffered considerable disruption in their lives, been exposed to violence within the family, witnessed or been subject to abuse, have problems in their educational development and have committed other offences. Such children are likely to be Children in Need, and some will in addition be suffering Significant Harm and may themselves be in need of safeguarding.

A coordinated response to children who abuse others by Children, Education and Families, the Police, the Youth Offending Service and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services is essential.

Young people exhibiting harmful sexual behaviour who are returning to the community following a custodial sentence or time in secure accommodation also require consideration through this procedure.

2. Key Principles

Three key principles should underpin all work with children who abuse others:

  • There should be a coordinated approach between the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board agencies;
  • The needs of children and young people should be considered separately from the needs of their victims;
  • An assessment should be carried out, appreciating that these children may have considerable unmet developmental needs as well as specific needs arising from their behaviour

3. Definitions

3.1 Sexual Abuse

The definition of Sexual Abuse is the same for sexual abuse by children as for sexual abuse by adults. Abusive/inappropriate behaviour is often characterised by a lack of true Consent, the presence of a power imbalance and exploitation.

In order to determine whether a Child Protection Referral may need to be made regarding sexual activity between children, the following factors should be considered:

  • Are the children/young people engaged in a sexual activity which is inappropriate for their age, level of maturity or which is illegal?
  • Is there a marked discrepancy in age, development or maturity?
  • Were threats, secrecy or violence involved?
  • Did the behaviour result in physical or psychological trauma?
  • Were several children/young people involved?
  • Is there a family history of Sexual Abuse?
  • What was the parents’ response? Was it protective?

3.2 Physical Abuse

If a child/young person has caused or is at risk of causing serious physical harm to another child/young person a referral must be made to Children, Education and Families. 

In deciding whether an incident should be dealt with as a child protection matter, relevant considerations include the seriousness of the harm, the intention behind the assault and the difference in power between the victim and perpetrator (e.g. size, age, ability, development etc.) Fighting between peers of equal standing or siblings would not therefore normally be subject to referral.

In extreme cases of bullying, there may be times when the threshold for a Child Protection Assessment is reached. To help prevent such situations arising, all settings in which children are provided with services or are living away from home must therefore have in place rigorous anti-bullying policies. See Bullying Guidance

3.3 Emotional Abuse

This may include abusive behaviour by one child/young person to another through the sending of messages via the internet, mobile phones etc. which are intimidating and are intended to fright. This may include abusive behaviour by one child/young person to another through the sending of messages via the internet, mobile phones etc. which are intimidating and are intended to frighten.

4. Referral and Child and Family Assessments

Anyone who has a concern that a child/young person might have been abused by another child/young person should refer their concerns to Children, Education and Families in accordance with the Referrals (including Referrals Pathway) Procedure

If uncertainty exists about the need for a referral, consultation with the Service Manager, Safeguarding and Quality Assurance is recommended.

Referrals of peer abuse will be taken as seriously as allegations of abuse perpetrated by an adult. Children, Education and Families will discuss the concerns with the referrer and, based on a Child and Family Assessment, decide whether it is necessary to hold a Strategy Discussion/Meeting and pursue a Child and Family Assessment and Child Protection Assessment.

Separate enquiries and investigations should be pursued in respect of the victim and the child/young person exhibiting the abusive behaviour.

A different social worker should be allocated to the victim and to the child/young person exhibiting the abusive behaviour, even if they live in the same household, to ensure that both are supported through the process of the enquiry and that both their needs are fully assessed. 

It should be recognised that disclosure of sexually harmful behaviour by a child/young person can be extremely distressing for parents and carers. The child/young person and their family should always be advised of their right to seek legal advice and be supported through the process.

The Police should always consult with Children, Education and Families regarding cases that come to their notice in order to ensure that there is an assessment of the victim’s needs and that in all cases, there is an assessment of the perpetrator child’s needs. Each child/young person should be referred to the Children, Education and Families Team responsible for the relevant child’s home address.

5. Strategy Discussion/Meeting

In all cases where the suspected or alleged abuser is a child, Children, Education and Families and the Police will convene a Strategy Discussion/Meeting (usually a meeting) within the timescales set out in respect of all cases.

If the children/young people involved are the responsibility of different local authorities, each must be represented at the Strategy Discussion which will usually be convened and chaired by the local authority for the area in which the victim lives.

Consideration should be given to the need for separate Strategy Discussion/Meetings in relation to the child/young person who is the alleged abuser and for the child/ren who are the alleged victim(s). 

Child Protection Assessments will only be pursued in respect of the child/young person who is the alleged abuser when s/he is personally suffering Significant Harm (see Section 6, Child Protection Assessments and Child and Family Assessments in Relation to the Alleged Abusing Child/Young Person and Section 7, Decisions about the Alleged Abusing Child/Young Person).

Where Strategy Discussions/Meetings are held in relation to both children/young people, care must be taken to ensure that the appropriate professionals attend the right meeting to ensure appropriate confidentiality for the children/young people involved. For example, school representatives should only attend the meeting involving the pupil at their school. The police officer and social workers who are conducting the enquiries should participate in both sets of Strategy Discussions/Meetings.

Where a Strategy Discussion/Meeting is held in relation to a child/young person who is the alleged abuser and is over the age of 10 years a representative from the Youth Offending Team must attend.  

The Strategy Discussion/Meeting must plan in detail the respective roles of those involved in the enquiries/assessments and ensure that the following objectives are met:

  • Information relevant to the protection and needs of the alleged victim is gathered
  • Any criminal aspects of the alleged abuse are investigated
  • Any information relevant to any abusive experiences and protection needs of the child/young person who is the alleged abuser, is gathered
  • Any information about the risks posed by the alleged abuser to himself/herself and others, including other children/young people in the household, extended family, school, peer group or wider social network, is gathered

Before interviewing the alleged abuser, it will be necessary to have obtained as much information as possible about the alleged offence. The interview of the victim and as much assessment as possible should precede the interview of the child/young person exhibiting the abusive behaviour.

The timing of the initial interview of the alleged abuser may depend on:

  • The likelihood of ongoing abuse
  • The possible loss of evidence or interference with witnesses
  • The likelihood that the alleged abuser may abscond

Where there is suspicion that the abusive child/young person is also a victim of abuse, the Strategy Discussion/Meeting must decide the order in which interviews of the child/young person will take place.

When a child/young person is aged ten or over and is alleged to have committed an offence, the first interview must be undertaken by the Police under the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE).

Where during an interview of an alleged young abuser it becomes clear that he or she is also a victim of abuse, then a separate interview and assessment must take place.

Where the child is under 10 or a decision is made not to interview him/her under PACE, the alleged abuser must still be interviewed in order to assess the risk he or she poses and whether further assessment or work is required. 

If a child/young person is to be interviewed as a victim of or witness to alleged abuse under the provisions of the Achieving Best Evidence Guidance and the child/young person admits offences, these incidents should normally be the subject of a separate interview.

In complex situations where there are a number of victims and possible perpetrators, the Strategy Discussion should appoint a Strategic Management Group to co-ordinate the overall investigation - see Complex (Organised or Multiple) Abuse Procedure.

6. Child Protection Assessments and Child and Family Assessments in Relation to the Alleged Abusing Child/Young Person

If it appears that the perpetrator child is suffering Significant Harm, the Child Protection Assessments Procedure will be followed. Otherwise, a Child and Family Assessments will proceed in accordance with the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families.

In assessing a child/young person exhibiting abusive behaviour, relevant considerations include:

  • The nature and extent of the abusive behaviours
  • The context of the abusive behaviours
  • The age of the children/young people involved
  • The child/young person’s development, and family and social circumstances
  • Whether the child/young person acknowledges the alleged behaviour
  • Whether there are grounds to suspect that the child/young person has been abused or that adults have been involved in the development of the sexually harmful behaviour
  • The child/young person's needs for services, specifically focusing on the child/young person’s harmful behaviour as well as other significant needs; and
  • The risks the child/young person poses to him/herself and others, including other children in the household or placement, extended family, school, peer group or wider social network and the carer’s ability to manage his or her behaviour.

Where the child/young person lives must be considered, having regard to the safety of others, as well as the risks to the child/young person himself or herself.

Where the alleged abuser is a Looked After Child/young person, the child/young person’s social worker should undertake a risk assessment regarding all vulnerable parties including all other children living in the household, provide the carers with full information and disclose information to others on a need to know basis.

7. Decisions about the Alleged Abusing Child/Young Person

7.1 No Further Action

If there is a balance of probability that nothing abusive or inappropriate took place, then no further action may be required. However in cases of alleged Sexual Abuse, it is important to keep this separate from the issue of denial. Strength of denial by the alleged abusing child/young person and/or the family should have no bearing on any decision about no further action.

7.2 Child in Need and Possible Significant Harm Present

If there is a continuing risk of Significant Harm, an Initial Child Protection Conference should be held. If the child/young person becomes the subject of a Child Protection Plan, the co-ordination of services will continue through the Core Group, which should address the child/young person’s inappropriate behaviour as well as the concerns, which resulted in their need for a Child Protection Plan.

7.3 Child in Need and Concerns Substantiated but Judgement is that the Child/Young Person is not at Continuing Risk of Significant Harm

This outcome will arise where the child/young person is not considered to require a Child Protection Plan because the child/young person, parent and carer are willing and able to co-operate with professionals to ensure the child/young person’s future safety and well being and the risks that the child may pose are not denied by the child and family. 

In these circumstances a Family Support Conference or Family Group Conference should be considered to co-ordinate the overall plan for the child including

  • Developing a written risk management plan including educational and accommodation arrangements
  • Planning any future assessment; and
  • Coordinating services to be provided. 

This should take place as early as possible and should involve the referring agency, school (including sibling’s schools), health agencies as appropriate, the social worker co-ordinating work with the victim, parent/carers and the child/young person (subject to age and level of understanding).

The Lead Professional and review process should be identified at this meeting.

The decision to end the involvement of any specialist services should be made on a multi-agency basis. Factors to consider in reaching this decision include:

  • The level of risk to self and others
  • If the intended outcomes of the intervention have been achieved
  • The capacity of the parents or care givers to respond appropriately to the child’s needs
  • The need for provision of ongoing support to the child/family.

7.4 Child in Need and posing potential risk to others but not at Risk of Significant Harm

Where the child/young person is not suffering Significant Harm but is assessed as a Child in Need who needs support and services and may pose a risk to other children/young people, an inter-agency meeting must be arranged to consider the Child and Family Assessment and any other Risk assessments to fully address the child/young person’s behaviours. This may follow the format set out above for the Family Support Conference or Family Group Conference and must involve the Police, Youth Offending Service and OXYAP.

8. Criminal Proceedings

When the child/young person is over 10 years, the Police will consult other agencies including the Crown Prosecution Service to decide the most appropriate course of action within the criminal justice system. 

In cases where criminal proceedings are taken against an alleged abusing child, the Youth Offending Service should be added to the list of possible attendees at any meetings. 

The Youth Offending Service will provide an intervention following assessment to young people exhibiting harmful behaviour who have admitted an offence and so are liable to a Final Warning or who have been convicted of an offence.

When a case is going through the Youth Court or the Crown Court, the Youth Offending Service will provide information for the Child and Family Assessment processes. This may include plea, Bail conditions and variations between adjournments.

9. The Child Victim 

Where the assessment of the child/young person who has been abused concludes that he/she may still be suffering Significant Harm, an Initial Child Protection Conference must be convened to assess the risks and safeguard them through a Child Protection Plan if needed. 

Alternatively, where there is no risk of continuing Significant Harm, a Family Support Conference or Family Group Conference may be convened.

The child/young person may require services to support them through interviews in line with Achieving Best Evidence Guidance. The assessments undertaken may determine that there is a need for support services, such as counselling services, whether the child/young person is In Need of safeguarding or a Child in Need.

10. Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA)

Young people exhibiting harmful behaviour sexually harmful behaviour who have been convicted of an offence may be subject to MAPPA if they meet the criteria.   

For further information see MAPPA - Local Working Requirements