This briefing provides information on the definition and identification of "children in need" as set out in the Children Act 1989, the assessment process, and the services available to children in need and their families in England.

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What is a child in need?

Under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (the “1989 Act”), as amended, local authorities are under a general duty “to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need…by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.”

Section 17 of the Act defines a child in need as a child who:

  • [is] unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision…of services by a local authority…;
  • [whose] development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision of such services; or
  • [is] disabled.

How is it determined if a child is “in need”?

Local areas are able to set their own eligibility criteria for when a case should be referred to children’s social care for an assessment to determine whether a child is in need and the nature of any services required.

Under the 1989 Act, local authorities are required to take steps to identify children in need in their area, and any practitioner who thinks that a child may be in need should make a referral to local authority children’s services. It is also possible for a parent or professional working with the child to make a referral.

Within one working day of a referral being received, a local authority social worker should make a decision about next steps, including whether the child is in need and should be assessed under section 17 of the 1989 Act. If it is decided to carry out such an assessment, this should usually be concluded within 45 working days of the referral.

What services can be provided to a child in need?

Where, following an assessment, a local authority decides to provide services to a child in need, a multi-agency child in need plan should be developed, setting out which organisations and agencies will provide which services to the child and family.

The type of services that can be provided include:

  • advice, guidance and counselling
  • occupational, social, cultural, or recreational activities
  • home help
  • facilities for, or assistance with, travelling to and from home for the purpose of taking advantage of any other service provided under the 1989 Act or of any similar service
  • assistance to enable the child concerned and their family to have a holiday
  • such steps that are practicable to enable a child in need (who is not a looked after child) who is living apart from their family to live with their family, or to promote contact between them and their family (if necessary in order to safeguard or promote their welfare)
  • day care for a child if they are under 5 years of age but not yet attending school
  • care or supervised activities (either outside school hours or during school holidays) for a child attending any school
  • accommodation
  • assistance in kind or in cash

Any service may also be provided to any member of the child in need’s family, “if it is provided with a view to safeguarding or promoting the child’s welfare”.

Can charges be made for providing services?

Local authorities may charge what they consider reasonable for providing services to a child in need and their family (but not for advice, guidance or counselling). Local authorities are not, however, under a duty to charge for services and they may not charge more than a person can “reasonably be expected to pay”. In addition, a person cannot be charged at all if at the time the services were provided they were in receipt of certain benefits.

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