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4.5 Complex (Organised or Multiple) Abuse


This should be read in conjunction with the Home Office and Department of Health and Social Care 2002 Guidance “Complex Child Abuse Investigations: Inter Agency Issues”.

In appropriate cases, see also the Protocol for Managing Serious Incidents, which require the involvement of inspectorates, or DCSF, or the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) because of the serious policy issues they raise and/or they cross a number of local authority or health organisation boundaries. The Protocol was developed by the DCSF, in conjunction with the Healthcare Commission, OFSTED, DH and Government Offices, and the Inspectorates, dcsf and DH have responsibility for initiating its use. It can be found at the Every Child Matters website.


This chapter was updated in January 2014. A new Section 9, Child Sexual Exploitation Cases was added.


  1. Definition
  2. Investigation
  3. The Child
  4. Referral
  5. The Strategy Discussion
  6. The Strategic Management Group
  7. The Investigation Management Group
  8. End of Enquiry / Investigation Meeting and Report
  9. Child Sexual Exploitation Cases

1. Definition

1.1 Complex (organised or multiple) abuse may be defined as abuse involving one or more abusers and a number of related or non-related abused children. The abusers concerned may be acting in concert to abuse children, sometimes acting in isolation or may be using an institutional framework or position of authority to recruit children for abuse.
1.2 Such abuse occurs both as part of a network of abuse across a family or community and within institutions such as residential settings, in day care and in other provisions such as youth services, sports clubs and voluntary groups. There may also be cases of children being abused via the use of the Internet.
1.3 Such abuse is profoundly traumatic for the children who become involved. Its investigation is time-consuming and demanding work requiring specialist skills from both police and social work staff.

2. Investigation

2.1 Each investigation of organised or multiple abuse will be different, according to the characteristics of each situation and the scale and complexity of the investigation. But all will require thorough planning, good inter-agency working and attention to the welfare needs of the child victim or adult survivor involved.
2.2 Some investigations become extremely complex because of the number of places and people involved, and the time scale over which abuse is alleged to have occurred. In these circumstances a specialist Investigation Management Group (see Section 7, The Investigation Management Group), as well as a Strategic Management Group (see Section 6, The Strategic Management Group) may be set up.
2.3 The complexity is heightened where, as in historical cases, the alleged victims are no longer living in the setting where the incidents occurred or where the alleged perpetrators are also no longer linked to the setting or employment role. These will all need to be taken into consideration when working with a child.
2.4 The confidentiality of the information relevant to any Section 47 Enquiry and criminal investigation must be strictly maintained by those involved and must not be disclosed to others, including others within the agency, unless absolutely necessary.

3. The Child

3.1 The single and most important consideration is the safety and well-being of each child. Each child’s needs must be assessed on an individual basis.
3.2 In reconciling the difference between the standard of evidence required for child protection purposes and the standard required for criminal proceedings, emphasis must be given to the protection of the children as the prime consideration.
3.3 The investigation and enquiries must also address the racial, religious, cultural, language, gender and sexual orientation needs of the child, together with any special needs of the child arising from illness or disability.

4. Referral

4.1 When receiving information, which may indicate, organised or multiple abuse, Children’s Social Work Services should immediately refer the matter to the Police and/or Sector Manager or Child Protection and Review Unit Manager in the Children’s Social Work Services.
4.2 If there is any suspicion that any managers currently employed by a social care agency are implicated or a member of the police, the matter should be referred to the Chair of the Local Safeguarding Children Board or in his/her absence, the Vice-Chair and a Senior Officer within the Professional Standards Department of the Police.

5. The Strategy Discussion

5.1 A Strategy Discussion should then be arranged to take place as a matter of urgency to assess the need for future action in respect of each child to be taken under this procedure and, in particular, whether a criminal investigation should take place. 
5.2 The Strategy Discussion must take place as a meeting, chaired by the Manager of or a senior practitioner in the Child Protection and Review Unit, within 5 working days of the receipt of the referral and be formally recorded.
5.3 The nominated senior staff of the Children’s Social Work Services and the Police should attend the meeting. The meeting will also involve senior staff from Health, Education and other agencies as required and, where necessary, ensure coordination across local authority boundaries as well as Police force boundaries.
5.4 The Strategy Discussion needs to carefully note and map:
  • The children named;
  • The children who may be in current contact with possible abusers;
  • Children who were, but no longer are, in contact with possible abusers;
  • Possible victims who are now adults;
  • Witnesses to be interviewed prior to the interviews of children;
  • Multiple and simultaneous interviews.

The Strategy Discussions Procedure must be followed in these cases, including recording the outcome of the Strategy Discussion on the child’s electronic record.

5.5 A strategic decision will need to be made by senior managers from the involved agencies as to whether the social work input into the enquiries/investigation can be managed in the conventional way or whether a specialist approach is required for example from a dedicated team outside the service, e.g. the NSPCC.
5.6 This will usually depend on the number, geographical spread and age range of potential interviewees, as well as whether those implicated are foster carers or employees of any member agency.

Where the Strategy Discussion confirms that the investigation will relate to organised or multiple abuse, it will appoint a Multi-Agency Strategic Management Group to oversee the process. 

5.7 Where a member of staff of any agency is implicated in the investigation, his or her line manager must not be a member of the Strategic Management Group.

6. The Strategic Management Group

6.1 The Strategic Management Group will be chaired by a senior officer in either the Police or Children’s Social Work Services and will:
  • Complete the mapping process started by the Strategy Discussion as set out in Section 5, The Strategy Discussion;
  • Establish ownership of the strategic lead in the investigation;
  • Bring together a trusted and vetted team of people with the necessary training, expertise and objectivity to manage and conduct the criminal investigation Social Work Assessments, and/or Section 47 Enquiry on a day to day basis. NB: Line managers or colleagues of any person implicated in the investigation must not be involved in the enquiries. The involvement of any person from the work place under investigation must be considered with particular care;
  • Decide whether there is a need for an independent team to investigate the allegations, for example, the NSPCC, particularly where the alleged perpetrators are foster carers, prospective adopters or members of staff employed by a member agency of the Local Safeguarding Children Board;
  • Decide the terms of reference and accountability for the investigating team, including the parameters and timescales of their enquiries/investigation;
  • In cases of greater scale and complexity, appoint an Investigation Management Group (see Section 7, The Investigation Management Group);
  • Agree how enquiries will be recorded ensuring separate records for each child;
  • Agree how information about the alleged perpetrators will be recorded;
  • Ensure that appropriate resources are deployed to the investigation including access to legal and other specialist advice, resources and information;
  • Ensure the members of the investigating team are themselves supported with personal counselling if necessary and that issues of staff safety are addressed;
  • Ensure that suitable accommodation and administrative support are available for the investigation;
  • Ensure that an appropriate venue is available for interviews and the interviews are conducted in accordance with Achieving Best Evidence Guidance;
  • Ensure that appropriate resources are available to meet the needs of the children and families or adult survivors, including any specific health issues arising from the abuse and the emotional impact of the investigation;
  • Liaise as necessary with the Crown Prosecution Service at an early stage before arranging services for a child in need of counselling or therapeutic help so that the help can be given in a way which is consistent with the conduct of the criminal investigation;
  • Agree a communications strategy including the handling of political and media issues, and communication as necessary with the OFSTED;
  • Ensure that records are kept safely and securely stored and a high level of confidentiality maintained at all times;
  • Hold regular strategic meetings and reviews, which must be recorded, to consider progress, including the effectiveness of the joint working, the need for additional resources and next steps.

7. The Investigation Management Group

7.1 In cases of considerable complexity and scale, an Investigation Management Group (IMG) will be appointed.
7.2 Membership of this group should include representatives from Children’s Social Work Services, Health, local authority legal services with other agencies being invited to participate as appropriate.
7.3 The tasks and functions of the Group will be subject to the terms of reference agreed by the Strategic Management Group (SMG), and will include:
  • To provide a forum where professionals can meet, exchange information and discuss the implementation of the agreed investigation strategy;
  • To ensure a consistent strategy for interviewing victims within and outside the local authorities area;
  • To keep the SMG informed of resources and any shortfalls;
  • To ensure a consistent and appropriate inter-agency approach to support victims and their families;
  • To co-ordinate the inter-agency response to families and provide consistent information;
  • To ensure information is shared appropriately with other agencies not represented on the SMG or the IMG;
  • To ensure clarity of roles and responsibilities for staff involved in the investigation. Investigators will have full access to all records and key information;
  • To ensure that relevant intelligence is passed between agencies and to the police Major Incident Room (MIR).

8. End of Enquiry / Investigation Meeting and Report

8.1 At the conclusion of the enquiry/investigation, the Strategic Management Group will ensure all children and young people are safeguarded, evaluate the investigation, identify the lessons learned and prepare an overview report for the Local Safeguarding Children Board, highlighting any practices, procedures or policies which may need further attention and require either inter-agency or individual agency action plans.

9. Child Sexual Exploitation Cases

This section sets out:

  • The particular issues to be considered in planning how to deal with a possible case of Complex (Organised or Multiple) Abuse;
  • An outline of the structure of these investigations;
  • Notes on the management of major investigations; and
  • Notes on the investigation of historical cases.

9.1 Guidance

Working Together to Safeguard Children 2010 Chapter 6 Paragraphs 6.10 - 6.13 (now archived)

Complex Child Abuse Investigations: Interagency Issues (Home Office 2002).

This gives detailed guidance on dealing with major investigations into organised abuse including child sexual exploitation cases.

9.2 Definition

Complex abuse is abuse involving a number of children and one or more abusers. The abusers may act together to abuse children, or may act in isolation. They may use an institutional framework or position of authority to recruit children for abuse - see also Management of Individuals who Pose a Risk to Children of these procedures Concerns about Persons in a Position of Trust. 

9.3 General Issues

9.3.1 When information about a possible case of complex abuse comes to light, it must be reported immediately to either children’s social care or the police public protection unit. The receiving body will then notify the safeguarding central unit in children’s social care (Tel: 303 8454).
9.3.2 The investigation of complex abuse can require the allocation of additional resources as well as investigators with specialist skills from both police and social work staff.  It requires thorough planning, good inter-agency working and careful attention to the welfare needs of the child victims or adult survivors involved. Some investigations may become extremely complicated because of the number of places and people involved and the timescale over which abuse is alleged to have occurred or because the alleged victims are no longer living in the setting where the incidents occurred and the alleged perpetrators are no longer linked to the setting or employment role (See Section 9.5 Cross Boundary Issues).
9.3.3 For this reason the Strategy Meetings held to discuss and plan an investigation into complex abuse will be chaired by an Assistant Head of Child Protection, and those invited to attend should be managers able to identify and allocate appropriate resources to the investigation.
9.3.4 The Strategy Meeting must agree a plan for the investigation which sets out the role and tasks of each agency involved. The meeting will look separately at the need for protection of each child identified as being at risk of harm as well as the criminal investigation of each identified alleged perpetrator.

In drawing up the plan the meeting must consider the following additional issues prevalent in complex abuse investigations:

  • The independence and objectivity of the investigation;
  • Where the alleged abuser is a person in a position of trust, those to be involved in the investigation must be selected with care: the integrity of the investigation may be undermined by the involvement of a person who has links with a suspected abuser - see also Management of Individuals who Pose a Risk to Children of these procedures Concerns about Persons in a Position of Trust;
  • As individual children are identified as possible victims of abuse, it may be appropriate to initiate separate Section 47 Enquiries. This may involve different workers or teams within one local authority and/or different local authorities, and the outcome of each Section 47 Enquiry must be fed into planning meetings and reviews;
  • The security of information;

    The meeting must consider what records already exist, where they are stored, who has access to them, what records will be made during the investigation, how they will be stored and who will have access to them.  It is essential that anyone who has access to any records containing information relevant to the investigation is aware that they must not disclose this information to anyone else without consulting the officers engaged in the investigation;
  • Establishing appropriate management links with any organisation involved;

    The link person should be at least two places removed from any individual under investigation;

  • The management of any potential media interest across agencies.

9.4 Major Investigations

Detailed guidance on dealing with major investigations into organised abuse will be found in Complex Child Abuse Investigations: Interagency Issues (Home Office 2002). This is a summary of some of the main points which are not already laid out above.

9.4.1 Where a major criminal investigation runs alongside child protection enquiries, the investigation should be conducted by an independent and appropriately trained team from police and social work with a clearly defined remit.
9.4.2 The managers of the team should have training and expertise in conducting investigations, legal processes, disciplinary proceedings, children’s welfare, and profiles and methods of abusers.

A strategic management group of senior managers from involved agencies should be set up to:

  • Act as a steering group for the investigation;
  • Ensure that appropriate resources are effectively deployed;
  • Respond to the additional needs of staff involved in major investigations;
  • Agree on the handling of political and media issues arising from the investigation; and
  • Keep the Safeguarding Children Board informed of progress.
This group will also consider providing counselling facilities for investigating staff and support staff.
9.4.4 The Police should appoint a senior investigating officer of appropriate rank and experience, and should consider the use of major incident room, standard administrative procedures and the Home Office large major enquiry system.

The strategic management group must agree terms of reference and ways of working, including:

  • The timing, parameters and conduct of the investigation;
  • Lines of accountability and communication;
  • The deployment of staff and resources; and
  • A communications strategy encompassing authority members, staff, children and families, the media and, if appropriate, Ofsted.

The investigating team’s terms of reference should include:

  • Assurances that the team will have full access to records and individuals who hold important information;
  • Access to legal advice;

    The Crown Prosecution Service can provide advice about the evidential or legal implications of issues arising during the investigation, but must not be involved in operational decisions about the conduct of the investigation;
  • Regular strategic planning meetings and reviews to consider the conduct of the investigations and the effectiveness of joint working;
  • Clear written protocols between the Police, children’s social care and other agencies about information sharing and other key operational and policy matters.
9.4.7 At the close of the investigation, the investigating team will report to the Safeguarding Children Board, identifying any lessons of procedural or inter-agency interest.  In Birmingham, it is the duty of the investigating team at all times to alert the chair of BSCB to any emerging or urgent issues of concern.

9.5 Cross Boundary Issues

See also Management of Allegation against People who work with Children and Young People where there are Cross Border Issues Procedure

9.5.1 Complex abuse investigations will often spread across local authority boundaries and will sometimes spread across more than one police force. This may raise issues because agencies in different areas have different priorities, use different vocabularies etc.  In any major investigation it should be assumed that such cross boundary issues are likely to arise at some point and so it is important to establish common terms of reference and a shared understanding of terminology/ language during cross border investigation.
9.5.2 Good communication is essential in dealing with cross boundary issues. A key contact should be identified in each agency and in each area. Each agency should select their key contact in the light of the perceived needs of the case. A list of key contacts should be devised to facilitate communication between agencies/areas.
9.5.3 The list of key contacts should be kept as short as possible consistent with maintaining the involvement of all agencies. A coordinator should be nominated to deal with interagency and cross boundary issues as they arise.
9.5.4 The coordinator will carry out a regular review of interagency and cross boundary working and relationships. This will involve discussion with all the key contacts involved in the case and may take the form of a meeting or of a series of phone calls, emails etc. It will include consideration of whether any cross boundary issues have been appropriately addressed, and whether any change should be made to the list of key contacts in the light of the current understanding of the case. This is in addition to the arrangements for regular review of progress in the case.
9.5.5 When there is a potential for cross boundary issues it is particularly important that all agencies act flexibly. Agencies will need to prioritise their own responsibilities and be aware of the limits of their jurisdiction, but it is often appropriate for them to act on each other’s behalf. This may not only represent significant economy in the use of resources but also offer a less intrusive process and better outcomes for the children and young people involved.

9.6 Historical Cases

9.6.1 Historical cases of complex abuse generally come to light when adults report abuse that they experienced as children.  These can pose particular difficulties when the alleged victims are no longer living in the situations where the incidents occurred and the alleged perpetrators are no longer linked to the setting or employment role.  When such allegations are made, they should be responded to in the same way as contemporary concerns, in terms of prompt referral to the Police, discussion with children’s social care and arranging a coordination meeting to plan enquiries.
9.6.2 Where there is an allegation of historical abuse the Police will undertake an investigation and the Crown Prosecution Service will assess the evidence and advise on whether court proceedings should be instigated.