6.14 Complex (Organised or Multiple) Abuse


Complex procedure decision making proforma

This chapter should be read in conjunction with Managing complex child abuse investigations published by the College of Policing

This chapter was updated in July 2022


  1. Definition
  2. Investigation
  3. The Child
  4. Referral
  5. The Strategy Discussion
  6. Strategic Management Group
  7. Operational Management Team
  8. Informing Parents
  9. Removal of Children from Home
  10. Interviewing Victims/Witnesses, Including Children and Adults
  11. Therapeutic Follow Up

1. Definition
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.

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.

2. Investigation
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.

The investigation of complex abuse is time-consuming and demanding requiring specialist skills from both police and social work staff.

Some investigations become extremely complex because of the number of places and people involved, and the timescale over which abuse is alleged to have occurred. In these circumstances a specialist Operational Management Team (see Section 7, The Operational Management Team), as well as a Strategic Management Group (see Section 6, The Strategic Management Group) may be set up.

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.

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
The welfare of the child is of paramount importance. Abuse is profoundly traumatic for the children involved and care must be taken in large scale investigations to ensure that staff do not concentrate on the legal and criminal aspects of the investigation at the expense of child welfare issues. The standard of evidence required for criminal proceedings differs from that required for child protection purposes. It should be remembered that the single most important consideration is the safety and welfare of the child.

The investigation and enquiries must also address the racial, religious, cultural, language, sexual orientation and gender needs of the child, together with any special needs of the child arising from illness or disability.

4. Referral
Where professionals believe that complex abuse is indicated, they should immediately contact the Head of Safeguarding for Children’s Services (who will inform the Assistant Director for Children’s Social Care, and the Safeguarding Partners via the WSCP Business Manager) who will notify the Police and discuss whether the criteria for joint investigation is met.

When a member of staff is suspected / alleged to be involved, the matter must be referred to the Service Manager of the Safeguarding Unit and the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) and the Managing Allegations Procedure must be followed.

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 statutory safeguarding partners (LA, Police and Health (CCG)).

5. The Strategy Discussion
A Strategy Discussion should then be arranged to take place as a matter of urgency to assess the need for future action to be taken under this procedure and, in particular, whether a criminal investigation should take place.

The Strategy Discussion, chaired by the Assistant Director for Children’s Social Care, must take place within 5 working days of the receipt of the referral and be formally recorded. The WSCP Business Manager will inform the safeguarding partners of the Referral and meeting.

The nominated senior staff of Children’s Social Care, the Police and a senior member of staff from the CCG should attend the meeting. The meeting will also involve senior staff from Education and other agencies as required and, where necessary, ensure coordination across local authority boundaries.

The Strategy Discussion, and any follow up discussion, need 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.

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.

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 (see Section 6, Strategic Management Group) to oversee the process.

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. Strategic Management Group
There are considerable resource implications in the management of complex abuse and these need to be addressed at a senior level from the outset. The Safeguarding Partners will be responsible for appointing a Strategic Management Group. One of the safeguarding partners should be appointed as the Chair of the SMG and will keep the Safeguarding Partners apprised of progress. The Deputy Director (Children’s Social Care) will be a member of this team as well as senior representatives of key agencies. The tasks of the SMG will be to:

  • Define the purpose, extent and limit of the investigation and keep this under review;
  • Agree clear written protocols between agencies on access to records and information sharing;
  • Recognise and anticipate greater scope for the investigation;
  • Assess the victim’s needs and the provision of services to meet them;
  • Ensure that any current risks to children that emerge during the course of the investigation are acted upon immediately. The Group should develop a risk management protocol, by regularly reviewing risk indicators in relation to subject children. The protocol should detail elements of a robust risk management process to be implemented for the duration of the investigative activity, and establish effective mechanisms for communication between the investigative team and other relevant departments/agencies;
  • Make available an independent and confidential counselling service for the children and their families;
  • Inform Ofsted;
  • Identify the resources required and make them available. This should include sufficient investigating workers, facilities for interviewing children/adults, administrative support, staff care and support, and suitable placements for any children who may need to be accommodated;
  • Ensure that interviews are conducted in accordance with Achieving Best Evidence Guidance;
  • Agree a method to be used for evidence gathering and is strictly adhered to so that potential witnesses are not compromised;
  • Convene regular strategic planning meetings, and ensure they are minuted, dated and signed;
  • Ensure that there is a system in place for the safe and secure storage of records;
  • Decide who needs to be briefed as the investigation continues (e.g. Chief Officers, Members of the Council, Members of Parliament, agency staff);
  • Agree a media spokesperson (should involve Police, LA and CCG press officers);
  • Ensure adequate legal advice;
  • Establish links with other neighbouring authorities if the abuse network extends outside the boundaries of Wirral (Such links may also enable a pooling of resources);
  • Plan the end of the investigation and ensure adequate debriefing and assessment of its handling and identify lessons for conducting similar investigation in the future;
  • Ensure that a system is in place for identification and action regarding the lessons learned from the investigation (policies, procedure and working practices, which may have contributed to the abuse occurring) as the investigation proceeds and at its close;
  • Agree the membership of the Operational Management Team (see Section 7, Operational Management Team) and identify someone to lead the Group.

7. Operational Management Team
In cases of considerable complexity and scale, an Operational Management Team (OMT)will be appointed.

The Deputy Director Children’s Social Care and DCI Merseyside Police will determine who should be designated to Chair the OMT (usually from Police or CSC) and that person should also be a member of the Strategic Management Group (see Section 6, Strategic Management Group) to aid good communication.

Membership of the OMT should include representatives from Children’s Social Care, the Police, Health and the local authority’s Legal Services, with other agencies being invited to participate as appropriate.

The tasks and functions of the OMT will be subject to the terms of reference agreed by the Strategic Management Group (SMG), and will include the following:

  • The deployment of staff and resources for the investigation and the subsequent ongoing care and safeguarding of the children and/or adults;
  • Ensuring a consistent strategy for interviewing victims;
  • Keeping the Strategic Management Group updated;
  • Co-ordinating a response to parents/families;
  • Ensuring clarity about information sharing protocols;
  • Ensuring that information is shared appropriately with other agencies not represented on the SMG or OMT;
  • Ensuring that a single information system is established, and access arrangements agreed;
  • Ensuring there is a system in place to allow for the resolution of any conflicts which arise between agencies.

8. Informing Parents
Parents or carers should normally be informed from the outset that a suspicion exists and that the matter is being investigated. However, there may be some cases where it is decided that parents should not be informed e.g. when there are sound reasons for believing the child will be harmed on any knowledge of the investigation or in a case of suspected multiple abuse, the interests of other children may be prejudiced. When planning not to inform parents, legal advice must be sought.

The Operational Group chair must inform the Strategic Management Team Lead on a case by case basis.

See also Information Sharing and Confidentiality Procedure.

9. Removal of Children from Home
In cases involving a suspicion of complex abuse the same considerations will apply with regard to removal from home as in any other case. Except where a child is in such acute physical danger, the timing of the removal of children should only be agreed following consultation with the appropriate professionals. The welfare of the individual child will always be the first consideration and all decisions about removal will be made following legal advice by the chair of the Operational Group.

10. Interviewing Victims/Witnesses, Including Children and Adults
All interviews will be undertaken by trained Police Officers and Social Workers in accordance with Achieving Best Evidence. The investigative team must inform the Operational Manager of the outcome of each and every interview. Legal advice may be necessary regarding the timing of interviews.

11. Therapeutic Follow Up
Achieving Best Evidence allows for victims to have counselling and/or treatment whilst and/or following a criminal investigation. The Crown Prosecution Service must be informed before therapy of each and every case for their view. If therapy is agreed clear documentation needs to be kept of the work – see Provision of Therapy for Child Witnesses Prior to Trial.

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