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5.10 Complex (Organised or Multiple) Abuse


Complex (organised or multiple) abuse may be defined as abuse involving one or more abuser and a number of children and young people. 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.

Complex abuse occur both as part of a network of abuse across a family or community, and within institutions such as residential homes or schools. 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. 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. The complexity is heightened where, as in historical cases, the alleged victims are no longer living in the situations where the incidents occurred or where the alleged perpetrators are also no longer linked to the setting or employment role.

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. Each requires thorough planning, good inter-agency working, and attention to the welfare needs of the children involved. Although there has been much reporting in recent years about complex abuse in residential settings, complex abuse can occur in day care, in families and in other provisions such as youth services, sports clubs and voluntary groups. Cases of children being abused via the use of the internet is also a new form of abuse which agencies are having to address and further guidance is under development.

The guidance above on investigating allegations of abuse against professionals is equally relevant to investigating complex abuse within an institution.

In addition, national and local experience and research Complex Child Abuse Investigations: Interagency issues (Home Office and Department of Health, 2002) and Appendix A in the Complex Child Abuse Investigations) highlight the important issues which should be addressed in all complex investigations. Based on this guidance, the following approach should be followed.

Planning the Investigation

At an early stage when it is clear that a major investigation will be required, a Strategy Group should be established involving senior managers from the involved agencies, including the Senior Investigating Officer from the Police. Clear lines of communication and reporting need to be established from the Strategy Group to Chief Officers of Police and Director of Children’s Services. The role of the Strategy Group will include the following:

  • Ensuring that appropriate resources, both human and material, are deployed;
  • Ensuring that arrangements are in place for staff to be supported in this difficult and distressing work. Counselling for staff should be available on a confidential basis, and the need for additional training should be considered;
  • Agreeing upon the handling of political and media issues arising from the investigation;
  • Agreeing how any cross-border issues will be dealt with;
  • Agreeing the terms of reference and ways of working for the investigation. At an early stage the Strategy Group should agree the timing, parameters and conduct of the investigation, lines of accountability and communication, the safe and secure storage of records, arrangements for access to records and to individuals including employees, and a communications strategy encompassing authority members, staff, children and families, the media and Regulatory Authority.

The Strategy Group should ensure that all key operational and policy matters, including information sharing, are clearly set out in written protocols between police, Children’s Services and other involved agencies.

Investigations of this nature can readily become more extensive than suggested by initial allegations, and new and complex issues may arise. It is therefore vital that the Strategy Group meets regularly to consider and review the conduct and progress of the investigation, and the effectiveness of joint working, and to plan next steps. Agreed minutes should be produced of all Strategy Group meetings.

The Strategy Group should secure access to legal advice, as the inter-relationship between criminal, civil and employment processes is complex. Involvement of the CPS at an early stage has also been shown to be helpful.

Carrying out the Investigation

The Strategy Group should bring together a trusted and vetted team from police and social work (either Children’s social care or NSPCC or both) to manage and conduct major investigations where a criminal investigation runs alongside child protection enquiries. The terms of reference for the team and the need for confidentiality should be set out clearly.

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 (in cases of sexual abuse).

Team members should have expertise in conducting investigations, child protection processes, and children's welfare, and they should be committed to working closely together. Some, if not all of the police officers should be joint-trained in child protection.

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 (HOLMES).

Where Children’s Social Care’s own staff, or foster carers, are being investigated, it is essential to ensure independence and objectivity on the part of the social work team. This may be achieved using the authorities own staff by ensuring sufficient distance (in structural and geographical terms) between such staff and those being investigated. In no circumstances should staff members or managers from the institution or workplace being investigated be included in the investigation team. In other circumstances, particularly where the investigation ranges across a number of workplaces across the county, it will be more appropriate to call upon the expertise and independence of the NSPCC Regional Investigation Team. In any case, it is essential to have a social care employee as part of the enquiry, who is able to help with access to records.

The team should consider as its first priority whether there are any children involved who need active safeguarding, and if so arrangements need to be in place, whether through the team or by referral to the normal social services system, to ensure that such issues are rapidly addressed.

Social work members of the team have a specific duty to thoroughly assess the needs of victims, including the need for any therapeutic help and to ensure that referral is made to the appropriate services to meet those needs.

It is good practice to provide a confidential and independent counselling service for victims and families. Guidelines should be agreed with counselling services on disclosure of information, to avoid the contamination of evidence.

Learning Lessons

The Strategy Group should consider how to identify and act on lessons learned from the investigation, both as the investigation proceeds and at its close.

These lessons may include:

  • What has worked/not worked in terms of handling the investigation, and what might be changed in future investigations;
  • Lessons in respect of policies, procedures and working practices which may have contributed to the abuse occurring.

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