Complex Safeguarding (Organised or Multiple) Abuse also known as Gold Group

1. Introduction

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. Other situations of significant concern may involve a culture of common practice within an establishment that results in the abuse and or neglect of children and young people.

Complex abuse occurs both as part of a network of abuse across a family or community, and within institutions such as residential homes or schools and in sports clubs, communities etc.  Such abuse is profoundly traumatic for the children and young people 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, voluntary groups, via online activity and in the community and across county lines.

Child Exploitation, criminal or sexual, can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females, and children or adults. The abuse can be a one-off occurrence or a series of incidents over time, and range from opportunistic to complex organised abuse. It can involve force and/or enticement-based methods of compliance and may, or may not, be accompanied by violence or threats of violence. Victims can be exploited even when activity appears consensual and it should be noted exploitation as well as being physical can be facilitated and/or take place online.

The guidance above on investigating allegations of abuse against professionals is equally relevant to investigating complex abuse within an institution. Further guidance regarding the Local Authority Designate Officer and the their referral process can be found via the LSCP Managing Allegations of Abuse Made Against Persons who Work with Children and Young People Procedure.

In addition, national and local experience and research Complex Child Abuse Investigations: Interagency issues (Home Office and Department of Health and Social Care and Social Care, 2002) and Appendix A in the Complex Child Abuse Investigations) highlight the important issues which should be addressed in all complex investigations. Further guidance can be found via College of Policing website

Based on this guidance, the following approach should be followed.

2. Recognition and Referral

It is not always obvious at the outset that a single investigation may become part of a complex child abuse investigation. It is most likely that concerns about possible complex child abuse will emerge during the initial, single investigation. If there is suspicion of complex abuse, whether current or historical, practitioners must immediately consult their Manager and inform the named professional/designated person for safeguarding within their own agency. Where there are concerns or allegations relating to staff, volunteers or carers, this should also be referred to the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) (see Managing Allegations of Abuse Made Against Persons who Work with Children and Young People Procedure).

In some circumstances a practitioner may be concerned about possible conflict of interest or other sensitivities, in which case they may raise their concern directly with an appropriately senior and/or independent manager. They may find further guidance within their agency about "Whistleblowing"/"Speaking Up" or further information from the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.

Chronologies and genograms should be developed by agencies to aid the process of information sharing. Section 47 Strategy Discussions should be held at an appropriate level involving the Police, Social Care and Health, and advice should be sought from a Safeguarding Manager. Where the situation is unclear an initial Strategy Meeting, chaired by a Safeguarding Manager, may be held to evaluate the information.

Information and intelligence available at the beginning of the concern about complex abuse may be limited. It is therefore extremely important that the changing analysis of what is known and what is not known is explicitly considered by the partners involved with the case. Detailed discussion between the Police, Children's Social Care, Health and other agencies is key to the identification of complex and organised abuse. Action required to safeguard children must always take priority, with clear timescales set and leads identified.

3. Deciding Whether a Complex Investigation is Required

The following issues should be considered to inform the decision as to whether the complex abuse procedures are applicable, and at what level:

  • Number of potential allegations currently highlighted;
  • Seriousness and type of allegations;
  • Potential for the investigation to cross operational boundaries for the agencies involved;
  • Number and types of locations identified (e.g. homes, premises, institutions or locations in the community referred to);
  • Number and identities of potential victims (and any additional needs);
  • Number and identities of potential witnesses (and any additional needs);
  • Time parameters of the concerns raised about alleged offences and when they were reported;
  • Number and identities of potential suspects (and any additional needs);
  • Potential for the number of victims, witnesses, locations, scenes or suspects to increase;
  • Potential for media interest and its impact on the victims, safeguarding arrangements and the investigation;
  • Possible links to other investigations, including historical investigations.

If the criteria above are considered and the outcome is that a complex investigation is required, the safeguarding or other relevant manager must ensure that this is brought to the attention of:

  • Assistant Director in Children's Services and the Head of Service for Quality and Standards;
  • Detective Superintendent (Public Protection);
  • Designated Nurse / Doctor for Safeguarding Children (Health).

The Assistant Director (Children's Social Care) and Detective Superintendent (Public Protection) will:

  • Ensure that initial action has commenced so that the child or children involved are safe and a referral made to Children's Social Care if this is outstanding;
  • Share information and ensure the relevant Strategy Group is convened to manage the investigation.

4. Planning the Investigation

At an early stage when it is clear that a major investigation will be required, a Strategy/Gold 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. As a minimum the strategy group should be attended by the Police, Children's Services, the LSCP Independent Chair and a minute taker. Consideration should then be given to wider agencies and professionals such as the Local Authority Designated Officers (LADO), OFSTED, Adult Services and Victim Lincs etc. 

The role of the Strategy Group will include the following:

  • Immediate safeguarding for victims for example removing them from the home, referrals, medical assessment and attention. Consideration also needs to be given to any children of the alleged perpetrator/s;
  • Victims Strategy including consideration of the wider family. This should include short, medium and long term considerations. For example access to services such as counselling; 
  • TOR- agreement of the duration of the group, it may continue for the life of the investigation and closure being agreed through group members. If relevant this will be through until the point of prosecution. Each meeting will be chaired by the LSCP Independent Chair and a Vice Chair will be nominated;
  • 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 and lines of accountability;
  • Confirmation of information sharing processes including any confidential information. Arrangement for access to records for historic allegations and current allegations;
  • 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;
  • Communication strategy to agree upon the handling of political and media issues arising from the investigation;
  • Consideration to be given to developing a learning log which should be reviewed and maintained throughout the lifespan of the group;
  • Agreeing how any cross-border issues will be dealt with.

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. See Protocol on Sharing Information in Order to Safeguard and Promote the Welfare of Children.

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 meetings are held at a frequency dictated by the complexity of the investigation. Each of these should  consider and review the conduct and progress of the investigation, and the effectiveness of joint working, victim and communication strategies and to plan next steps. Agreed minutes should be produced for 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.

5. Carrying Out the Investigation

The Strategy Group should receive regular updates from  those investigating the concerns (usually Police and Social Care) to manage and conduct major investigations where a criminal investigation runs alongside child safeguarding enquiries See Section 47 Enquiries and Social Work Assessments Procedure

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).

Each agency needs to consider issues of independence and impartiality, particularly where investigating staff members from their own agency e.g. foster carers. This can be addressed through the LADO and individual agency HR processes, (see Managing Allegations of Abuse Made Against Persons who Work with Children and Young People Procedure, Appendices).

6. Learning Lessons

The Strategy Group will have maintained a learning log and should develop and agree an action plan. Responsibility and timescales for implementing action points must be agreed.  This will be overseen by the LSCP.

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.