1. Introduction to “Forming a Belief” (FAB)
1.1 The Legal Framework
The Children Act 1989, Section 47, places a duty on a local authority, in circumstances where they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child in their area is suffering or is likely to suffer Significant Harm, to make such enquiries as they consider necessary to enable them to decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare.
The ‘child’ in this context may be either a specific child or an identifiable group of children (whose individual identities may not be known, such as members of a particular sports club).
There will be occasions where professionals consider that child(ren) are at risk, but where the convening of a Child Protection Conference would not be appropriate, for example :
- the risk may not be connected with the care the child receives within the family; or
- it may not be possible to identify all the children who are at risk, as in the case of a suspected adult who has substantial contact with children (e.g. a children’s entertainer).
In these circumstances the local authority has a responsibility to take such action as it can to protect children. The underlying principle remains the paramountcy of the child (ren)’s welfare and ensuring that the child (ren) are not left in a situation of potential or actual risk. It is important, however, to take legal advice when considering any such course of action. The implications of inappropriate action may be potentially damaging for the child(ren), the suspected adult and/or for the local authority.
1.2 Ethical issues to be considered
The consequences of invoking the FAB procedure may be far-reaching for either the child(ren) or the adult involved, or both. It is important that a justifiable balance is achieved between the protection of the child(ren) and due fairness to the suspected abuser. Following a legal challenge, there was a judicial review of similar procedures (R v Hertfordshire County Council, ex parte A (2001)), and the judgement highlights the importance of ensuring that
- legal advice is sought at an early stage;
- the procedure is adhered to and that clear written records are kept at each stage;
- the adult who may present a potential risk to children is fully informed about the FAB procedure and provided with a copy;
- care is taken to balance the interests of children against the interests of the adult concerned, taking into account that a conclusion that s/he may present a risk to children could have severe consequences for his/her life and/or career;
- the information gathering and investigation are conducted with due diligence and skill, and that all relevant information is available at the FAB meetings;
- the suspected adult/s included in the process, as described in the FAB procedure, and given the opportunity to present their own information and perspective;
- the extent of disclosure of the ‘belief’ formed by the process is no more than is required for the protection of a child(ren), and that the adult is given advance notice of what information it is intended to disclose, to whom and when, thus allowing an opportunity for the adult to make a formal/legal challenge prior to that disclosure;
- the adult is made aware that the records of the FAB process, whatever its outcome, will be retained indefinitely by the local authority (social care/child protection) and by the police.
It is also important to remember that the concept of ‘reasonableness’ is subjective. It is therefore essential that the FAB procedure is clear and fair to both child (ren) and the adult(s), and that its implementation is transparent and can withstand scrutiny.
2. The Procedure
This procedure must only be applied following consultation with the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO), who will always seek legal advice prior to proceeding. Agencies may wish to take their own legal advice before referring to the LADO.
The purpose of the FAB procedure
This procedure provides a formal, consistent structure within which to assess the perceived risks to children presented by an identified adult, to give the adult an opportunity to express their views on the perceived risks, and to maximise the protection of children in the light of these discussions.
This procedure should be used infrequently and only in cases where there are compelling grounds for perceiving potential risk to children.
When to consider using the FAB Procedure
If an adult who comes into substantial contact with children in a professional or ‘volunteer’ capacity gives rise to concerns that s/he may present a potential risk of harm to a child(ren), but does not fulfil the criteria for either MAPPA or convening a Complex Strategy Meeting (see Managing Allegations or Serious Concerns in Respect of any Adult who Works or Volunteers with Children), the following questions need to be answered:
- is there ‘reasonable cause’ (i.e. is it ‘objectively reasonable’) to view this adult as presenting a potential risk to either a specific child, an identifiable grouping of children, or to children more generally (e.g. a children’s entertainer, etc.)?
- is the child(ren) concerned likely to suffer (i.e. is it ‘probable’ rather than ‘possible’) Significant Harm through contact with this adult?
If these questions can be answered affirmatively, and the perceived risk is not connected with the care the child(ren) receives within the family (when a Child Protection Conference would be appropriate), then the person with the concerns should discuss them with their line manager with a view to invoking the FAB procedure.
If the outcome of a Complex Strategy Meeting is inconclusive (e.g. neither criminal nor disciplinary routes are appropriate) but concerns remain that the adult may present a potential risk to children, the FAB procedure should be considered at this point.
Implementing the procedure
The LADO is the central referral and decision-making point when the FAB procedure is being considered. Referrals may come from a range of sources, both in- and out-county, and from differing agencies/organisations, so it is important to use this centralised system.
Prior to contacting the LADO, there should be an initial information-gathering process, which confirms that the referral falls within the remit of the FAB procedures (i.e. that the suspected adult has not been convicted of an offence against a child, etc.). Discussion with the Police and/or Probation Service will clarify any current or past criminal justice involvement. Information should also be sought about the suspected adult’s current or past employment, as well as his/her family/home circumstances. If the suspicions have arisen during some type of voluntary work, some details of this should also be sought. At this stage, however, the information gathering should be discreet and not alert the suspected adult to the concerns about him/her.
A paper-record of the information gathering process should be kept, and the suspected adult’s name should be entered on the social care database, RAISE, indicating the context and date of the FAB enquiries and who instigated them.
Discussion with the LADO of the circumstances and the information gathered will decide whether or not a multi-disciplinary/inter-agency FAB meeting should be convened and who should attend. If agreed, the Quality Assurance and Safeguarding Team will convene, chair and take notes of the FAB meeting, which will held as soon as is practicable.
Representatives of all agencies or organisations known to have knowledge of, or contact with, the suspected adult will be invited for the purposes of information sharing and assessing, or ‘forming a belief’ about,’ the nature and level of any potential risks to children presented by him/her. Although a FAB meeting does not work to the standards of ‘evidence/proof’ applicable in a court of law, it is nevertheless imperative that the information given to the meeting is as accurate as possible and that opinion is differentiated from fact. If the meeting is able to ‘form a belief’, it assists the transparency and openness of the process if, at this stage of the meeting, members go on to give a preliminary view on whether information about the individual needs to be shared with any other agencies/groups and, if so, exactly what information. The Chair at the subsequent meeting with the individual is then in a position to say what the FAB meeting’s initial view was, and the individual can be given the opportunity to make any comments or representations at that stage. The Children’s Services lawyer must be present at a FAB meeting.
The outcomes of the first FAB meeting are likely to be:
- specific further information is required before a ‘belief’ may be formed, in which case this work will be allocated to meeting participants or others and the date of the next meeting set; or
- the meeting forms the belief that there is ‘reasonable cause’ to suspect that the individual presents a risk of Significant Harm to an identifiable child or group of children; or
- the outcome of the meeting is inconclusive and that the appropriate course of action is to monitor the situation and re-convene the meeting if additional concerns arise, in which case the monitoring and reviewing mechanisms will be decided; or
- the meeting concludes that there are no grounds for suspecting that the individual presents a potential risk to children.
In cases where the meeting ‘forms a belief’ it must be demonstrable that the process was clear and fair. The minutes of the meeting should record the information shared, and the basis on which the ‘belief’ was formed must be recorded accurately, detailing the basis of the risk assessment. Any dissenting views should also be recorded, with the reasons for dissent.
Having decided that there is ‘reasonable cause’ to suspect that the adult presents a risk of Significant Harm to an identifiable child or group of children, and having fully recorded the reasons for this, the Chair of the FAB meeting will consult with the Assistant Director, Children’s Social Care, about how and when to inform the individual and to hear his/her views.
The individual will be invited to meet with a small representative group of the FAB meeting participants to discuss the ‘belief’ formed. The Chair of the FAB meeting will also chair this ‘Disclosing the Belief’ meeting (DTB), and a City Council lawyer will be present. The individual will be invited to bring a ‘supporter’ (who may be a lawyer, in a solely supportive capacity) with him/her. At the time of being invited to the DTB meeting, the individual will be sent a copy of the FAB procedures. Should the individual so wish, he/she may send a letter or any other written submissions/information to the Chair in addition to, or instead of, attending the DTB meeting.
At the DTB meeting the rationale behind the local authority conducting the investigation (S47, Children Act 1989) will be reiterated, the basis of the child protection concerns will be explained, and the individual will be given the opportunity to voice his/her own perspectives and explanations of the perceived risks. If it is the view of the majority of the professionals at the DTB meeting that the individual’s submissions materially affect the ‘belief’ previously formed, there may need to be an adjournment while further information is gathered or clarified, or legal advice is taken, and the full FAB meeting re-convened at a later date.
The procedures to be followed after the DTB meeting should be explained to the individual. If further information/clarification is required, he/she will subsequently be invited to another meeting to be told the outcome of the additional investigations. Whether or not there are further enquiries to be made, the DTB meeting’s minutes will be sent to all the professionals involved in the FAB meeting. A follow-up FAB meeting will then be re-convened. Once the individual’s representations have been heard, the FAB meeting professionals will agree to whom the local authority should disclose the outcomes of the FAB process, in order to fulfil its duties of protecting children. The extent of this disclosure should be proportionate to the nature and level of the potential risks to children believed to be presented by that person and should be for the purpose of protecting children only. The lawyer present will advise on the extent and process of disclosure. Professional judgement focusing on the protection of the child is the paramount consideration and must be sufficiently robust to withstand potential challenge.
The individual will be given 7 working days’ advance notice, by registered letter, of exactly what information the local authority proposes to disclose, to whom and when, thus giving him/her the opportunity to take his/her own action to challenge the decision to share the information.
If nothing further is heard from the individual, by the proposed disclosure date, then the agreed people or organisations will be informed. If the person states that he/she wishes to challenge the disclosure, in writing to the Chair, then the local authority will take further legal advice regarding future actions.
Full written records will be kept throughout the FAB process and retained by the Quality Assurance and Safeguarding Team. The outcomes will be entered on the database, and individuals believed to present a potential risk to children will be flagged with a ‘hazard’ marker.
The outcome of each FAB process, which leads to disclosure to other parties, should be reviewed by Quality Assurance and Safeguarding Team after one year, a re-assessment of risk made, and any further appropriate action taken. The individual should be informed of any changes.