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Organised and Complex Abuse

Scope of this chapter

This chapter provides a procedure for agencies about the investigation of complex and organised abuse and information about what action they should take if they suspect such abuse. All agencies, including those from the voluntary and community sector, who may be asked to contribute to complex abuse investigations, need to ensure that they follow this procedure. Registration authorities should also adhere to this procedure in cases where continuing registration of a setting may be affected by the investigation.

These procedures must be implemented in conjunction with the procedures on abuse by those working with children where appropriate see Allegations Against Staff or Volunteers Procedure.

Complex and organised abuse is defined as abuse involving one or more abusers, and a number of related or non-related abused children. It can take place in any setting. The abusers may be acting in isolation or in concert to abuse children. They may be using an institutional framework or position of authority – such as a teacher, coach, faith group leader or be in a celebrity position – to access and recruit children for abuse.

What constitutes "complex" is, to some extent, dependant on the presenting circumstances of the case but can include situations involving:

  • Multiple abusers;
  • Multiple children;
  • Institutional abuse e.g. systematic abuse within an boarding school or residential care home;
  • Organised abuse e.g. abusing children in order to produce sexually abusive images for distribution amongst a network of Child Abusers;
  • Sexual exploitation/abuse /trafficking of children.

Cases of particularly sensitivity e.g. involving a high profile person that is likely to attract publicity.

Although in most cases of complex and organised abuse the abuser/s is an adult, it is also possible for children / young people to be the perpetrators of such harm, with or without adult abusers.

Complex abuse cases require thorough planning, inter-agency cooperation and need to pay particular attention to the welfare needs of child victims/adult survivors.

If information arises that indicates a situation of complex abuse, children’s social care and the police should be informed immediately. A strategy discussion should be convened as soon as possible. The Service Manager and the Assistant Director must be informed. The Detective Chief Inspector or the Detective Superintendent of the Public Protection Unit must also be informed. Discussion should take place immediately between the Senior Managers to determine whether these procedures should be instigated.

Inter-agency cooperation is of paramount importance in complex abuse cases. Complex abuse investigations should be undertaken as a joint operation involving the police and social services. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will need to be involved as appropriate to advise on legal implications of issues arising during an investigation. Other agencies like. Health and education will be informed and they will be represented as required. Staff and managers must retain a high level of confidentiality in relation to information in their possession and information should be shared only on a ‘need to know’ basis.

The complexity is heightened where, as in non-recent 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. The complex abuse may involve young adults who were children when the abuse started. The complex abuse may involve children and adults who are potential victims. In these cases, Adult Social Care must be notified and be involved in any Strategic Management Group.

A senior Police Officer may convene a Gold Group if a particular investigation merits senior oversight from a Police perspective. Police may invite senior members of staff from all agencies, so that information can be shared and strategy agreed. It is not the remit of the Gold Group to direct investigations. These meetings are minuted and those minutes may be revealed to the prosecution, should criminal proceedings be undertaken.

The single and most important consideration is the safety and well-being of the child or children or young adult. 

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.

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.

A victim support strategy and protocol should be established at the outset. Support will be required in pre-trial, trial and post-trial periods if the case/s proceed to court. Minimum periods for contact should be established. It is clear from experience in research about complex investigations that many victims and families feel strongly that it is important that they remain in contact with the same staff throughout the investigative process.

When receiving information, which may indicate complex and organised abuse, the recipient should immediately refer the matter to the Cumberland Safeguarding Hub or Westmorland and Furness Safeguarding Hub.

See: Cumbria Multi-Agency Thresholds Guidance and the supporting document Cumbria Understanding The Level of Need and Practice Response which can be used alongside the Threshold Guidance

A Strategy Meeting should be arranged to take place as a matter of urgency to assess the need for future action to be taken and, in particular, whether a criminal investigation should take place. 

The Strategy meeting, chaired by a senior manager of Cumbria children’s Social Care, must take place within 1 working day of the receipt of the referral and be formally recorded. The Safeguarding Children Partnership team must be informed (, who will inform the Independent Chair of the Cumbria SCP and the lead safeguarding partners, if appropriate.

The nominated senior staff of Cumbria children’s Social Care and the Police should attend the meeting. The meeting will involve senior staff from health, education and other agencies as required and, where necessary, must ensure coordination across local authority boundaries.

The Strategy discussion/meeting must carefully note:

  • An assessment of the information known to date:
    • 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.
  • Decide what further information is required at this stage;
  • Arrange for its gathering;
  • Establish if / to what extent complex abuse has been uncovered;
  • Undertake an initial mapping exercise to determine the scale of the investigation and possible individuals implicated as well as prepare:
    • Witnesses to be interviewed prior to the interviews of children;
    • Multiple and simultaneous interviews.
  • Consider a plan including resource implications, for investigation to be presented to the management and resources strategy group;
  • Consider any immediate protective action required.

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.

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 complex and organised abuse, it will appoint a multi-Agency Strategic Management Group (see Section 6, The 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.

Cases of complex abuse should be overseen by a Strategic Management Group involving designated senior managers from relevant agencies. The SMG should be chaired by the police or social services. The group should include:

  • Assistant Director for Children’s Service or a nominated representative;
  • Senior Service Manager – Children’s Services and Adult Social Care if applicable;
  • Police Detective Chief Inspector;
  • Police Inspector;
  • Managers from other agencies as necessary including health commissioning, health providers, LADO, Youth Offending, LA Commissioning, Care Quality, Strengthening Families.

The group should have access to:

  • Up to date information on the progress of a police or other investigation;
  • Legal advice including that of CPS as appropriate;
  • Specialist health advice;
  • Independent or expert advice as appropriate;
  • Any other relevant information held by partner agencies who are members of that SMG.

The meetings should agree a plan which:

  • Provides support, supervision and debriefing of staff involved;
  • Agrees terms of reference for the strategic management group, including as assessment of the extent to which any police investigation requires multi-Agency support;
  • Ensures the CSCP members (and the CSAB board members when relevant) are kept updated;
  • Any other local authority who have children placed at a location are kept updated;
  • Considers first whether there are any children involved who need active safeguarding and/or therapeutic help, and how this should be achieved in a way, which is consistent with the conduct of criminal investigations and mitigates risk of harm;
  • Agrees a communications strategy encompassing authority members, staff, children and families and inspection bodies;
  • Agrees a media strategy;
  • Agrees an information sharing strategy emphasising the need for confidentiality and secure storage of information;
  • Agrees liaison arrangements for inter-agency working;
  • Considers any cross boundary issues and planning of appropriate liaison and sharing of resources;
  • Agrees timescales, parameters and conduct of any enquiries and stages of the enquiries;
  • Considers resource requirements;
  • Identifies staff in children’s social care and the police with sufficient seniority and experience to manage the enquiries;
  • Agrees how the strategic management group will be kept informed of progress;
  • Ensures that all meeting are minuted and actions are recorded. All minutes are to be marked as confidential and will be stored electronically and securely;
  • Identifies any learning for future SMGs.

The SMG must make arrangements to convene regularly during the investigation to:

  • Monitor the progress, quality and integrity of the investigation and subsequent internal procedures;
  • Review risk indicators for the children involved;
  • Review the communications strategy;
  • Consider resource requirements;
  • Consider the appropriate timing of the termination of the investigation;
  • Plan a de-brief meeting to identify any learning.

The SMG should have the ability to access inter-agency resources. The Chair of the group (if not one of the above named) should be informed that these procedures have been initiated. It will be the responsibility of the Chair of the group to liaise as necessary with other Heads of Service/Chief Executives in order to ensure that inter-agency resources are accessible.

The SMG should remain in existence at least until the court or the CPS has made a decision about the alleged perpetrators and/or when the SMG is satisfied that all remaining safeguarding concerns have been addressed.

In cases of greater scale and complexity, appoint an Investigation Management Group (IMG) (see Section 7, Investigation Management Group).

In cases of considerable complexity and scale, an Investigation Management Group will be appointed.

Membership of this group should include representatives from Cumbria children’s Social Care, Adult Social Care when relevant, the Police, designated health professionals and the local authorities legal services, with other agencies being invited to participate as appropriate. This group will be chaired by a service manager from Children’s Services or a detective inspector from Cumbria Constabulary.

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 the following:

  • Sets out Terms of Reference for the group;
  • 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 councils 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 Investigation.

It is important that a strategy to support staff is established from the outset. This will be particularly important where the complex organised or multiple abuse involves a member of staff from any partner agency. Staff support should include as a minimum regular debriefing, individual supervision, and inter-agency group supervision.

The Waterhouse Inquiry report has noted the importance of adequate referral of information about suspected abusers. It is probable that an investigation will identify individuals who are suspected abusers but against whom prosecutions are not brought. If a suspected abuser is working with children in a child care position, or in the education service, evidence and information should be shared to support disciplinary proceedings and to enable, where appropriate, the referral of suspected abusers to the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and the relevant regulatory bodies.

At the conclusion of the enquiry/investigation, the Strategic Management Group must evaluate the investigation, identify the lessons learned and prepare an Overview Report with recommendations and an Action plan for  Cumbria Safeguarding Children Partnership, highlighting any practices, procedures or policies which may need further attention and require either inter-agency or individual agency action plans.

Last Updated: April 10, 2024