There are no absolute criteria on which to rely when judging what constitutes significant harm. Consideration of the severity of ill-treatment may include the degree and the extent of physical harm, the duration and frequency of abuse and neglect, the extent of premeditation, and the presence or degree of threat, coercion, sadism and bizarre or unusual elements. Each of these elements has been associated with more severe effects on the child, and/or relatively greater difficulty in helping the child overcome the adverse impact of the maltreatment. Sometimes, a single traumatic event may constitute significant harm, for example, a violent assault, suffocation or poisoning. More often, significant harm is a compilation of significant events, both acute and long-standing, which interrupt, change or damage the child’s physical and psychological development. Some children live in family and social circumstances where their health and development are neglected. For them, it is the corrosiveness of long-term emotional, physical or sexual abuse that causes impairment to the extent of constituting significant harm. In each case, it is necessary to consider any maltreatment alongside the child’s own assessment of his or her safety and welfare, the family’s strengths and supports, as well as an assessment of the likelihood and capacity for change and improvements in parenting and the care of children and young people.
Under section 31(9) of the Children Act 1989 as amended by the Adoption and Children Act 2002:
‘harm’ means ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development, including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another;
‘development’ means physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development;
‘health means physical or mental health; and
‘ill treatment’ includes sexual abuse and forms of ill-treatment which are not physical.
Under section 31(10) of the Act: Where the question of whether harm suffered by a child is significant turns on the child’s health and development, his health or development shall be compared with that which could reasonably be expected of a similar child.