Children Act 1989 Section 17: Child in Need today

By Jennifer Cooper

This blog post will consider the provision of services for children who are considered ‘in need’ under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. These services are often provided where children and families are struggling and experiencing some difficulties, although not to the point where the child is considered at risk of significant harm. Given the current economic climate, austerity, recent high-profile child deaths reported in the media and the ongoing Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, this is a timely topic, to consider how best we can support children and young people in need in England today.


The Children Act 1989 (CA1989) sets out the responsibilities of local authorities to provide support and services to children in their area. Section 17 of CA1989 requires local authorities to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need” by providing services appropriate to those needs. A child is considered ‘in need’ if they are unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development without support in the form of services from the local authority; their health or development would be ‘significantly impaired’ without such services, or they are disabled.

The concept of a ‘child in need’ was a new one when it was introduced in CA9189. Previously, legislation had focused on the need for local authorities to try to divert children from coming into state care, whereas CA9189 shifted the focus to providing support for children within their families in the community. The intent behind this being to increase the number of children who could receive services and support when their families were facing problems. The supporting guidance (Department of Health, 1991) to CA1989 however made clear that whilst more children may be eligible to receive such support, there was no entitlement to receive this support – meaning that a child may fit the definition of ‘in need’, but that did not mean they would receive services to address that need.

Free image from Unsplash via Markus Spiske

Problems with implementation:

A number of studies (Audit Commission 1994; Tunstill and Aldgate 1995 and 2000;) identified that local authorities faced considerable difficulties in implementing Section 17. Defining which children would fall within the wording of Section 17, alongside rationing resources to ensure they were meeting their duties to safeguard and protect children who had experienced, or were at risk of experiencing, significant harm (Section 47, CA1989) as well as their duties towards children in state care (Section 22, CA1989), left local authorities with a challenge on their hands.

Rising caseloads (seen particularly sharply following the media coverage of the death of Peter Connelly, known as ‘Baby P’ in 2007) and the subsequent economic downturn in 2008, left local authorities with an even bigger hill to climb. They were faced with more children potentially at risk whose situations needed to be assessed, with less resources to do so. This led, perhaps inevitably, to a further shift away from those children who were ‘in need’ to those who were ‘at risk’.

The type, and scope, of support that the state should provide to children and their families has been a long-debated topic. We have, thankfully, moved on from the era of the Poor Law and workhouses, however at present, the support children and families who are struggling may receive is usually limited, with precious resources being used when situations have escalated to the point where significant harm has been experienced or is perceived to be imminent.

Free image from Unsplash via Annie Spratt

Navigating the landscape:

So the question is, how do government, local authorities and social workers on the front line navigate this landscape? Thresholds – the point at which a child’s situation ‘tips’ from them requiring early help, to being ‘in need’ to being ‘at risk’ – are not clear cut, and the point at which this change in perception occurs, varies from local authority to local authority (Association of Directors of Children’s Services, 2021; Ellison and Renton 2018). This effectively means there is a postcode lottery for children in need of services. The level of need across their area, the economic situation and number of children already open to the local authority means they may not receive an intervention for their situation, that, if they lived elsewhere, they would receive. Some local authorities are moving away from using referral forms that require a threshold judgement by the referrer, to using a conversational model whereby referrers have conversations with experienced social workers who provide advice, support and signposting without the need for a statutory intervention, and have been seeing positive results and a reduction in the number of assessments undertaken as a result (see e.g., Ivory, 2021).

Another approach may be to completely separate family support and all services that fall under Section 17 from work undertaken under Section 47 and Section 22. This approach has been debated over the years with proponents feeling it could reduce the stigma of children’s social care intervention but opponents fearing it will lead to a fractured system, with families having to repeatedly tell their stories to different workers in different organisations, making children’s social care interventions even more confusing and complex.

Free image from Unsplash via James Wheeler

What now?

There are no clear-cut answers in this climate of high workloads, increased scrutiny following the recent media coverage of the deaths of Star Hobson, Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Kyrell Matthews, a decade of austerity and the COVID-19 pandemic. That being said, the current Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has taken on the unenviable task of reviewing current children’s services provision within England. Their recommendations, due in late spring of 2022, will likely put forth ideas on how the system can (potentially) be changed to improve the lives of those children and families who need support. These recommendations will inform how (or if) social work practice should change moving forward and will, hopefully, help redress the balance, advocating for earlier help and support when problems are at a lower level and present a lower level of risk, to avoid situations escalating to where children are at risk of, or experience significant harm. A more detailed account of these matters can be found in my article, “In need of what? Section 17 Provision under the Children Act 1989” in Children and Society.


Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS). (2021). Safeguarding pressures phase 7: Research report. ADCS.

Audit Commission. (1994). Seen but not heard: Co-ordinating community child health and social services for children in need – Detailed evidence and guidelines for managers and practitioners. HMSO

Children Act 1989, c. 41. Available at:

Cooper, J., (2021). ‘In need of what? Section 17 Provision under the Children Act 1989’. Children and Society. doi:

Department of Health (DoH). (1991). The Children Act 1989: Guidance and regulations. Volume 2: Family support, day care and educational provision for young people. HMSO

Ellison, R., and Renton, Z. (2018). Storing Up Trouble: A postcode lottery of children’s social care. All Party Parliamentary Group for Children and National Children’s Bureau. July 2018.

Ivory, J. (2021). Evidenced Based Practice and the Development, Implementation and Impact of BwD’s Children’s Advice and Duty Service or “The front door”. Blackburn with Darwen Council – Appendix 1 – Report for Executive Board 11 March 2021.

Tunstill, J., and Aldgate, J. (1995). Making sense of Section 17: Implementing services for children in need within the 1989 Children Act. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Tunstill, J., and Aldgate, J. (2000). Services for children in need: From Policy to practice. The Stationery Office.