What happens if the police investigate my child?

If the police or Children’s Services get involved, it can be worrying for the whole family. Your child might be struggling with feelings of shame or fear about what might happen next and they will need your help to understand what is happening and to stay focused on safe and positive activities. Keep an eye on how they are coping and get help if you become concerned about their wellbeing. If you are worried, call our anonymous helpline, speak to your child’s GP or other local support services for advice.

The police and children’s services will need to consider the safety of other children in their lives, such as siblings. This can be very upsetting and worrying for families, especially if they are advised to find a different place for the young person to live during the investigation. If you are in this situation, our safety plan may be particularly helpful to consider the steps you can take to keep all the children in your family safe.

If you are unhappy with the actions that the police and children’s services are taking, you should ask questions so that you can understand the reasons for a particular course of action that is being taken.

What happens during a police investigation?

A police investigation may take place where there is an allegation of a crime having been committed. This is to make sure that children and young people involved are not at risk of harm, and to work out the best thing to do for everyone involved. There are a range of different ways in which the police and courts can deal with children and young people who have been arrested for illegal online sexual behaviours. This will depend on the individual situation.

If your child is in trouble with the police, you will need to think about legal representation to make sure their rights are protected. You could contact The Law Society, Just For Kids Law or Citizens Advice Bureau to help find a solicitor. If you live in Scotland, you could contact the Scottish Child Law Centre. If you live in Northern Island, you could contact The Children’s Law Centre.

It is not always the case that a child/young person is arrested when an allegation of this nature is made. Your child may, in certain circumstances, be placed on police bail while the investigation is completed. This will involve police interviews and examinations of internet-connected devices. This stage can take some time and you might not be given a clear idea of likely timescales. It is more likely that your child would be under investigation rather than subject of bail conditions.

It is important to get the details of the police officer and/or the social worker who you are in contact with. This will help you if you need to ask specific questions as the investigation progresses.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the wellbeing of your child.

What could the outcome of a police investigation be?

If your child was experimenting with friends in a way that appeared to be consensual, the police may decide to take one of the following actions.

England and Wales

  • ‘No further action’ is taken when there is not enough evidence for charges to be made, so the investigation is closed by the police.
  • Outcome 21 is used by police where a crime has been recorded as having happened but no formal criminal justice action is taken.
  • Outcome 21 can also be used when there is evidence of illegal behaviour (such as having a sexual image of an under 18) but it is not in anyone’s best interest for charges to be made. This is most likely to be used when there is no evidence of exploitation, grooming, exchange of money, hassling a child to send images or any other harmful motivations.
  • Outcome 22 is also an option that can be used when this is in the best interest of the child or young person. This gives your child the chance to receive some education or relevant intervention, without receiving a formal penalty.


  • An Early and Effective Intervention can be used for children between 8 and 17 years old, diverting children and young people from formal measures. This is a welfare-centred intervention, which looks at the child’s whole life to consider what help they may need. The aim is for difficulties leading to them getting into trouble are identified and addressed swiftly and effectively.

Northern Ireland

  • Police may close the case without prosecution.

If the context of the behaviour is more concerning, the police can take other action.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland

The police and Crown Prosecution Service will consider if the offending behaviour could be resolved using an out of court disposal such as a youth caution or youth conditional caution.

In Northern Ireland, this decision is made with the Public Prosecution Service and they may decide diversionary disposal is appropriate, making use of informed warnings, restorative cautions, diversionary youth conferences or youth engagement clinics.

Sometimes the level of concern means the offence should be dealt with through the court system.  This would usually be through the Youth Court, but in England, Wales or Northern Island the most serious sexual offences will be dealt with by a Crown Court, even for under 18s. This could lead to a community or, on rare occasions for young people, a custodial order being given.


Anyone under the age of 16 who has been charged will be supported by a social worker and referred to the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) or in some cases they would be jointly referred to SCRA and the Procurator Fiscal to review the case and decide on the best disposal.

For anyone 16 or over, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service will decide what would happen.

If your child is under 18 and still on a Compulsory Supervision Order through a social worker, your case (depending on the individual circumstances) may be referred back to SCRA for an outcome, rather than the court.

Sex offenders register

Depending on the type of offence, a caution or conviction may result in your child being placed on the sex offenders register and having a criminal record. This doesn’t happen in all situations but if you are worried about how this might affect your child in the future, you can talk to the experienced advisors on our helpline.

Further help

Find out more about telling other people and looking after your own and your child’s wellbeing.

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