Child and Family Assessment in Social Work Practice (Social Work in Action Series)

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Child welfare practitioners must act, not simply reflect, and must make judgements that will sometimes value one construction of the world over another. We have both a legal and moral imperative to do this. However, by drawing from the ideas inherent in social constructionism, we may understand that we will never be making an entirely objective decision, but one that is moral, practical and political.

The Coastal Cities Study Much of the discussion in this book is informed by qualitative research that I conducted between and into how social workers carry out in-depth assessments of children where there are expressed concerns about their welfare. The research was carried out in two neighbouring cities in the UK, both located on the coast.

In the larger city I examined assessments carried out by state social workers City Social Services. These social workers carried large and varied caseloads, weighted towards child protection and children looked after by the local authority, and their assessments were part of this work. In the smaller city, I looked at the work of practitioners based in a specialist referred family centre that conducted in-depth assessments referred by the local authority Hillside Family Centre.

It was owned and managed by a large national voluntary organisation. In both sites, all social workers were qualified and had post-qualifying experience of between 2 and 16 years. The research was conducted in three stages. In the first stage, 16 assessments were examined in depth. This stage included several in-depth interviews with each social worker at different periods of the assessment process, the observation of assessment sessions that had been previously video-taped, the reading of case records and observation of staff members in their team room.

The second stage followed the initial analysis of the first 16 cases. The case files of four further cases were examined to check the validity of the initial analysis and this analysis was also critiqued by a focus group of social workers from the family centre. The 20 assessments in stages one and two involved 35 children aged from six months to 12 years and one assessment involved an unborn child.

Of these cases, 15 had been referred for assessments by the family court and the other five by multi-disciplinary child protection case conferences. The cases included alleged physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and Ch The families undergoing assessment involved heterosexual couples, lone mothers and fathers and the maltreated children and their siblings. Whenever data from the Coastal Cities study are included, I have used pseudonyms and occasionally changed some identifying features in order to protect the anonymity of the participants.

A fuller explanation of the research methods is located elsewhere Holland, Research into Practice The inclusion of data from this research study, and from the findings of others who have researched assessment practice, affects the tone and purpose of this book. The words and actions of the Coastal Cities social workers are not included in order that either the reader or myself may pass judgement on how well or how badly a group of practitioners have carried out assessment practice.

Instead, and in the tradition of others who have carried out ethnographic research into social work for example Pithouse, and other occupations as diverse as accountancy Coffey, , medicine Bloor, b; Berg, and car manufacturing Collinson, , the intention is less directive. Therefore, the inclusion of the research findings is intended not only to illustrate the discussion but also to aid critical reflection. However, I am aware that readers will also want help in applying some of the research findings for action.

There are suggestions for practice and exercises throughout the book, and the third section of the book provides an intentional change of tone, becoming more of a practical guide than the previous two sections. Whilst I am currently involved in social work practice through research and teaching qualifying and post-qualifying students of child and family social work, my interest in this topic originates in my own practice experience.

I carried a large and varied caseload of which ongoing assessment work was a staple part. I occasionally carried out more intensive assessments, such as those discussed in this book, usually for court hearings. I then moved on to work in a voluntary sector family centre, similar to the Family Centre in the Coastal Cities study, although not the same centre.

There, I was part of a team for whom the core of our work was to carry out in-depth assessments of families referred by the local authority. Although the families referred often presented severe challenges concerning the abuse or neglect of their children, the work of the centre had a constructive tone. Even where assessments recommended that children be removed from their parents, or should not be returned home, relations between staff and family members frequently stayed positive. This was aided by very low caseloads, therefore each family was given time to express their views and be listened to.

There was also a team ethos of respect for all who attended for assessment.

  • The Ofsted Interview: ‘Children and families need consistency of social worker’?
  • The Statutory Social Worker's Role in Prevention and Early Intervention with Children.
  • Chapter 1: Assessing need and providing help.

It was Ch I therefore believe, from first-hand experience, that it is possible to carry out assessments of families, even where concerns are severe, in a positive and participatory manner. I acknowledge that this is aided by solid resources and low caseloads and that, as is discussed in Chapter 2, many practitioners in the Western world are struggling with rising and complex workloads. However, I would also argue that most of the suggestions for practice derived from research in this book are achievable in most social welfare settings as they are concerned particularly with a participatory ethos and adopting a critical and analytical approach.

Book Outline There are, of course, many ways in which a book of this nature could be organised and a multitude of subjects that could be included. I have therefore had to make hard decisions about what to include and exclude from the book. This book aims to concentrate on issues of principle and process of assessment with children and families.

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This means that there are no whole chapters on working with, for example, disabled children, assessing families from ethnic minority groups or on difficulties such as mental health problems. This does not mean that such issues are not vital, they are, but including substantial material on these issues would have made the book too large and changed its nature. Wherever possible, issues of diversity are addressed, and some discussion is included of specific problems faced by many families such as domestic violence and caring for a disabled child.

Specialist texts are cited where appropriate. It is hoped that the discussion in this book will be useful for the assessment of all families, whatever their circumstances. Exercises are included at the end of the book. The exercises might be done individually or as part of a class for qualifying or postqualifying social workers. This book is divided into three parts. Part I is an exploration of different approaches to assessment work. Part II is about the people in child and family assessments: the children, their parents and the relationship between the assessors and the assessed. Part III provides guidance and reflection on the process of an assessment, focusing particularly on planning, analysis and reporting.

The following outline of the chapters should help the reader to understand the rationale for this book. Several approaches to assessment are outlined and current assessment practice in the US and England and Wales is discussed. Various international themes affecting assessment practice with children and families are introduced.

  1. Value Distribution Theory and Related Topics (Advances in Complex Analysis and Its Applications);
  2. Chapter 1: Assessing need and providing help?
  3. You are here.
  4. The importance of the quality of engagement between families and practitioners and its impact on the outcome of the assessment is noted. Both parenting of children and parental lifestyles are explored in this chapter. The complexity of deciding whether parenting standards are adequate is a well-worn dilemma in social work. It includes discussion of co-working, inter-disciplinary assessment and the use of a range of assessment methods. A comparison between assessment design and research design is made and it is noted that, whilst practitioners have much to offer research in terms of communication methods and attention to ethics, so can assessment practice gain from methodological approaches developed in social research.

    Here, the process of analysing and reporting is discussed and a method proposed that aims to produce conclusions that are complex, fair and useful. A set of principles is proposed for working towards assessments for children and their families based on the research findings and discussion in the previous nine chapters.

    Note 1 Due to the rather unwieldy nature of this title, it will be referred to as the Assessment Framework for the remainder of the book. The contents explore research into assessment practice, and the use of research findings to construct assessment schedules and guidance. Various approaches to assessment are identified, including diagnostic, predictive, broad social and bureaucratic. The chapter concludes with a discussion of risk and risk management in the context of current social trends. Research into Social Work Assessment Social work research into assessment practice may broadly be divided into two main areas: that which examines the relationships between inputs for example factors influencing and outputs decisions ; and that which examines the process of assessment Cuzzi et al.

    In the former field, there has been much research into factors used by social workers in decision-making. Methods used to determine decision-making factors include surveys Fernandez, ; Banach, , the examination of files Dalgleish and Drew, , the training of social workers to record the key factors in a decision for research purposes A.

    Rosen et al. Studies that pick out factors most commonly used for decision-making in order to provide pro-forma and checklists for decision-making may be falling into the trap of simply reproducing and further institutionalising current working practices Wald and Woolverton, In other words, they represent accumulated Ch An alternative approach that has been used to develop actuarial assessment instruments looks at the progress of families through the child welfare system and tracks outcomes such as incidents of re-abuse.

    This leads to the identification of factors empirically linked to risk or at least risk defined and identified by child protection systems and instruments with stronger claims to validity than those that reproduce practice wisdom Gambrill and Shlonsky, Findings from quantitative research into decision-making factors in social work assessment have been used to help produce formal tools for risk assessment by child protection services, particularly in the US. A second area of research into social work assessment has examined the process of assessment in more detail.

    This has generally, but not always, involved qualitative research. Such research has examined areas such as tacit knowledge and organisational culture, as well as more formal aspects of the assessment process. Some of the research studies commissioned by the British Department of Health in the early s Department of Health, a looked at decision processes from a variety of angles, such as parental perspectives Cleaver and Freeman, , partnership with parents Thoburn et al.

    Studies of the process of social work assessment and decision-making may also be looking for factors that affect decision-making, but these will tend to be of a process nature and do not tend to be linked to quantitative material such as case or worker characteristics for example, Waterhouse and Carnie, Research that has examined in detail some of the decision-making processes in social work include those by Handelman , Gilgun , Wattam , Thorpe , Dingwall et al. Studies such as these provide insights into the informal, subtle and tacit aspects of the decision-making process in child care social work.

    They also provide detailed descriptions of practice that may allow practitioners to recognise, compare and reflect on their own work Bloor, They rarely provide information about outcomes or prevalence. It can be seen that both quantitative and qualitative approaches to researching assessment have the potential to provide valuable and often complementary information about the state of assessment work in child welfare settings.

    Research into assessment systems has often been applied retrospectively, after new guidance or legislation has been applied. Many assessment systems in the US were introduced without research into their effectiveness Doueck et al. Recently there have been more systematic attempts to evaluate new systems. In England and Wales, the Assessment Framework, which will be discussed in detail later in this chapter, has been researched at the pilot stage Thomas and Cleaver, and Ch Similarly, in New Zealand, Barber and Delfabbro report the piloting and research into a standardised parenting assessment instrument being considered for use by the governmental Children, Young People and their Families Services.

    Approaches to Assessment Assessing children and their families in the welfare arena has been carried out using a range of different approaches over the last few decades. A range of approaches are identified here: diagnostic, predictive, the broad social assessment and bureaucratic assessment.

    These are not discrete categories and there is a considerable amount of overlap between the categories, but the division of assessment approaches into these categories aids this brief recounting of the story of the development of assessment in child welfare. The story related is mainly that of England and Wales. International themes in assessment and specific developments in the US are reviewed later in this chapter. Some of the approaches to assessment can be viewed in relation to theories of decision-making and these are briefly introduced next.

    Decision-making models The various approaches to social work assessment in childcare can be linked to broader theories of decision-making models. In his groundbreaking case study of the Cuban missile crisis, Allison exposes the implicit model underpinning many analyses of decision-making across several disciplines. He labels this the rational decision-making model. This model is similar to the traditional cost—benefits model, which is particularly rooted in the discipline of economics Hall, Here, it is assumed that individuals or groups working in the same way rationally examine all possible choices towards achieving a goal.

    Desired objectives will be maximised and costs minimised Allison, However, this model assumes that decision-makers act rationally, have perfect information available for analysis and that the parameters remain fixed. The impact of factors such as values, social context and political goals are not included in such an analysis.

    The weakness of applying such a model to social work assessment is readily apparent. It cannot be assumed that social workers or any other social actors always act rationally. In assessing human relationships and actions, it is not possible to know when all available information has been gathered. It cannot be assumed that no move towards a decision is made whilst information is still being gathered Bloor, b , nor that the situation being assessed is static.

    Allison suggests two further models to aid analyses of decisions. An organisational process model emphasises the variety of factors coming into play when decisions are made in the context of organisations. These include the role of routine and organisational procedures, the control of information, personal risk-avoidance by participants and differing definitions of the problem.

    Allison also outlines a government politics model that examines decision-making in Ch Both of these models, but perhaps particularly the organisational process model, are highly relevant. Several studies, including the Coastal Cities research, suggest the influence of professional, organisational and broader cultural factors on social workers conducting assessments Sheppard, ; Campion, ; Pithouse, ; Scott, Assessment as diagnosis Social work assessment leading to a diagnosis of the problem at hand was written about in detail early this century Richmond, and, as a theme in assessment, can be seen as particularly influential until about the s.

    Childcare concerns were seen as rooted in the whole family, although with particular focus on the mother Gordon, , and work was carried out with families to treat the diagnosed problem. Social casework tended to have a broad focus of family problems, and this trend continued into the s. During the s, concerns about child battering were mainly raised by the medical profession. Paediatricians and radiologists became involved in the diagnosis of child abuse Corby, Concerns about child abuse remained predominantly in the medical field in the UK until later in the s.

    The medical antecedents meant that child harm, and its assessment, tended to be approached by child welfare agencies such as the NSPCC along an individualistic, medical model rather than, for example, an approach which emphasised prevention through increased universal welfare services. As Hendrick notes, child abuse was seen as a syndrome, or disease, with underlying causes, which required diagnosis and treatment. An individual and diagnostic approach has remained an important influence on social work assessment in more recent decades, but in the UK and the US in particular, a more bureaucratic approach with an emphasis on risk management has tended to emerge.

    In continental Europe, despite many national variations, it has been argued that there has been a continued emphasis on family diagnosis and treatment of child abuse Hetherington et al. Research in the UK and the US has, particularly since the s, attempted to find empirical factors associated with child abuse. However, many of the studies that led to the identification of risk factors were carried out without a clear operational definition of maltreatment, and some of the parents studied had only been suspected of abusing their children Dingwall, Factors such as the unhappy childhood experiences of the parents and their poor health were identified.

    It was not clear whether these factors were identified by the assessors or the parents themselves, nor how the prevalence of these compared with other parents from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. The identification of key risk factors to aid the prediction and assessment of child abuse is understandably an attractive goal for policymakers and practitioners.

    It promises an element of control and rationality in an arena which is complex, unpredictable and may have severe, even fatal results. The Inquiry report into the death of four-year-old Jasmine Beckford in London Borough of Brent, provides an example of this. The Inquiry report recommended that: Research designed to refine the techniques for predicting accurately those children who will continue to be at risk is urgently required. London Borough of Brent, Unfortunately, accurate prediction has proved elusive Corby, ; Gambrill and Shlonsky, Whilst cohort studies, such as that reported by Browne and Saqi , have positively predicted the majority of child abuse cases subsequently identified by the child abuse management system, they have also falsely predicted large numbers of parents who have not been identified as causing any harm to their children Simmonds, ; Murphy-Berman, In addition, some children were harmed whose parents were not predicted to be abusers.

    Since the early s, progress has been made with the research base of factors used in some assessment instruments, and actuarial instruments have good overall predictive results compared to other methods. However, there is still a large margin of error when using predictive instruments with individuals. When instruments are used to assess individuals, they are generally aimed at assessing the likelihood of re-abuse, yet many of the factors in assessment instruments are derived from retrospective research into common factors linking initial incidents of abuse Wald and Woolverton, In acknowledging the lack of accuracy when applied to individual circumstances, instrument designers are faced with deciding whether to aim for high sensitivity or specificity.

    Increased sensitivity leads to more children at high risk being identified, but also more children identified as high risk who do not suffer re-abuse false positives. Higher specificity correctly identified more children who are not at risk, but also will identify more children as not at risk who go on to suffer re-abuse.

    Sensitivity and specificity have an inverse relationship with one another Gambrill and Shlonsky, The broad social assessment Two themes associated with social work assessment over the last few decades have so far been identified: assessment as diagnosis and assessment by prediction. A third theme is that of a broad social assessment. The identification of the importance of a comprehensive social assessment in families where child abuse has occurred, or is thought to be at risk of occurring, was emphasised particularly in the s in the UK.

    This has been overlapped by the trend towards the legalisation and bureaucratisation of social work as described below. The need for the thorough assessment of families where there are child protection concerns was an issue that was regularly highlighted in the child abuse inquiry reports of the s and s Hallett, a.

    Account Options

    Many of the inquiry panels concluded that social workers had not collected together the information which would have led to a comprehensive overview of a particular family. In particular there was a lack of co-ordination of information from the different agencies involved with a family. It was noted that no framework existed to guide social workers in the areas they should cover when assessing a family situation Reder et al.

    In the inquiry following the events in Cleveland Department of Health and Social Security, , social workers were criticised for only assessing the child and not the parents Corby, The inquiry into the death of Tyra Henry found that no comprehensive attempt was made to piece together the information held about the parents and that cultural stereotyping was a central problem London Borough of Lambeth, Assessments were criticised for being too narrow and problem-focused rather than broadly assessing the situation a child is living in.

    One of the research studies, which examined social worker decision-making when children are on the brink of being admitted to substitute care, found that there was little difference between those admitted to care and those not admitted except, paradoxically, that those admitted appeared to be less at risk of child abuse at the hands of their caregivers than those not admitted Packman and Randall, Despite new arrangements for comprehensive assessment in cases of child abuse being introduced in the late s Department of Health, , assessments were still found to be narrow in focus in the mids.

    A series of research reports Department of Health, a found an overly narrow focus on child protection issues and recommended that the broader needs of the child in his or her family situation and environment be assessed, both in child protection and general welfare cases. The Assessment Framework Department of Health, a was designed to meet the need for a broad social assessment and could also be seen to be responding to earlier calls, such as those by the Jasmine Beckford inquiry, to base assessment work on empirical knowledge.

    It might also be seen to fit with the final approach to assessment to be discussed here, that is, the bureaucratic approach. Bureaucratic trends in assessment … assessment schedules and checklists structure the encounter between professional and service user. Taylor and White, As already indicated, one response in UK social work to the inquiry reports of the s and s was the move towards broader social assessments of children and their families.

    A further, and related, development was the increased bureaucratisation of procedures, including those of assessment Parton, ; Howe, ; Lloyd and Taylor, In this context, bureaucratisation refers to the work of practitioners becoming increasingly regulated through clearly defined procedures, in an attempt to manage practice that has been seen as too idiosyncratic. Howe suggests that this arose from a change of view from abusive parents as potentially treatable, to abusive parents as potentially dangerous.

    Bureaucracy in social work assessment may be linked to increasingly prescribed assessment procedures. The perceived need to manage the actions of social workers and assist them in identifying and managing potentially dangerous parents has led to the introduction of many more detailed guidelines for social work practice than had previously been available Howe, The bureaucratic trend in assessment since the s overlaps with other assessment themes identified above.

    For example, Howe identifies the bureaucratic assessment as a continued attempt to predict abuse in individuals. Many of the bureaucratic developments in social work assessment in England and Wales have also embraced the notion of a broad social assessment, rather than simply a focus on specific concerns. This may be seen in two separate Department of Health assessment guidelines Department of Health, , a and those designed for assessing the needs of Looked After Children Department of Health, All of these combine high levels of prescribed activity with attention to a wide range of factors affecting the individual family or child.

    Models of front-line assessment practice The assessment approaches identified above are broad categories, relating to social policy and research trends. At a level concerned with individual exchanges at the front-line of practice, Smale et al. However, these models are also likely to be used according to professional, team and individual cultures relating to theoretical orientation and relationships with local service users. The model most strongly adhered to in this book is the exchange model, with the acknowledgement that the other models will be appropriate in some circumstances. The Context of Child and Family Assessment Practice Contextual issues form a vital part in understanding assessment practices.

    Whatever approach to assessment is used, front-line practices will be affected by the organisational setting. Political pressures arising after a child death, time and resource constraints, and poor staff morale will all affect decisions about thresholds of concern and eligibility for support services.

    Although it must be recognised that there are wide variations in the circumstances of assessment practice between nations and within nations, it is possible to identify some common international themes relating to child and family assessment that cross national and continental boundaries. Current themes that consistently appear in the literature discussing child welfare practice might be seen as occurring in two main areas: issues relating to the management of professional practice including staff shortages, training, assessment approaches and risk management ; and key difficulties facing children and their families including poverty, violence, substance misuse, homelessness and migration.

    Managing increased demand for child welfare services A key theme that crosses most international boundaries has been an increased workload for those providing for assessment and provision in the field of child welfare services. There are problems with staff shortages. In the UK, there has been a move to an almost totally qualified workforce in childcare social work. However, low morale, pay and status and the challenging nature of the work have led to staff shortages and a high staff turnover. Most Western countries have also seen an increase in child welfare referrals, due to a number of factors including increased public awareness, child poverty and substance misuse.

    Countries as far apart geographically as New Zealand and Ireland have seen rapid rises in child abuse and neglect reports Duncan and Worrall, ; Buckley, In the US reports of child maltreatment have risen from a rate of 10 per 1, children annually in the mids, to 43 per 1, children in the mids Brooks and Webster, Key difficulties facing children and their families Whilst there are significant differences in laws, service patterns and social provision internationally, and even within relatively small areas such as the UK and continental Europe Pringle, , there are some difficulties facing many Ch Poverty and unemployment are, of course, acute concerns in much of the Southern hemisphere and Eastern Europe.

    However, they are also central concerns in all of Europe, with pockets of concern even in previously relatively equitable Nordic nations Pringle, In the UK, despite policy changes to tackle child poverty since , the vast majority of children coming to the attention of social services are poor, usually dependent on state benefits Department of Health, a. Abney notes that in the US there appears to be a close correlation between the over-representation of communities of colour living in poverty and their over-representation in the child protection system.

    This is undoubtedly also an issue in many other Western nations. The extent of poverty faced by families who come into contact with social work services presents a challenge to assessment services. These are often focused on individual problems and underplay the effect of the environment Gambrill and Shlonsky, In child neglect cases, which are now the predominant category for child protection referrals in many nations including England, Ireland and the US Department of Health, ; Buckley, ; Erickson and Egeland, , social workers find themselves trying to assess the relative impact of poverty and parental acts of omission on the standard of child care.

    A linked central concern for child welfare assessment work is the provision of adequate services for migrant families, refugees and ethnic minorities. In many Western nations, social services have recognised the oppression and discrimination faced by those marginalised from the predominant white cultures and attempts have been made to provide assessment and services that are more culturally sensitive. In the US, the rapid rise in formal kinship care arrangements has arisen as a response to the large numbers of African American children in the public care system and a recognition of the role of extended family in African American culture Scannapieco, In New Zealand, the introduction of Family Group Conferencing was an attempt to use Maori methods of assessment and decision-making to stem the over-representation of Maori children in care Lupton and Nixon, In England and Wales, the Assessment Framework Department of Health, a aims to ensure a more culturally sensitive assessment than was previously in place.

    A rising demand for child welfare services arising out of parental substance misuse can be seen in many parts of the world with, for example, alcoholism a major concern in Russia Fokini, and illicit drug misuse in the US Kelley, Internationally, the assessment of children and their families is affected by institutional context, such as the development of social services and of assessment protocols, and by pressing social and economic issues, such as poverty and substance misuse.

    Following this broad overview, the discussion turns to consider, as case studies, the assessment practice in the US and then England and Wales.

    Social Work with Immigrant Families

    Despite some similarities in the approach to child protection practice in these countries, there are some differences in the approaches to assessment. The first state-wide assessment instrument was developed in Illinois in the early s Cash, Since then, a clear majority of states have adopted risk assessment tools to form part of state legislation governing child protection services DePanfilis and Scannapieco, ; Gambrill and Shlonsky, Concerns were raised about the rush to adopt risk assessment schedules in the majority of US states before they had been empirically validated Doueck et al.

    The Ofsted Interview: ‘Children and families need consistency of social worker’

    There has been more research carried out over the last decade into the effectiveness of the use of risk assessment tools. Gambrill and Shlonsky suggest that it is necessary to distinguish between systems that are based on empirical relationships between predicted variables and outcomes actuarial and those based on a range of factors agreed by experts consensus. The authors note that over one hundred studies have shown that actuarial models are more reliable than consensus-based systems or individual judgement. Proponents of structured decision-making tools for assessment, which are characterised by large numbers of closed questions and the use of scoring, point to the advantages in increased rates of consistency between workers and the potential to reduce cultural bias California Health and Social Services, However, problems remain.

    There are difficulties in the empirical base on all systems, relating to the definition of key concepts such as neglect and a lack of baseline data from the general population Gambrill and Shlonsky, Despite an aura of objectivity, most factors still require worker judgement. Without an acknowledgement of the subjectivity of the process, present even when using assessment instruments, there is a risk that attention to reflective and critical practice will be reduced.

    A further problem is the concentration on deficits rather than strengths in many systems Cash, It may be that, in practice, such limitations are recognised by the users of predictive tools. Research into how American child protection practitioners use the tools to assist decision-making suggests that they are being used to verify decisions already made DePanfilis, However, in the US the general thrust of assessment policy, at least in relation to child maltreatment, appears to be the need to reduce the ability of individuals to influence outcomes.

    Current Assessment Practice in England and Wales In England and Wales there have been significant changes in assessment practice in recent years. These were collated by members of the Dartington research team into a guide known as Messages From Research Department of Health, a. The collective research studies provide quantitative information on the child protection process, including information on the , families subject to child protection enquiries in England and Wales on an annual basis Gibbons et al.

    There are also several studies providing qualitative data alongside quantitative data on the processes of child protection practice Cleaver and Freeman, ; Thoburn et al. Further messages drawn by the Dartington team from the 20 studies include the need to work in partnership with parents and for social workers to avoid concentrating narrowly on incidents of abuse.

    Policing and coercive intervention with families should be reduced. The Assessment Framework consists of the framework itself and its voluminous companion publications: guidance, records and guidance for completing the records , packs of questionnaires and scales, reader and training pack Department of Health, a, b, c, d; Howarth, ; NSPCC, ; Cox and Walker, Together they constitute a comprehensive set of guidance for practitioners.

    The National Assembly for Wales has published versions for Welsh agencies. These are slightly adapted for the Welsh context and most are bilingual. As Government guidance, the Assessment Framework is not legally binding, but under the Local Authority Social services Act its implementation is expected unless exceptional local circumstances require adaptation. The Assessment Framework is summarised in the form of a triangle see Figure 2. These may include child protection needs, but potential abuse should no longer be the sole focus of an enquiry.

    There are two stages of assessment: all accepted referrals should be subjected to an initial assessment, taking no more than seven consecutive working days; more complex cases will be followed up by a core assessment, lasting up to 35 working days, where the same domains are assessed in much more detail and depth.

    The assessment approach might be seen as drawing on both the broad social assessment approach and the bureaucratic trend. The assessment model is primarily one of in-depth interviewing of family members, with scope for this to be along the lines of the exchange model, the questioning model, or, at a stretch, the procedural model Smale et al.

    Assessment work rooted in in-depth interviewing is similar to previous models in the UK Department of Health, There is, however, much more emphasis than previously on the engagement of fathers and children in the assessment, consultation with other professionals and the use of broader assessment methods such as observation and scales. There is more overt inclusion of the views of family members into the assessment report. More attention is given to environmental factors such as poverty, housing and social networks. In sum, therefore, the Assessment Framework may be viewed as a welcome Ch Despite the welcome nature of the Assessment Framework in general, there are some questions that may be posed in relation to it, both of a general and specific nature.

    Of importance is the prominence given to the use of questionnaires and scales during an assessment. In Chapter 8 of this book the use of scales in assessment is discussed in more detail and generally welcomed , but here it might be noted that the use of such instruments represents a departure for childcare social workers in the UK.

    Yet it is clear to the writers of the Assessment Framework that such scales should not be used in isolation from other evidence Department of Health, d: 3. This may serve to undermine thorough analysis of all assessment material using a reflexive approach see Chapters 3 and 9. Certainly, one of the key findings from the piloting of the Assessment Framework in England and Wales has been the continuing problem of poor quality analysis in assessment work Cleaver, ; Thomas and Cleaver, With any large document authored by many participants, it will be possible to find weak points in specific wording or advice.

    Thus Garrett notes potential class prejudice in instructions for social workers to note stale cigarette smoke and questions about whether children have been taken to county shows. He also suggests that there is an uncritical reliance on normalisation and conformity in the areas of social and economic relationships this he locates within the broader New Labour agenda. Criticisms also might be made of the research summaries contained within the margins of the recording forms. Whilst anecdotally practitioners like them and they give a context and reasoning to the bald tick-boxes, they do not cite sources and are in such a pared-down form they are open to accusations of over-generalisation and misinterpretation.

    No context is given, such as a discussion of different achievement patterns of different ethnic groups, links to poverty, racism and school exclusions and so on. The form is to be shared with the young person, and the message being given by the statement to a Black child and their family is questionable. Similarly, it is possible to question the wording of other aspects of the Ch It is possible to find further difficulties, omissions and ambiguities in the framework, but this is almost inevitable in guidance of such ambitious breadth.

    Some difficulties have been identified and are being remedied following the pilot stage Thomas and Cleaver, Further discussion of aspects of the Assessment Framework is included throughout this book. Risk, Postmodernity and Assessment Practice The final theme of this chapter is that of risk. Risk to children and to the practitioners who make decisions about those children is a concern that pervades all of the approaches to assessment identified above and the everyday assessment practice of social workers in the field of child welfare.

    Risk management is an increasingly global concern, affecting almost every aspect of society. Many authors have located the preoccupation with risk management in broader trends associated with late modern society. In order to understand the place of risk management in child welfare assessment, it is necessary first to summarise some of the arguments about risk and postmodernity.

    Postmodernity The relevance to social work of debates about postmodernity has been discussed and debated in the social work literature in recent years. Despite its rather esoteric nature, this debate has clear practice implications that are particularly pertinent to assessment, including our understandings of subjectivity, relativism and expertise. Many commentators, such as Howe , Pardeck et al. The modern era has been characterised as one that has striven for rationality, progress through human endeavour, reason, professional expertise and the ordered sovereign state since the seventeenth century in Europe and subsequently much of the rest of the world Giddens, ; Howe, ; Smith and White, The grand narratives and theories no longer hold and expertise is questioned Parton, a.

    It is suggested that postmodernist trends in social work include the diversification of tasks and of theory, the diffusion of power, the concentration on actions rather than actors and a pre-occupation with risk Howe, ; Parton, a. These are exemplified in Britain by the marketisation and commodification of community care and the legalisation of childcare social work Parton, a. Others Sheppard, b; Ferguson, ; Smith and White, have questioned the relevance of postmodernity to a contemporary analysis of social work. Ferguson argues that in an era of reflexive modernisation there is the potential for a more radical relationship between lay people and social work experts, with the social observers also becoming socially observed.

    To some extent the debate on whether the current era should be labelled postmodernity, advanced or reflexive modernity is a matter of semantics. Despite some real differences in emphases around the implications for social work of the modern era, there are also many common aspects of the various analyses of current social trends. There appears to be agreement that the distinction between the expert and lay person is being eroded, with professional expertise increasingly open to challenge Giddens, ; Beck, ; Howe, A corresponding legalistic trend has led to an emphasis on rights, contracts and responsibilities Howe, ; Smith, Many have emphasised an increased wish to calculate, predict and manage risk Parton, , a, ; Giddens, ; Ferguson, ; Scott et al.

    Whether the modern era has ended or is engaged in a period of reflexivity, it appears that the modernist rational agenda of seeking absolute truths through systematic means has been eroded. It may be suggested that social work must recognise that there will be a series of competing explanations in any assessment. Abandoning a search for one external reality means that social workers conducting assessments may need to learn to sit with uncertainty. However, there is a need to be aware of the nihilistic dangers of pure relativism for social work Parton, a; Sheppard, b; White, ; Martinez-Brawley and Mendez-Bonito Zorita, Risk However we label our current era, it is clear that the management of risk is a major preoccupation.

    It has already been noted in this chapter how research has Ch Actuarial-based instruments appear to aid inter-assessor consistency and accuracy in predicting substantiated abuse. Difficulties with such instruments have also been noted, in that they are often based on unreliable research findings, they produce both false negatives and false positives, they are often deficit based and their use creates an illusion of objectivity and accuracy that discourages reflection and critical thinking.

    Krane and Davies note that a goal of scientific objectivity can serve to obscure the inherently moral and political nature of much decision-making about risk in the child welfare arena. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas notes, risk is future-orientated, assumed to be calculable and associated with accountability: Within the cultural debate about risk and justice opponents seek to inculpate the other side and exonerate their own supporters from blame. Risk is unequivocally used to mean danger from future damage, caused by the opponents.

    How much risk is a matter for the experts, but on both sides of the debate it has to be taken for granted that the matter is ascertainable. Anyone who insists that there is a high degree of uncertainty is taken to be opting out of accountability. Douglas, 30, emphasis in the original Yet, of course, in the child welfare arena, risk cannot be accurately predicted. Yet, sadly, sometimes an unlikely event will happen and still remain unlikely.

    The best we can do is to thoroughly analyse all available evidence against a range of possible explanations see Chapter 9. If a child is thought to be at risk, this will include looking for evidence that supports this view, as well as actively seeking information about safety in the home environment. We need to pay attention to unremarkable events and details, as well as to vivid evidence MacDonald and MacDonald, The context of risk management will also affect decision-making about risk.

    Difficulties related to resource constraints and shortage of trained workers may lead either to the raising of thresholds about which cases are concerning and so reduce the workload or, perhaps, to avoiding time-consuming preventative and rehabilitation work. Local teams and area authorities develop their own understandings of risk, as reflected in the regional variations in child protection register rates in England and Wales.

    Scourfield notes how a child death associated with neglect raised child protection concerns about other neglect cases in an area team. There are also national differences in the way that risk is approached, arising from legal and cultural variations. For example, in the Netherlands, the confidential doctor system entails a less legalistic approach to risk than the UK approach Hetherington et al.

    As Gambrill and Shlonsky pithily observe: Ch Tolerating feeble inferences, rewarding gold and garbage alike, and the buddy-buddy syndrome a reluctance to criticise friends may dilute the quality of decisions in case conferences. Authors such as Beck , Douglas , Parton b and Parton et al. It cannot be just a technical calculation. This does not mean, of course, that holding an intellectual stance that risk to children is socially constructed supports any acceptability of child abuse.

    Stainton Rogers and Stainton Rogers use the example that throwing boiling water on a child would be universally agreed to be a morally reprehensible act. However, a multitude of observers might differ in how they understood the causes for that act, who is responsible, and perhaps most crucially, what should happen next to the child, its parents, and in terms of professional intervention. Whilst they may be helped by various scales and other assessment instruments, it has been seen that these are not watertight. A soundly based judgement must be made in each case.

    A final note on risk management is the management of risk to professionals.

    Assessment of a child under the Children Act 1989

    It has been seen that Douglas relates risk to accountability. In the US and more rarely in the UK there is a risk of being sued for malpractice by aggrieved service users, including children who were left in an abusive situation or who were wrongly removed from home. There is also a risk of being the subject of a formal complaint or a public inquiry. In Chapter 9 it is noted that written records may be a form of prospective justification. Writing in the UK context, MacDonald and MacDonald suggest that practitioners should record outcomes that are possible but not likely, as well as the expected outcomes for a case.

    Conclusion This chapter has set the scene for a detailed consideration of child and family assessment by examining various historical and contemporary approaches to assessment, research into assessment, international themes affecting assessment and the relevance of current broader debates of postmodernism and risk. Frontline practitioners are confronted with day-to-day experiences of contemporary social challenges, including child poverty, homelessness and migrancy, substance misuse and staff shortages.

    Finding the best approach to assess and assist families in such situations is a challenge, and there is often a tension between the development of standardised systems for promoting equality of service and Ch The ways in which social workers understand their task in such settings is the key theme for the next chapter. Note 1 This re-focusing towards family support and prevention can also be observed in the US Daro and Donnelly, ; Garrett, Practitioners feel that it is vital to be open, clear and fair in assessment work, but that true partnership is an impossible goal in many complex situations.

    It is noted that practitioners have a dominant tendency to describe their assessment decisions through language of objectivity and science, especially to other agencies. Informally, however, some also describe their decision-making as being based on reflective judgement. This chapter examines the nature of complex assessment of families. In the last chapter different policy approaches to assessment were outlined. These included predictive and diagnostic approaches, the broad social assessment and the bureaucratic approach.

    In this chapter the understandings and practices of assessing practitioners are discussed. A number of key themes are explored: assessment as a legalistic task, maintained by a system of rights, responsibilities and openness about power differences; assessment as an objective, informationgathering task; and assessment as a process of reflective evaluation of competing explanations. It is likely that many practitioners will understand assessment in all of these ways from time to time, depending perhaps on the nature of an individual case or the audience for a report.

    The limitations and possibilities for assessment suggested by these various ways of understanding the assessment task are explored. The balance of power in the assessments will be discussed. It will be argued that the social workers perceive the assessment as being a rather neutral, legalistic task, underlined by rights and responsibilities for all parties. An observation made of contemporary child protection social work has been that it has become increasingly legalistic or socio-legal in its orientation over the last two decades Otway, It is argued that this is seen in the increasingly detailed procedures issued centrally, the use of court proceedings to intervene in child protection situations and an emphasis on forensic risk assessment of dangerousness Parton et al.

    In England and Wales, the Children Act puts legalism at the heart of social work, balanced by the principles of rights, responsibilities, openness and honesty Smith, In the guidance associated with the Act, partnership with children and families is named as an important principle Parton et al. Be open and honest about your concerns and responsibilities. The basis of the work is often laid out in a written agreement or contract.

    Such methods of working have been cited as contributing to a spirit of partnership Marsh and Fisher, ; Department of Health, b where the overall aim would be to reduce the power difference between social worker and client Pugh et al. However, in the context of in-depth assessment, an equality of power tends to be seen by social workers as neither possible nor desirable.

    The social workers have a legal responsibility to retain control of the process. Instead, an emphasis on openness and rights is seen as a just way to proceed. Parents have a right to expect careful assessment prior to long term decisions being taken. Opportunity to challenge information held on them should be given to parents and decisions taken that affect them should be taken in a framework within which the parent is always involved. Parents have a right to an open and honest approach from social workers and a right to clear explanations of the power, actions and reasons for concern of the agencies involved.

    Extract from first Jones family assessment report: emphasis added Ch Here, children have rights, parents have rights and responsibilities, and social workers have responsibilities and power. Fairness is implied by the opportunities given to families to challenge information and to have their views taken into account. However, this statement does not include a promise of partnership and clearly states that the final responsibility for the assessment rests with the social worker.

    In the following extract, one of the Hillside Family Centre social workers is discussing how he attempts to bring elements of partnership into his work with families: Partnership in this setting is slightly different than in other settings you know. I try to say that I am doing an assessment with the family. So, the nature of partnership is different, but for me you have to look at other ways of doing it. Whilst the Department of Health in England and Wales has produced guidelines b on partnership, which include a chapter on assessments, it can be seen that there is some scepticism amongst the practitioners quoted above about how realistic partnership can be in an in-depth assessment.

    This scepticism is also reflected in the academic literature Dingwall et al. A total of twenty-four social workers took part, nineteen of whom were women, and five men and three were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. I shadowed practitioners by going out with them on home visits, interviewing them on the way to the visit and straight afterwards about their experience—usually in the car—and observing and audio-recording the encounters between social workers and service users. This was only done when consent was given by all parties.

    The research was granted ethical clearance by my university and the two local authorities where it took place. In total, eighty-seven practice encounters were observed and audio-recorded, seventy-one of which were on home visits; the remainder took place in social work offices and schools. The key research questions were: What do social workers do in performing child protection, especially on home visits?

    What do they say to children and parents? How do they act? How close to children do they get? The research drew on theory that provides resources for thinking about the lived experience of practices like social work. To help someone requires a capacity to think about them and become emotionally attuned to their experience.

    Thinking is influenced by several things but anxiety is regarded as particularly influential Bower, Child protection professionals experience intense emotions, from their own experience of anxiety, fear, sadness, hope, despair and the feelings of rage, hate, love, gratitude and so on that are projected into them by services users. These intense emotional experiences are unavoidable in social work and child protection; what is crucial is whether and how they are managed in containing ways that promote clear thinking.

    The research also drew on theory that helps to illuminate the nature of lived experience. Deepening understandings of how social work is—or is not—done requires analysis of how practice is achieved and experienced not only in terms of emotions and the mind, but through movement, the body and the senses Pink, This method is concerned not merely with the emotional dynamics of interactions, but also with the atmospheres, smells and moods of encounters. The research sought to enter the internal world of practice and the practitioner as they moved through space and into the homes and intimate lives of children and families, gathering data on what they were doing, feeling and thinking as they were doing it Ferguson, a ; b.

    This involved taking account of experiences that are usually ignored, such as journeys, and the car was found to be a crucial space within which workers prepared for and afterwards reflected upon encounters with families. This approach provides insights into what makes practice flow well and how close, intimate relating to children and parents occurs and into instances in which moving, seeing, talking, touching and thinking straight become difficult and how barriers to engagement are overcome, or not.

    The overall picture of social work to emerge from the study was of practice that achieved different degrees of closeness to children and families. In some short- and long-term work, relationships with families had real depth and the interactions with children were very close and intimate. In such casework, children were not only talked to, but hugged, caressed to bring comfort, examined and played with.

    Babies and pre-verbal infants were picked up, held and engaged in face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact and communicated with through noises and playfulness. Children aged four and above were spoken to on their own. However, the goal of good practice needs to be expressed in terms of a language that incorporates all the senses and intimacy. The research findings show that, where children are not meaningfully engaged with, it is the absence of intimate practice that involves eye-to-eye contact, talk, active listening, play, touch and close observation that results in crucial aspects of their experience remaining unknown.

    A key finding concerned the complexity of the work. Home visiting is very different from work that goes on in the office or the clinic, as workers have to negotiate with family members and relationships as they are lived out in their space, and deal with the presence of strangers and the impact of the home itself, such as smells and atmospheres welcome, hostile and dogs. Multiple tasks had to be completed, invariably within time limits: parents and other carers interviewed, children spoken to on their own, interactions between family members observed, and bedrooms and other home conditions inspected, to name just some.

    This complexity meant that the risk of superficial, non-intimate practice was ever present. Sometimes social workers were observed in encounters and atmospheres on home visits that threatened to distract them from their focus on the child but they managed to pull themselves back from the edge of being overwhelmed to complete purposeful work Ferguson, b.

    But, in a minority of cases, social workers did not overcome these challenges and this resulted in different degrees of detachment from and invisibility of children. This was particularly evident in three cases involving different social workers and families and these will be drawn upon to illustrate the various dynamics. The social worker spent the duration of the visit interviewing the mother in the sitting room, while the three-year-old child spent most of it upstairs, playing with a friend.

    The social worker did not directly engage with the child on the one occasion he came into the living room. On those, she addressed concerns openly and honestly with parents, was empathic and strengths based in her approach; she saw the children on their own and observed them interacting with their parents.

    The family friend was not introduced even though the social worker had to walk past her to get to the living room. When interviewed afterwards, the worker had a sense that things were messy, incomplete and that she needed to go further and deeper in engaging with the children, which she did by going back much sooner than she had committed herself to doing at the end of the first visit. The second example involved a home visit in which the worker engaged in a very fitful and largely detached way with the two children, aged ten and fourteen.

    She did not see the children on their own to discuss what she regarded as quite serious concerns about alleged neglect, despite their father in one of his few moments of overt cooperativeness asking her whether she wished to. The worker turned down the opportunity, which was very unusual in the context of the study, as social workers generally had to work hard to be assertive in asking to see children on their own.

    The father was mostly belligerent, restless and highly active, which included patrolling up and down in front of the fireplace and using a dustpan and brush to sweep the living room in front of the social worker. As soon as the worker stepped out of the home, she spoke vividly about how she felt the neglected house—especially the smell—overcame her. She said she knew that she had been ineffective and half way through thought about leaving. She was viscerally affected by disgust, anxiety and fear. She managed to move physically to inspect the house, but could not think clearly about and focus on the children.

    Because the worker knew that she had lost her composure and authority and that her practice was not sufficiently child- or parent-focused, she too went back. The research found that not only were different degrees of intimacy with children achieved, but workers had different levels of awareness of how close to children they had managed to get.

    As these two case examples show, some workers knew when they had not done what they knew they should, acknowledged that it was very difficult, and that their practice lacked rigour and was unfinished. It is in situations in which the worker did not engage with the children and at the time did not know that they had not done so that the children can be said to be fully invisible and unheld. A case that vividly illustrates this kind of full invisibility and lack of holding of the children involved a social worker who was shadowed on a visit concerning a two-year-old girl, here called Amelia, who allegedly was left unsupervised and found a long way from home.

    Mother, here called Mrs Brown, was a lone parent and there was one other child, five-year-old Jamie. It was an announced visit and the social worker arrived as planned at 3. Mrs Brown was dressed in pyjamas and dressing gown, and led the social worker into the living room, where another adult was sat on the settee. Mrs Brown sat down beside this other adult and Amelia, while Jamie was sitting on the armchair. The social worker sat on the other armchair. I sat on a chair to one side, positioning myself as discretely as possible so as to be able to see and hear, while being somewhat detached.

    The home was a council property and beautifully presented. The social worker began by reading the concerns from the referral sheet. Unlike most such opening moments observed in the study, the worker did not engage in any rapport building or introduce her purpose as being wider than investigating the specified concerns, such as being a possible source of help. Going straight into the alleged incident seemed to compound an oppositional atmosphere that was evident as soon as the social worker stepped into the home. Mrs Brown flatly denied that Amelia had been left unsupervised and blamed the person who reported it for persecuting her.


    From the outset, the social worker seemed to be at a loss to achieve any composure. She forgot to introduce herself to Mrs Brown and became aware of this eleven minutes into the visit and apologised. The social worker was totally non-relational towards the children. Although they were present throughout, she did not directly relate to them in any way. Jamie moved around the room at times, while Amelia was also active in the room and snuggled up to her mother on the settee a lot. Neither of the children initiated any verbal or play-based contact with the social worker, who reciprocated by ignoring them.

    Nor did the social worker have any overt interaction with the other adult who was present. That person left the house and came back five minutes later but the social worker did not even take that opportunity to ask Mrs Brown about who they were or about their relationship with the children. This was in part because she used many leading questions. They seem lovely. This seemed to be what the social worker wished. Asking leading questions that gave the desired answers provided for minimal engagement rather than longer dialogue.

    The worker was struggling and wanted to get it over with. The atmosphere was tense: Mrs Brown : Yeah, do what you want. When it came to doing what the social worker wanted, however, Mrs Brown was less than happy to co-operate. She challenged why the social worker wished to see upstairs, wanting to know why it was necessary, and very reluctantly led the way. It was not fit to sleep in that night, and it was now late afternoon. The social worker never actually entered the bedroom but stood at the door and looked into it. The viewing lasted seconds.

    Mrs Brown said that Amelia jumped on her bed and broke it, which the social worker accepted and made no attempt to probe further. Mrs Brown may well have been telling the truth, but what was striking was the absence of a deeper inquiring approach which was what the social worker was there to do. This is the same two-year-old child about whom the referral alleged there had been a lack of proper care and it was reasonable to consider that this could be a scenario in which that child was receiving inferior care to her brother and to that which her mother provided for herself.

    However, the social worker did not incorporate any such hypothesis into a more critical dialogue with the parent, or afterwards in the research interview. It then emerged on the journey back to the office that the social worker did not even know whether the other adult in the house was a man or a woman which is why they have been referred to here in gender-neutral terms. In general, social workers in the research were rigorous in asking for the names and addresses of anyone present in the home who appeared to have significant access to children, so that they could do police checks.

    So for this to be absent to the extent that the gender of the person was not even clear was a striking omission. I knew that this worker had interviewed a five-year-old alone in another case I had shadowed her on, so this was not a convincing reason for not doing it. As the worker thought more about what occurred on the visit, she seemed to begin to become mindful of the children and how absent they were from her attention. The worker was unable to explain even to herself how she had so totally failed to think about the children and keep them in mind.

    In the heat of the visit, talking with and other forms of relating to the children became unthinkable and the fact that she had not engaged with them in any way was, at the time it was happening, unknown to the worker. The children had ceased to exist to her, despite being there right in front of her. They were invisible children. It would be easy to blame individual social workers for such errors and judge them to have failed due to lacking the skills and competence to do the work.

    But this is far too simplistic an interpretation, which immediately runs into trouble because the same workers in the examples given were observed on other occasions with different families practising competently. Such detachment from children occurs when social workers reach or go beyond the limits of anxiety and complexity that it is possible for them to tolerate. They are overcome by the sheer complexity of the interactions they encounter, the emotional intensity of the work, parental resistance and the tense atmospheres in the homes.

    Such detached practice is deeply non-reflexive in the sense that, while the worker may be reflecting superficially on what is going on, there is no self-monitoring or critical thinking being practised that results in them adjusting their approach in light of the experience they are having and the reasons they are there.

    Child and Family Assessment in Social Work Practice (Social Work in Action Series) Child and Family Assessment in Social Work Practice (Social Work in Action Series)
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    Child and Family Assessment in Social Work Practice (Social Work in Action Series) Child and Family Assessment in Social Work Practice (Social Work in Action Series)
    Child and Family Assessment in Social Work Practice (Social Work in Action Series) Child and Family Assessment in Social Work Practice (Social Work in Action Series)
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