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Framework for the Assessment of Children and their Families Essay

The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (which I will refer to as the assessment framework in this assignment) is an ecological framework that includes personal, intra-personal, inter-personal and sociological influences on development. It was developed in response to findings from a programme of research on child protection (Department of Health 1995), and a series of government inspections (Social Services Inspectorate 1997a,b). Social workers often have to balance the needs of children and families with agency requirements, which Davies (1997), points out are often underpinned by a legal mandate therefore accountability is a complex concept in social work.

The assessment framework provides a systematic way of gathering, analysing, understanding and recording what is happening to children and young people within their families and the wider context of the community in which they live, (Department of Health, Department for Education and Employment, Home Office, 2000); and the skill in undertaking and recording an assessment according to Coulshed & Orme (1998 p.26) lies in the ability of professionals to collect enough of the right kind of information and this can only be done in the right kind of environment. Cleaver and Walker’s (2003) research study found that the implementation of the assessment framework overall has been successful, it has facilitated joint working between agencies having a profound influence on policy and practice in children’s services.

The Every Child Matters policy initiative was a positive social policy programme in a lot of respects and a catalyst for radical reform however some of the processes and procedures invaded and undermined the rights of the child to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention for Human Rights (ECHR), Hoyle, (2008), which I will discuss further in this assignment.

There have been many criticisms of the assessment framework and Helm (2011) mentions that even though the quality of assessments have improved there is persistent difficulty with levels and quality of analysis and a repeated failure amongst professionals to pay sufficient attention to what children and young people may be saying about their own needs and experiences.

Parton (2010) highlights that during the period since late 2008 & the tragic death of Baby P, the focus has shifted more centrally to child protection where prior to this period the emphasis was on ‘safeguarding’, and there has been a renewed official priority given to social work to which the developments have been given an added impetus with the election of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition government in May 2010 which generated the Munro review into child protection.

I will provide a critical analysis of how relevant legislation and policy impact on assessing the needs of children and their families and I will discuss ways that inadequate assessments can lead to failures. To successfully implement the assessment framework a process has to be followed which requires social workers to be skilful and experienced. I will explore ways in which the assessment framework is a useful tool in contemporary social work practice, identifying the significance of risk and safeguarding with children and young people and how we can learn from past mistakes. In addition I will discuss some of the dilemmas that social workers face with the assessment process in relation to the rights of children and families.

Legislation and Policy in the Children and Families Assessment Framework

The assessment framework was introduced under section (7) of the Local Authority Social Services Act in 2000 and implemented in April 2001. (Millar & Corby, (2006). It followed the introduction of the Children Act (1989) which legitimises actions taken by social workers.

The framework builds on the duties of assessment of needs set out in section (17) and schedule (2) para (3) of the Children Act 1998. (Parker & Bradley, p.18), and builds on responsibilities under section (47) of the Children Act which obliges local authorities to consider making inquires if concerns have been expressed about a child’s well-being or possible maltreatment. Assessments under section (47) involve a shared responsibility in consultation with other professionals. Failure to properly implement Section (17) schedule (2) meant that the broader welfare needs of disadvantaged children was overlooked so the DOH had to refocus social work practice so that child protection concerns were included in the assessment framework.

Parker (2007) states that the assessment framework is policy driven and highlights the importance of inter-agency sharing of information and cooperation in working together, while emphasising the principles of person-centred, strengths-based practice. It is made up of three domains (triangle) that represent the child’s developmental needs, the parenting capacity to respond to those needs and family and environmental factors with the child’s welfare at the centre (Department of Health, 2000a).

According to Parton (2010), there was an important shift under the New Labour government away from services that were framed primarily in terms of ‘the family’ to ones that were explicitly ‘child-centred’. The Every Child Matters (ECM) policy framework a direct response to the Climbie Report was developed within government and championed by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) in September (2003), and underpins the Children Act (2004). The ECM joined-up services for children and families under one roof; so how can anyone dispute that not every child matters? Well, it only applied in 150 local authority areas in England and was not scheduled for implementation in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, which would lead to the assumption that every child matters in England but not in the United Kingdom.

Also under the ECM framework was a considerable financial investment, made in establishing a universal child surveillance database (Contact Point) and countless areas of activity concerning children but were brigaded under the ‘every child matters’ brand. The Integrated Children System which built on the assessment framework according to White et al, (2010) disrupted the professional task, engendering a range of unsafe practices and provoked a gathering storm of user resistance, (p.405).

Parton (2011, p.16) notes that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition government made it clear, after its election victory in May 2010, that it was the reduction in the public finance debt that was its overriding and most urgent political priority and immediately set about reducing public expenditure. The new government established an independent review of child protection, chaired by Eileen Munro within three weeks of coming into office, (Parton, 2010, p.2); and the new government also began to dismantle key elements of the ECM framework (e.g. Contact Point), and almost consigned the enormous ECM website to the archive! ( Butler & Hickman, 2011). Research tells us that when thresholds are likely to be raised if there are limited resources, financial constraints or the pressure of increased workloads, this is a way that organisations can ration responses, by prioritising cases, (Turney et al, 2011), executive summary notes that, where children are neglected or abused evidence indicates that the help they received from services was inadequate.

The Munro review is the latest in a long line of policy initiatives in England set up to address the challenges for the state and wider society to the problem of child abuse. (Parton, 1985:2006). The review argues that a major reason why child protection policy and practice has developed in the way that it has in England arises from negative and critical responses from the media to professionals, in particular social workers, so improving the public image of social work is key to improving child protection. (Parton, 2012, p.158). But the review did not make it clear what it meant by child protection or what it identified as the main aims of the child protection system (p.154)

The Assessment Process

Assessment can be seen as an on-going, continuous and mutual process in which the service user interacts and participates. Darlymple and Burke (2006) explain that participation defines an activity where people are not just listened to or consulted but are also able to influence and achieve change. It is a process of what has happened and what is happening now. (Butler & Hickman, 2011 p.168), and Smale et al. (1993) highlight the idea of ‘exchange’ in assessment in which a two-way communication takes place, enabling the views of service users and professionals to be accorded equal respect.

The assessment framework describes itself as ‘rooted in child development’, (DOH, 2000) therefore it is vital that social workers have a thorough understanding in child development as this is critical for work with children and families. It takes the skill and talent and understanding of a social worker to make sense of the information gathered from different sources and begin the process with the information in front of them. Sometimes the information needs to be collected again and again at the cost of the people using the services, especially if they have already given information to a social worker previously, but the process is an on-going one so in some cases negotiations need to be made with a range of people.

Each child’s needs should be assessed individually when referred to services. An initial assessment is completed within 7-10 days. The initial assessment gathers information along the three parameters of assessment framework, which determines what services (if any) are needed. The tight time constraints can at this stage in the assessment framework can influence the initial decisions about where and how to manage referrals. Regan (2001) mentions that the form filling associated with the assessment framework is a time-consuming obstacle to the process of engaging helpfully with people. (cited in Millar & Corby, 2006, p. 888).

The core assessment which is an in-depth process containing numerous questions, is only necessary if it is clear from the initial assessment that a more detailed assessment is required and if there are safeguarding concerns. It uses the full model of the assessment (the child’s needs, the needs within the wider community) and the (capacity of the parents) and should be done within 35 working days. Current statutory guidance on promoting the health and well-being of looked after children (DCSF, 2009) suggests the use of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) as an early stage screening tool for this purpose. (cited in Turney et al, 2011). In social work practice, it is important to agree on the assessment plan with the child and it’s family so all parties are aware who is going to be doing ‘what’ and ‘when’, and how the assessment will be used to inform overall judgements about the child’s needs and subsequent planning, (DOH, 2000a).

Two studies conducted by Corby et al, (2002a) who sought the views of 34 sets of parents being assessed under the new framework, concluded that almost all parents were satisfied or had positive views about the initial assessments and two-thirds felt in a similar way about core assessments. Focus groups who also took part in the study were also positive about initial assessments and had mixed views about the core assessments. The majority raised issues about time constraints and staff resources. The study doesn’t mention, which local authority area the study took place, the ages of the parents or the ethnic origins as this may have made a difference to the outcome.

Anti-oppressive and Anti-discriminatory practice when conducting assessments should take into account people’s differences, for example religion, colour or race. If assessments are done correctly it will be person-centred and will include diverse factors such as the gender, sexuality or age of a person, cited in Turney et al, (2011). They also note criticisms of the child development model and that it doesn’t take into account the child’s disability and suggest that the assessment should include tailoring of templates to reflect their strengths, abilities and needs through their chosen method of communication.

Coulshed and Orme (1983) discuss drawbacks to the assessment process in that they could be used to control not just access to services but also disadvantaged sections of the community for example dossiers kept on so-called ‘problem families’ or those who have assertively sought assistance, and Ahmad (1990) mentions the adjective ‘aggressive’ which is applied to black clients who assert their needs for equitable services and that white assessments fail to take into account black realities and environments. Preston-Shoot, (2003) adds that studies have shown that social workers have a lack of referencing to research and theory in their assessment reports.

The components of the assessment framework requires more than just vision. It requires social workers to observe behaviours as well as gather information which can be non-verbal, for example observing facial expressions, looking at attachments with family members, observing body language etc. The message in social worker practice is clear, that when working with children and their families it is vital to have a non-judgemental manner, not to make assumptions when carrying out assessments and intervening with individuals and to keep an open mind. In addition social workers should, maintain adequate and accurate note keeping records and should ensure accountability when working in collaboration with other organisations.

Risk and Safeguarding

The discussion of risk and safeguarding and allocation of resources is a reminder of the power that social workers hold. The assessment framework (Department of Health et al., 2000), attempted to move the focus from the assessment of risk of child abuse and ‘significant harm’ (Department of Health, 2001) to one that was concerned with the idea of risk of impairment to a child’s overall development in the context of their family and community environment. (cited in Parton, 2010 p.7).

Parton, (2010) discusses that by the early 1990s the child protection and child welfare systems could be characterised in terms of the need to identify ‘high risk’ cases so that these could be differentiated from the rest. According to Dale et al., 1986; Parton and Parton, 1989, ‘High-risk’ was conceptualised in terms of ‘dangerousness’, for it occurred in the small minority of ‘dangerous families’, and such families were subject to extreme family dysfunctions and violent personalities and were seen as the primary cause of child abuse and needed to be identified so children could be protected. Government guidelines that specifically focused on ‘the protection of children from abuse’ was reinforced further in the only official guide on the purpose and content of professional assessments from the Department of Health, (1998) guide, Protecting Children: A Guide for Social Workers Undertaking a Comprehensive Assessment. The guide was specifically designed for social workers in cases where abuse was either substantiated or highly suspected and was concerned with assessments for ‘long-term planning in child protection’ cases. (Parton, 2010, p.6)

So how can risk be identified? According to the (2003) Green Paper the risk characteristics of experiencing negative outcomes is concentrated in children with certain characteristics, and the more risk factors a child had, the more likely it was that they would experience negative outcomes for example ‘poor parenting’, ‘crime’ and ‘anti-social & deviant behaviour’ are seen to playing key roles and it is stated that identifying factors and intervening early provided a major strategy for overcoming the social exclusion of children and avoiding problems later in life. (cited in Parton, 2010, p.10)

The Department of Health (Social Care Institute for Excellence, 2005), following the introduction of the Children Act (1989) commissioned a series of research studies which reported an over-emphasis on issues of abuse and neglect at the expense of assessing and supporting families. The (SCIE) drafted the report ‘Managing risk and minimising mistakes in services to children and families’ in 2005. The report based on a pilot study of organisational approaches to risk management and includes opportunities for learning from safeguarding incidents. The teams involved in the study were practitioners and service users recruited from England and Wales and fieldwork was conducted in July/August 2004 from both teams. Regarding the needs assessment, the report mentions that assessing and safeguarding children from significant harm is complex, which means that near misses involves cases where potential significant harm to children was overlooked.

During the referral and assessment stage the near misses arise due to the prioritisation of cases professional not having an accurate or full picture of what is happening decisions made by other teams or agencies

The report concludes that in relation to assessing the needs of children in particular the need to safeguard them from significant harm practitioners commentaries showed that near misses were a regular occurrence and were part and parcel of the job. The report also suggested that latent failures are embedded in the system which include a lack of sufficient resources to meet the needs of children and families. (SCIE, 2005, p.35)

The role of social work practice in children’s services in England has in relation to child protection seen a dramatic change. Since late 2008, Parton (2010) mentions that following the Baby P’s tragic death, policy and practice have moved in new directions and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS, 2009) reported that there were nearly 50 per cent more care applications to court in the second half of 2008-09 compared with the first half of that year. High-profile and very public criticisms of social workers and other health and welfare professionals in cases of child abuse put increasing pressure on child welfare services in the UK. (Parton, 1985; Butler and Drakeford, (2005). More recently the sentencing of 9 Asian men in the ‘Rochdale Grooming’ case in which critics have highlighted further ‘protection’ issues amongst professionals.

So with clear messages from research, what is the best way for professionals to address issues of risk to children? The report focused primarily on active failures and it states that good practice is to learn from past mistakes and a key means for learning is to harness the knowledge and expertise from service users and to improve assessment systems promoting the welfare of children and families. (SCIE, 2005). Social workers also need to know why they are seeking a particular piece of information and how to process it questioning all the information from sources, being intuitive and thinking analytically and critically.

Professional issues in relation to rights of children and families and the assessment process.

Jones (2001) mentions that social work assessment frameworks in general largely ignore the value of listening and forming supportive relationships, diminishing the power of service users to express their concerns effectively, and adds that social workers often have to balance the needs and rights of the child with those of the parents. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) sets out the independent rights of the children, but it also states that the ‘best interests of the child’ are usually served by supporting the child’s family, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, (2005).

The (JRF), 2005 study examined the tensions inherent in child and family policy, it’s implications of human rights legislation for policy development and the extent to which government has managed these responsibilities through the development of appropriate policies and structures for service delivery. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), sets out the parents and children entitlements, including the right for respect for family life enshrined in Article (8).

The (2005) study encourages a debate about managing the tensions between policies in support of children and those directed at parents and the family and concludes that contradictions and conflicts in policy in children’s welfare eclipses parents’ rights, and there is no consistent overview of how interests of family members are managed across the generations. It also states that at local level, Children’s Trusts might be strengthened by changing their name to Children and Family Trusts encouraging holistic thinking and making their remit explicit. ‘Although the ECHR has been integrated into domestic law through the Human Rights Act, it’s entitlements are not promoted in social policy and despite signing up to the CRC the government has not incorporated its articles into UK legislation’. (JRF, 2005)

It is important as part of the assessment process and for a good assessment to keep the focus of the child at the centre of the assessment process. Although this may be a problem with teenagers who are already going through changes and many of whom have estranged relationships with their parents and families. Studies note that there is sometimes an unwillingness of some social workers to intervene with teenagers and evidence from Serious Case Reviews indicate that suicide was a common cause of death with teenagers aged between the ages of 16 to 17 years of age. Social workers need to be aware of the dangers and of the impact of non-engagement with teenagers, and agencies need to have appropriate strategies and resources in place to address their needs (Brandon et al., 2008 and 2009; Hicks and Stein, 2010; Stein, 2007) (cited in Turney et al , (2011).

The Turney et al, (2011) research article indicates that there are difficulties for many social workers in making and sustaining relationships with children and with representing the child’s voice in assessments and evidence shows that on occasions practice has fallen short of the standard required. Helm (2011) writes that children and young people have clearly identified that professionals fail to really listen, not because of a lack of time, but because they focus on adults views and protect themselves from the difficult nature of what they are being told. (p.908)

Ferguson, (2001) mentions the difficulties that social workers and other professionals face in such cases of assessing the needs of children while at the same time trying to engage a mother and father who don’t always want the intervention, and research shows that there is considerable evidence that the nature of parental relationships with professionals affect decisions arising from assessments. Turney et al, (2011). Assessments of disabled children raises a number of complexities and challenges; for example the child developmental model underpinning the assessment framework can be seen by some social workers as not appropriate for disabled children (Cleaver et al.,2004; Mitchell and Sloper, 2008).

Children need support at various stages of the assessment process so as to be able to exercise their own rights. (Butler & Williamson 1994, Darlymple & Hough 1995). The child’s views whether expressed verbally or non-verbally and those of relevant people in the child’s life to the assessment is usually sought to get ideas about the best way of helping the child. (Coulshed and Orme, p.26). The assessments of parents relies on verbal communication, but if the parent has learning disabilities or there are language barriers communication could be misinterpreted.

A qualitative study carried out by Walker (1999 a,b) in which 15 children aged between 12 and 15 were interviewed for the purpose of viewing children’s experiences of review meetings. Many of the children viewed assessment as formal and bureaucratic, which they said took place on the adults’ terms, and many wanted to get away from the meetings as soon as possible. One child described feeling as an outsider, when adults opened their diaries and planned the next meeting without consultation with the child. Some children felt the language used was difficult, and the aim of meetings was to talk about them and not with them.

Conclusion

The Assessment Framework is underpinned by child development and an ecological framework developed in response to findings from a programme of research on child protection. It provides a systematic way for social workers to gather and analyse information and recordings of what is happening to children and young people within their families and the wider community in which they live.

Legislation and policy legitimises what actions social workers can take when undertaking assessments. There was an important shift under the New Labour Government in assessment with the ‘Every Child Matters’ policy framework which was a direct response to the Climbie Report & the death of Victoria Climbie. The ECM framework joined-up children’s services under one roof, but it was only implemented in England, it was a considerable financial investment and established a child surveillance database and countless areas of activity were brigaded under the ‘every child matters’ brand.

Within 3 weeks of coming into office in May 2010, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition government’s most urgent political priority was reducing the public finance debt. The government established an independent review of child protection chaired by Eileen Munro, which is the latest in a long line of policy initiatives in England. The new government dismantled the key elements of the ECM framework almost consigning the enormous ECM website to the archives.

The Assessment Framework as a process appears to have been welcomed by professionals and service users, but there have been criticisms. Messages from research tell us that the issues raised from professionals regarding the assessment process were the time constraints and staff resources and usually when there are limited resources, thresholds are likely to be raised and organisations tend to ration responses to their services by prioritising cases, and Turney et al (2011) note that in cases where children are neglected or abused evidence shows that the help they received from services was inadequate.

Discussing Risk and Safeguarding according to Parton (2010) ‘high risk’ in the early 1990’s was conceptualised in terms of ‘dangerousness’ and occurred in a small minority of dangerous families. But the 2003 Green Paper looks at certain characteristics associated with risk such as ‘poor parenting’ or ‘anti-social behaviour’ (deviance) as playing a key role in negative outcomes associated to ‘risk’. The Social Care Institute for Excellence 2005 study found that during the referral and assessment stages near misses occurred due to prioritisation over cases and professionals not having an accurate or full picture of what is happening in a child’s life and that near misses were part and parcel of the job.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child notes ‘the best interests of the child’ are usually served by supporting the child and their family and although the European Convention on Human Rights sets out the parents and children entitlements in Article 8, according to a study conducted by the (2005) Joseph Rowntree Foundation study the entitlements are not promoted to social policy and despite signing up to the CRC the government has not incorporated its articles into UK legislation.

For good assessments it is important that social workers keep the focus on the children and young people and use intuitive skills even though there are difficulties in social work practice in making and sustaining relationships.

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