Common ground?

The lack of a common assessment framework for children “in need” and those “at risk of significant harm” hinders child protection, says Barry Raynes

 If you want to make change happen in social services, create a form. This seems to be the philosophy that the Department for Education and Skills has followed to introduce the common assessment framework. But in doing so it may just be creating more opportunities for workers to argue among themselves about which agency is responsible for delivering services.

The Children Act 1989 separated children into two categories, “in need” and “significant harm”. The guidance further separated them by encouraging a different response to the family depending on which category the child fell into. The longer that guidance continues to create this separation the longer services will remain fragmented, irrespective of any emphases placed on joined-up thinking, co-ordinated processes and children’s trusts.

The first Working Together document was published in 1991. It focused attention on child protection as a separate function within children’s services. However, in 1995 Messages from Research encouraged a move away from child protection towards family support. The introduction of the national assessment framework in 2000 further emphasised the requirement to work with all children in need.

The fact that guidance failed to merge timescales for child protection investigations – where professionals have 15 days to go to a case conference – and core assessments – where they have 35 days in which to complete a core assessment for a complex child in need case – wasted an opportunity to bring together the seemingly conflicting demands of child protection and assessments of children in need.

Lord Laming’s Victoria Climbie inquiry stated that “the legislative framework for protecting children was basically sound”. It also recommended that the guidance on the assessment framework and Working Together should be combined into one document.

However, there is as yet no suggestion from the DfES that this will be done, despite the promise in 2003 in the government’s response to the Victoria Climbie inquiry Keeping Children Safe. Two years on, is the guidance any clearer?

The green paper Every Child Matters asserted “child protection cannot be separated from policies to improve children’s lives as a whole”. And recent guidance on local safeguarding children boards suggested that, as well as protecting children and young people, they should ensure that children are growing up in circumstances “consistent with the provision of safe and effective care”. They should also create opportunities that give children optimum life chances to enter adulthood successfully. 

So the guidance is again emphasising that children at risk from significant harm should not be differently categorised. No sooner had this guidance been absorbed by managers and policymakers than a further view emanated from the civil service in the Working Together consultation last year. This is that local safeguarding children boards should remember that their primary responsibility is safeguarding children. The new Working Together is due out in the spring.

The fact that we have separate children and young people’s strategic partnerships and local safeguarding children’s boards, yet have no clear guidance as to how the two should link together confuses the situation further.

The common assessment framework is due to be implemented in 2006. Designed as a method for co-ordinating services for children who are causing enough concern to involve more than one agency, it could help to bridge services for children who are well and children who are suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm.

However, in some social services departments the framework is considered to be simply a working tool for other agencies to deal with children and families who are “causing concern”. If seen in this way the assessment will not bridge the gap but will create a third category.

We will then have three boxes to put families into and a specific assessment system to apply to each box. “Concern” equals common assessment framework; “in need” equals national assessment framework; “at risk” equals child protection plan.

I wonder how many hours will be spent deciding which one should be completed. Or how many hours will be spent by one agency arguing that another agency should complete them.

All practitioners know that families do not fit neatly into boxes however many categories we create. Of course, there are serious child abusers in the community but Messages from Research suggests that we will not protect children from them by taking a heavy-handed approach to all parents of children at risk, most of whom are not abusing their children. Indeed, much time and effort is wasted by workers trying to decide which box the child falls into. The main purpose for this deliberation is often to determine that the case belongs to another agency.

Many aspects of common assessments draw from present practice: a lead professional, family meetings and principles shared with the framework. However, guidance on transitions is sparse. If a common assessment is completed is an initial assessment necessary? How does a lead professional hand over to a key worker? What status do family meetings have in a child protection context?

So the challenge is to create a continuum of service provision where the values, attitudes, systems and processes working with children are the same irrespective of whether one is working with children who are causing concern, in need or at risk from significant harm. Ideally, a family would be unaware that they were moving up or down the continuum unless they really were subjecting their children to serious and significant harm. But how can this be achieved with three separate pieces of guidance?

Moving away from notions of referrer-maker and referrer-taker would help. Conversations about families should be on the basis of a joint determination to achieve a plan to assist the child rather than a debate about which agency is responsible or which box they fit into. 

Perhaps we need guidance from government acknowledging that the “in need” and “significant harm” distinction further damages our work with families. Laming suggests that new guidance should be produced which joins the assessment framework and Working Together. In this respect the government has failed its own Climbie audit.

What is needed now is guidance that recognises that all children are on a continuum of “being well” to “seriously abused or neglected” and that provides agencies with joint guidance to ensure that boxes no longer separate the way in which we offer our services.

Barry Raynes is the executive director of Reconstruct, a company providing training, consultancy, research and conferences on all aspects of social care. He has worked extensively with many area child protection agencies as a consultant on child protection issues. He is currently researching his doctorate into common language in child protection.

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article demonstrates the muddled thinking that has emanated from government since 1989 in terms of deciding thresholds for child protection. The way in which the common assessment is implemented may yet compound the problem.

Further information

  • S Regan, The Semiotics of  Successful Intervention, Lancaster University, 2003
  • M Payne, Teamwork in multi-professional care, Palgrave, 2000
  • M Friedman, L Garnett, M Pinnock, “Dude, Where’s My Outcomes”, in Safeguarding and Promoting the Well-Being of Children, Families and Communities, Jessica Kingsley, 2005

    Contact the author 

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