Out of the frame

Since April 2001 all referrals to social services departments
about children thought to be in need have been responded to by
social workers and others carrying out assessments according to
guidelines laid down by the Department of Health in the
Framework for Assessing Children in Need and their

These assessments are of two kinds – initial, where the needs are
thought to be relatively straightforward, such as for practical
family support; and core, where the needs are seen to be more
complex, such as where there may be multiple concerns about a
child’s physical and emotional development and, at the extreme end,
evidence of abuse or ill-treatment.

The rationale for developing the assessment framework was that
despite the introduction of the concept of children in need in the
Children Act 1989, there is little evidence of systematic
approaches to needs assessment. Rather, research shows that
resources are mostly allocated to children in need of protection –
a relatively small percentage of all referrals to children and
families services.2 It also shows that in families where
risk of abuse is not detected, children do not receive services
despite having identifiable other needs.

Another concern raised by research was that many families where
children were thought to be at risk of abuse or neglect were being
alienated by the processes of child protection
investigation,3 and that there was a need to develop a
more participative and supportive approach in working with children
and their families.

However, while many social workers accept the need for change, the
introduction of the framework for assessing children in need has
been greeted with dismay, mostly because of the tight timescales
for completion and the highly prescribed formats.

We were interested to see how the new framework is being
implemented, particularly with regard to service user participation
in the process, and so carried out research in one local authority
urban area in the north west of England. We focused on finding out
from parents what they thought of the way assessments were carried
out, and identifying how social workers and others carrying out
assessments could build on and improve their practices in this

We interviewed 34 sets of parents and carers (10 who were involved
in initial assessments and 24 who were involved in core
assessments) and gathered additional information from case files,
initial and core assessment records and questionnaires. Our sample
included in particular disabled children, older children presenting
behavioural difficulties within their families and children seen as
in need of safeguarding.

The range of concerns addressed in the initial assessments was wide
and therefore care is needed about generalising from the findings.
Nevertheless, we found that most of the families appreciated the
speed of response to the referrals, and the fact that most of the
assessments were carried out within the required seven-day
timescales. Two-thirds of the families felt that the questions
asked were appropriate. Most felt positively about the workers
carrying out the assessments, and about two-thirds were satisfied
with the resources they received.

Opportunities for participation by the parents were limited because
of the tight timescales and the focus on allocating practical
resources. The most satisfied customers were the parents of
disabled children – they welcomed the promptness and practicality
of the responses. Those who were least satisfied were the families
where there were older children with behavioural difficulties. They
felt that the social workers carrying out the assessments focused
too much on the children and did not sufficiently take the parents’
views into account. In addition, they saw the resources on offer,
such as counselling, anger management and parenting groups, as

In our 24 interviews with families where core assessments had taken
place, we interviewed 43 people, including parents, grandparents,
aunts and uncles and young people. Half of our sample were families
where there had been child protection investigations, and in half
of these cases children’s names were placed on the child protection
register. The other half of our sample involved families where
complex problems were evident but not concerns about child

One of the difficulties for our research was that parents whose
children had been accommodated – six out of 24 cases – or put on
the child protection register were unclear about the process of the
core assessment, which was embedded in the whole experience for
them. Indeed, some had no recollection of it at all.

Overall, there was a wider range of responses from the parents
involved in the core assessments than for the initial assessments.
This is not surprising in that several were – or had been – in
dispute with the social services department as a result of the
issues in question. Nevertheless, two-thirds expressed overall
satisfaction with the assessments, although five of these also had
criticisms of specific aspects of the process. Half of the families
felt that they had been able to participate in the assessments and
to influence their outcome. This left eight families who were
completely dissatisfied.

Some parents liked the formal questionnaire approach because the
questions were specific and therefore easy to answer. But some were
suspicious of questions that seemed to them repetitive. Once again
we found significant dissatisfaction among some cases where older
children were posing challenging behaviour problems.

Families who were referred to family centres were very satisfied
with these services and parents appreciated the fact that family
centre workers were also involved in the assessments.

This co-working allowed different relationships to develop, while
parents appreciated getting practical help and felt they were
better known individually.

The most significant finding in relation to both initial and core
assessments was that the key to their success with parents is the
achievement of some form of congruence of views between the
assessors and those being assessed. Achieving such congruence is
not easy, particularly in situations where there are major
disagreements and disputes about the care of children between
parents and professionals, which was the case with several of the
core assessments in particular. Nevertheless there were in our
study enough examples of successful outcomes to point to what seems
to work in carrying out assessments of this kind.

First, and this was most obvious in relation to the children with
behavioural difficulties, it seems to be of key importance that the
assessor addresses both the child’s needs and the parents’

Successful intervention also depends on reaching agreement about
the nature of the problem. This requires honesty about the causes
for concern. If service users do not share the views of the
assessors that there is a problem, then the assessment and any
subsequent intervention may be viewed negatively. The direct
questions in the relevant sections of the framework for assessment
provided a helpful platform for this in many cases.

It is also important that those carrying out assessments use
traditional social work skills such as listening, empathy and
respect for the individual. A key factor was to maintain some
optimism about social work intervention. Where the assessment was
carried out with sensitivity, the process itself could help
increase parents’ motivation for change.

In the most successful cases the framework was used flexibly and
creatively, so that parents felt they could influence the
assessment, and also that it was related to their particular needs
and feelings. In one case the assessment helped to bring a
grandmother and her orphaned grandson together, as they talked
about his new circumstances. In another, a core assessment was used
to help a teenage mother understand her baby’s developmental

Our evidence suggests that there are some grounds for optimism
about these new assessments. If carried out with skill and
sensitivity, they may indeed in many cases be used to help parents
both to view their children’s needs differently and to engage more
positively in working with child care practitioners to meet these

Brian Corby is professor of social work studies at the
University of Central Lancashire. Malcolm Millar is lecturer in
social work at the University of Liverpool, and Anne Pope is a
research worker at the University of Liverpool.


1 Department of Health, Framework for the
Assessment of Children in Need and their Families
, The
Stationery Office, 2000

2 Dartington Social Research Unit, Child Protection :
Messages from Research, HMSO,1995

3 J Thoburn, A Lewis, D Shemmings, Paternalism or
Partnership? Family Involvement in the Child Protection
, HMSO, 1995

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