Tools that dig deeper

Good social work practice is at the core of ensuring best
outcomes for children and their families, yet performance measures
have led to criticisms that social workers’ skills and competences
are being eroded.

At Cheshire Council, the social services department is looking to
develop and use workers’ professional skills for the benefit of
children and families – and this has guided its plan for the
introduction of two new Department of Health assessment tools.
The Home Inventory, released by the DoH in 2002 is
designed to help social workers assess children’s day-to-day
experiences, the quality of their home environment, parents or
carers from a perspective as close as possible to that of children.
The Family Assessment: Assessment of Family Competence,
Strengths and Difficulties
(2001) is an evidence-based
approach to assessing families. It describes their strengths,
difficulties and competences, as well as identifying risks.

To give staff a thorough grounding in the use of these assessments,
Cheshire brought in accredited trainers from the child and family
training services and then followed this with in-house training.
During this training, professionals’ initial reaction to the tools,
particularly the Home Inventory, was that they were very
“middle class”.

Practitioners who used the tools, however, have not found this to
be the case. Initial responses by those who used the Home Inventory
tool were that it worked well when used in initial assessments, and
could be a valuable element in fuller assessments.

In one case a referral gave a picture of a very disorganised and
chaotic home where the children’s needs were not being met. But
workers who used the Home Inventory during a visit were
able to demonstrate that this was not the case, and could evidence
this from information drawn from the assessment.

Other workers have found the assessments have given them
information that they otherwise may not have easily gathered, such
as other people involved in the care of children.

Social workers have been somewhat reluctant to embark on a full
family assessment as this seems a daunting prospect. As a result we
have taken the approach that sections of this tool can be used as
part of assessments -Êa “pick and mix” approach, following a
well worked out assessment plan.

Another positive finding was that service users engaged well with
the assessment when these tools have been used.

In developing the use of the tools there were some key

  • They were not “another set of forms to fill in” but useful
    tools for practice. The practitioner should judge whether they are
    appropriate in any particular case.
  • The tools are flexible enough to be used in a range of
    situations, from child protection to assessing carers.
  • The language and principles of these tools are not new to
    practitioners. Social workers need only to develop familiarity with
    them in order to use them confidently in practice.

Despite a generally positive initial reaction to both assessment
tools, professionals are likely to need to be encouraged to
incorporate them into everyday practice. For this reason, we
provided a range of support in the workplace, including a workshop
presentation to launch them in Cheshire, and workshops for team
managers to help them in understanding, promoting, and supervising
staff using the tools. We continued to offer further briefings and
support in the workplace, and made up user packs to make the
material readily available for staff.

The Home Inventory and the Family Assessment
manuals have proved to be user-friendly and highly adaptable.
However, while providing the tools for practitioners is important,
assessment models alone do not tell us what the needs of children
and families are and how they can be met. That is done through
professional judgement, analysis and decision-making based upon the
information gathered. The two assessment tools help with this

Bill Joyce is project officer, Cheshire Council’s
children’s services. Further information about these assessment
tools and training can be obtained from Liza Bingley Miller,

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