Looking for common ground

    Jan Horwath is a senior lecturer at the University of
    Sheffield. Her research interests include assessments, child
    neglect and child welfare systems.

    Co-authors – Helen Buckley is senior lecturer in social work at
    Trinity College Dublin. She specialises in child protection
    systems.
    Sadhbh Whelan has a social work background and is a research fellow
    at the Children’s Research Centre, Trinity College
    Dublin.

    In the Children Bill, the government proposes the introduction
    of a common assessment framework for children. The aim is two-fold:
    to reduce the number of assessments a child with multiple needs may
    be subject to, and to encourage other service providers such as
    education and health to complete a preliminary assessment of a
    child’s needs before referring the child and family to social
    services.

    Although a common assessment framework is already used in some
    local authorities, there is little research into professionals’
    views on it in the UK. However, three health boards in the Republic
    of Ireland, which are responsible for providing both statutory
    health and social work services, commissioned the authors to
    research and develop a common assessment framework. The messages
    from this are useful in the development of a framework in the
    UK.

    The research found a broad agreement that a common assessment
    framework should standardise practice and reach decisions based on
    sound evidence and full information about the child and family. But
    three main issues were highlighted: the way in which the framework
    is written and formatted, its content and the assessment process
    itself.

    Most respondents believed that the framework should be worded in
    such a way that all professionals were “talking the same language”.
    It needed to be user friendly -Êmeaning that it was
    immediately clear what should be assessed and by whom. Moreover,
    the framework should recognise the time constraints placed on
    professionals – it should be constructed in such a way that it can
    be completed quickly and efficiently. The respondents were divided
    in their opinions as to whether the framework should be intended as
    a checklist, acting as a series of prompts to guide the assessment,
    or be based on more qualitative, open-ended questions.

    The respondents were also divided regarding timescales. Some
    respondents believed timescales for completing the assessment
    encouraged practitioners to remain focused and avoided assessment
    drift. Others believed that time limits would adversely affect some
    families’ ability to engage in the assessment process.

    Although the assessment framework should be standardised,
    participants were in general agreement that assessments needed to
    be tiered. They envisaged preliminary assessments being completed
    by professionals within their own settings. Secondary or tertiary
    assessments would be multidisciplinary, co-ordinated by a social
    worker. As one health visitor put it, the framework should be “a
    building block” whereby some initial work is done by a single
    professional and the case then referred on for a multidisciplinary
    assessment.

    Although those surveyed were clear about the benefits of a common
    assessment framework, they also identified limitations. A major
    concern was the need to have systems that promote
    information-sharing, enabling professionals to access any relevant
    information on the child and family that may be held by other
    professionals.

    Respondents also listed a number of subjective factors that can
    distort assessments, and which the introduction of a framework is
    unlikely to address. These include a belief held by 13 per cent of
    seminar respondents that the status of the referrer influences the
    response to an assessment. For example, if a GP refers a case to
    social services their concerns are more likely to be taken
    seriously than those of an unqualified worker in a children’s
    centre – irrespective of the quality of the assessment.

    Second, the stigma attached to social services is likely to
    influence practitioners referring cases, irrespective of the
    outcomes of preliminary assessments. For example, a manager of a
    disability service commented that if one of their service users was
    referred to a child protection or child care service, the family
    were likely to withdraw from all services, including the disability
    services they are currently receiving. Respondents also highlighted
    that stress, heavy workloads, staff shortages and lack of support,
    trust and respect influences professionals’ engagement in a
    multidisciplinary assessment.

    So, what are the messages for policy makers developing a common
    assessment framework in England? First, our research suggests that
    the effectiveness of a common assessment framework depends on
    establishing systems for sharing information. This is acknowledged
    in the Children Bill, which outlines ways in which information
    sharing between agencies will be improved to provide professionals
    with details of children in their area, services they receive and
    the details of relevant professionals.

    Second, many of the important components are already found in the
    Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their
    Families
    . Therefore, it would make sense for the common
    assessment framework to explicitly link into the established
    assessment framework, while recognising that practitioners want a
    framework that is easy to follow and helps them analyse
    information.

    Third, the respondents came to no agreement as to whether time
    limits on the assessment process enhanced or constrained it.
    Practitioners in England have had the same debate in terms of the
    assessment framework.1 Bearing in mind the in-depth
    nature of assessments, careful consideration needs to be given to
    constraining the process with the introduction of short
    timescales.

    Finally, policymakers need to be mindful of the limitations of an
    assessment framework. No matter how comprehensive, its
    effectiveness rests with the professionals using it. What was
    apparent from the Irish study is that several factors, as described
    above, influence multidisciplinary assessment practice. It may be
    that the introduction of multidisciplinary teams will address
    problems such as status issues and stigma associated with social
    services.

    However, whether professionals are working together in one team or
    separately, effective assessments are dependent on professionals
    having the right tools and being able to work with others to make
    the best use of them.

    Abstract 

    As part of its reform of the child welfare system the government
    intends to introduce a common assessment framework. Drawing on the
    lessons learned from their study in the Republic of Ireland, the
    authors describe the strengths and limitations of a common
    assessment framework. Practitioners and managers from a range of
    disciplines were involved in developing the Irish framework. Their
    opinions as to what works and potential pitfalls.

    About the research 

    Two hundred professionals from a range of disciplines including
    nursing, health visiting, social work, psychology, speech therapy
    and community paediatrics attended focus groups on the framework. A
    further 625 professionals attended seminars and also gave their
    views on the key issues they would want to have included in a
    common assessment framework.

    References 

    1 J Horwath “Maintaining a
    focus on the Child? First impressions of the framework for the
    assessment of children in need and their families in cases of child
    neglect” Child Abuse Review, 11(4): 195-213, British
    Association for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and
    Neglect, 2002

    Further reading    

    1 HBuckley, Child Protection Work: Beyond the Rhetoric,
    Jessica Kingsley, 2003 

    2 HCleaver, S Walker, PMeadows, Assessing Children’s Needs
    and Circumstances
    , Jessica Kingsley, 2004 

    3 JHorwath, (ed),  The Child’s World. Assessing Children in
    Need
    , Jessica Kingsley, 2001 

    4 HWard and W Rose, Approaches to Needs Assessment in
    Children’s Services
    , Jessica Kingsley, 2002

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