Proven Practice: Children in need. Research by Scie

Published in the 7 August 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline Proven Practice, Factors for Early Identification of Children in Need of Welfare

A Social Care Institute for Excellence analysis of research findings behind specific social work practices

Key findings

  • Early identification of need is important in promoting and safeguarding children’s wellbeing and welfare
  • “Early identification” can be defined in a variety of ways.
  • The use of “risk factors” as indicators of potential need is problematic as their impact and interaction is complex.
  • Effective inter-professional communication and cooperation is central to the promotion of children’s wellbeing.
  • Informed strategic planning and supportive management is fundamental to the delivery of efficient and effective preventive services.
  • Services must respond to the diverse needs of children and families.

The studies

The philosophy underpinning Every Child Matters and the Children Act 2004 is that children’s welfare and well-being can be safeguarded through collaborative practice, integrated service provision and early intervention of need. Both aim to ensure that all children are given the support and protection they need to promote and safeguard their welfare. Here, in speaking of early intervention, “early” refers to the point in time at which a child of any age becomes vulnerable to poor developmental outcomes rather than specifically to their early years.

According to the Children in Need in England survey of 2005, there were approximately 385,900 children in need in England and Wales (using the Children Act 1989 definition of children in need), of which around 18% were from ethnic minority groups and around 15% had disabilities.

Children Act 2004

The Children Act 2004 led to a number of structural changes within the organisation of children’s services. These include the appointment of a director of children’s services for children’s social services and education, the creation of children’s services authorities, children’s trusts and Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCB), which aim to promote effective integrated working.

There has also been a reconfiguration of services for children and families including children’s centres, extended schools and multidisciplinary teams. The act expects that local collaborative arrangements will be developed that bring together services for children to enhance multi-agency working. It placed a new duty of co-operation on local authorities and other agencies they work with, including the police, health, education, youth justice, probation and housing services to work together to safeguard children’s welfare.

The aim of these reforms is two-fold. Firstly, to change the culture of practice to one in which the concept of “safeguarding” children’s welfare is seen in the widest sense and as everyone’s business, and where all agencies seize every opportunity for establishing partnerships.

Secondly, to provide a seamless integrated service with the emphasis on the development and implementation of proactive, needs-led preventive services. The concept of “early identification of need” as a signal for early (preventive) intervention is central to these developments.

Early and preventive intervention

Sharing information between professionals and other agencies is an important step in early intervention and has led to the formation of information-sharing databases. Increasingly, previously separate organisational and professional systems are being merged or new integrated service systems developed. This is evidenced by the development of the standardised common assessment framework (CAF) for early assessment of children’s individual, family and community needs and the development of the lead professional (LP) role.

The publication Think Family: Improving the Life Chances of Families at Risk also emphasises the importance of both children and adult services in promoting children’s welfare and well-being through a whole family approach, extending the integrated service model beyond children’s services.

Most approaches to early identification of need show the importance of being vigilant regarding risk factors that might indicate the actual or potential vulnerability of a child and/or family. Examples of risk factors include: living in poverty growing up in a disadvantaged neighbourhood experiencing problems in school poor parenting substance misuse domestic violence levels and quality of formal and informal support. However, research shows that there is still plenty to be learned about the outcomes that may result when a child experiences a number of different risk factors. It is clear that interpreting the effect of various combinations of risk factors is complex. Research also increasingly recognises the importance of coping strategies, protective factors and children’s resilience. In addition, some factors, for example membership of a large family, have both the potential to increase risk, or alternatively, enhance protection.

There are structural problems that can stand in the way of providing a responsible, accountable and accessible preventive service. Providing services in a way that does not stigmatise children and families is important. Involving children and families in the planning and development of services by identifying patterns of local need and potential solutions thus encourages a greater sense of involvement in the type of service provided.

Some research suggests that locating services where children and families ordinarily go for support, such as schools or local community and primary care settings, makes preventive services more appealing and accessible. It also provides the opportunity for early identification of need. Consideration also needs to be given to better publicity of services and providing the services at times that are most likely to attract children and families.

Effective leadership and management are particularly important for helping staff to transcend traditional professional boundaries, work well together and produce effective multidisciplinary teams. Supportive and enthusiastic managers therefore have an important role in implementing early intervention programmes.

It is now increasingly accepted that early identification of need relies in part on the effective co-ordination of services across the range of children’s life experiences. The move towards preventive strategies for children and their families has proved to be a catalyst in this respect. The production of multidisciplinary assessment procedures and the resolution of conflicting professional perspectives have, however, been both complex and challenging.

Further information

Research abstracts


TITLE: Describing the needs of children presenting to children’s services: issues to reliability and validity.

REFERENCE: Journal of Children’s Services, 2(2), August 2007, pp.48-59

ABSTRACT: Children’s social services in England and Wales deal with a wide range of referrals of children who are or may be in need. In this article, the legal definitions of need – a typology developed by Sinclair et al, a related one used by the Department of Health and one developed within the current study – were compared for reliability and construct validity.

There were two main findings. First, it was found that while the presence of needs could generally be agreed on in all of the schemes, ascriptions of a main need were not made reliably. This is important because main need has been used in both research and statistical returns to government. Second, while existing schemes appeared well suited to describing and allocating cases, they were less able to describe the range of needs presenting in all referrals to social services.


TITLE: Including the socially excluded: the impact of government policy on vulnerable families and children in need.

REFERENCE: British Journal of Social Work, 37(2), February 2007, pp.187-207.

ABSTRACT: This paper is based on a literature review undertaken for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2004 on the impact of government policy in England and Wales for children aged from birth to 13 at high risk of social exclusion as recorded up until May 2004. It describes the concept of social exclusion its meaning for children the aims of government policy the specific impact of government policy on vulnerable families and children in need (including children needing child protection) as defined by the 1989 Children Act. The paper demonstrates that although progress has been made, there are still major areas of concern.

AUTHOR: THORPE David et al.

TITLE: Making a case for common assessment framework responses to concerns about children.

REFERENCE: Social Work and Social Sciences Review, 12(3), 2007, pp.40-56.

ABSTRACT: The Children Act 2004 places a duty on Children’s Services and their relevant partners to co-operate to improve the well-being of children. One of the most important vehicles of delivery is the establishment of a common assessment framework (CAF) (DfES, 2003) as a key recommendation of the Green Paper Every Child Matters (2003). It is believed that the implementation of the framework will lead to a significant re-shaping of intervention practices and to a measurable improvement in the lives of children and families facing adversity of different kinds. The research presented aims to address a fundamental problem which stands in the way of this initiative designed to standardise approaches to the assessment of need.

The problem concerns the identification and categorisation of matters which are currently being referred by different agents and agencies to children’s services social care front doors as child protection matters. In the context of the findings of the first evaluation of the CAF and Lead Professional Guidance (DfES, 2006) and the issues it raised over how thresholds for services are being defined between partner agencies, the findings of research from the study reported on in this paper have implications for the reform of children’s services in the UK and in other places where policies to improve the well-being of children and young people are paramount.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.