Bristol finds common assessment framework liberates social workers and spreads responsibilities

Practitioners in Bristol are finding that the common assessment framework has enabled them to improve their services to children dramatically. Natasha Salari reports

Meeting the needs of vulnerable children has always been seen as an issue for social workers. But in Bristol all professionals now take responsibility for supporting these children and their families after the successful roll-out of the common assessment framework (CAF) .

Councils were expected to implement the CAF, a shared assessment tool for use across children’s services in England by March last year. But many local authorities are still without a fully functioning CAF system.

Bristol Council has embraced the CAF as a standardised approach to assessing and meeting a child’s additional needs. More than 1,000 staff from education, health, police, housing and children’s services have been trained in how to complete a CAF.

Big change

Lisa Allen, senior practitioner in one of the city’s duty and assessment teams, has seen a considerable change in how other professionals view responsibility towards vulnerable children. “The tide has turned and now it’s seen as everyone’s responsibility to raise our collective children,” she says. “Most people accept that every child matters and that it’s not just up to social workers to ensure that these kids are achieving the five outcomes.”

Each of the city’s 10 localities has a multi-agency CAF panel that meets either weekly or fortnightly. Management of the panels has been commissioned out to the youth offending team, the charity Action for Children, and the safeguarding and specialist services team.

Core members of each panel, including social workers, education welfare officers, health visitors, youth workers and housing officers, attend every panel meeting. Associate members from organisations, such as the police or voluntary groups, can also be invited to attend panels.

Allen describes the introduction of the CAF as “liberating”, allowing social workers to focus on safeguarding while ensuring that lower-level needs are not left to escalate.

“Pre-CAF there was such frustration,” Allen says. “But we couldn’t spread ourselves everywhere.

“The CAF has allowed us to get on with the more complex work of safeguarding without firefighting these lower-level needs on a daily basis. I am not leaving my job at the end of each day anymore thinking about the children I can’t help.”

Sharing expertise

Panel meetings have enabled social workers to share their expertise and empower other practitioners to play an equal role in assessing and meeting the needs of the children and families. “We have seen real professionalism from our partners who may have thought initially they were doing some degree of social work,” Allen says. “It’s helped us to help other professionals to meet these children’s needs.”

All CAF training in Bristol has been carried out on a multi-agency basis, which Alison Jackson, the strategy leader for integrated assessment and multi-agency arrangements, sees as integral to the CAF’s success.

“We never do training on a single agency basis because we want people to put down their differences, build networks in their localities and develop a common language and understanding,” she says. “It has taken away some misunderstandings and there’s been a lot of interagency learning.”

As the acting project manager and chair of two panels managed by Action for Children, MJ Harris says the CAF saves time for practitioners and creates a more joined-up and holistic service for children and families. “Now we can have just one meeting with all the relevant agencies rather than lots of different meetings,” he says. “We are working towards a seamless and integrated service for children and families no matter how many agencies are involved.”

Use of technology

Technology is also helping to make the CAF more effective. Bristol is one of a small number of local authorities to have launched a live eCAF system, which allows practitioners to create, store and share CAFs securely online.

Its eCAF system has an innovative “distance travelled” tool that involves a practitioner, child and family agreeing a “score” relating to each element of the CAF when it is first written, at review stage, and at closure. The tool is helping to identify which services are having a positive impact on improving outcomes.

Jackson says a “lot of leg work” has gone into launching the CAF. But practitioners and children are now reaping the benefits.

Allen adds: “Before, when could we ever refer children to anything other than a child and adolescent mental health service, for example? Now we can say to children and families that, although we are not the ones to help them, the right people are there. From our point of view, the CAF process is invaluable because it gives us a third option. Things aren’t open or closed anymore.”

What Works

● Never think of the CAF as something that is “done to” a child. Always complete and discuss it with the child and family so that they play a part and own the progress they are making.

● Look for areas where the CAF can contribute to other agendas and save duplication.

● Try not to use the word “referral”. The CAF is there to bring the right people around the table, not to send issues on to someone else.

● Always conduct integrated workforce training in multi-agency groups. It helps practitioners to form networks and develop a common language.

Published in the 9 July 2009 under the heading ‘Bristol’s framework for success’

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