Munro debate: Assessment timescales must not be abandoned

The Munro Review's interim report proposes freeing some councils from statutory timescales governing initial and core assessments. But this may cause children more harm, says Kirsten Anderson

The Munro Review’s interim report proposes freeing some councils from statutory timescales governing initial and core assessments. But this may cause children more harm, says Kirsten Anderson

Child protection assessments should be flexible and always child-focused. Although I recognise the need to remove unnecessary red tape from frontline social work practice and to confront the tick-box culture, I do not believe that dropping the set timescales for initial and core assessments is the way to achieve this.

The experience of the Children’s Legal Centre shows that these timelines are vital in ensuring local authorities complete assessments in reasonable time.

It must not be forgotten that children undergoing child protection assessments are vulnerable and face an uncertain future. Waiting for local authorities to complete initial and core assessments can be extremely stressful for children and young people. Although it is important that these assessments are comprehensive and holistic, it is also important that they are completed quickly to reduce the harmful impact the process can have on children.

Leaving children without essential support or services to which they are legally entitled can place them at risk, and cause distress and harm. Without a legally binding timeframe – and with the high caseloads social workers now carry – this process will drag out, resulting in children being left at risk of harm for longer.

Instead of changing statutory timescales, children ought to be given more opportunities for involvement. Participation rights are enshrined in international and domestic law and require governments to ensure the child’s views are solicited and considered in all care-related decisions, including whenever a decision is made to remove a child from his or her family.

Governments must start with the presumption that all children are capable of forming and expressing views, and it is up to local authorities to disprove this presumption. Simply listening to the child is insufficient; their views must be considered.

Despite these legal obligations, evidence suggests many children are not meaningfully consulted or involved in assessments.

Research published by the Northern Ireland children’s commissioner in 2006 found that, in England, participation in the care planning process is still interpreted as a child turning up to statutory review meetings.

Many children are not involved in assessments or drawing up care plans in a continuous, systematic way. This runs contrary to the general comment of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that: “If participation is to be effective and meaningful, it needs to be understood as a process, not as an individual one-off event.”

The lack of real or meaningful involvement of children and young people needs to be addressed urgently. If social workers spent more time understanding what children wanted and helping them understand their situation and the decisions that need to be taken, it would result in a better focus on their needs.

In our view, the Munro Review needs to ensure:

● Social workers receive quality, in-depth and regular training on communicating with children and young people and on child participation, including techniques that help this work with very young children and children with disabilities or learning difficulties.

● Better supervision, performance management and assessment of social workers’ communication skills and abilities to involve children and young people.

● The meaningful participation of children in assessments as a key part of every local authority’s performance framework.

Kirsten Anderson is head of research and policy at the Children’s Legal Centre

This article is published in the 21 April 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Simply listening is insufficient”

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