The mandatory timescales on child protection assessments are to end but some managers are worried about how to implement the new procedures. Daniel Lombard reports on the way forward
One of the most popular changes proposed in the Munro Review of child protection systems in England was the move to scrap the mandatory timescales on assessments. Social workers should no longer be legally required to complete initial assessments within 10 working days and core assessments within 35. Indeed, Munro went further and called for the distinction between the two types of assessment to be removed altogether in favour of a single, ongoing assessment of a child’s risk and needs.
The Department for Education is now revising the statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children in line with this proposal and the changes are due to be implemented by the end of the year.
However, many social care managers may be wondering where to start when implementing such a dramatic change. Community Care asked three of the councils piloting the change what needs to be done to prepare.
1 REVIEW EXISTING PRACTICE
Children’s services director Julia Morrison has overseen Cumbria Council’s involvement in the pilots and believes it is essential to start by examining current practice. A review of social work practice conducted by managers, social workers and other children’s professionals identified ways to streamline assessments.
“We thought we had an idea of what was happening from ICS and other sources, but when we got on the floor to analyse what was taking place we realised there was lots of repetition and waste,” Morrison recalls. “There were repeat referrals between different teams which was very time-consuming. We also noticed a huge number of domestic violence referrals coming from the police that were tying up social workers.”
After a restructure, there are now “front door” triage teams in each district, including professionals from social work teams, health and police which manage referrals and pass on cases to targeted teams such as child protection, looked-after children, complex needs and disabilities, and early intervention.
Morrison says this has led to more timely assessments: “We can now work more quickly by cutting out waste”.
2 TIME MANAGEMENT
Maintaining timeliness on assessments was a key concern for Westminster Council when it dispensed with the statutory time limit for initial and core assessments.
Lucy Titheridge, service manager of the duty and assessment team for the London borough, says they are still expecting practitioners to keep to the Working Together deadlines but with more flexibility.
“We found it important not to dismiss the timescales completely, so we asked social workers to continue to try to complete initial assessments within 10 days,” Titheridge says, “but acknowledged if there was a good reason for an extension – such as waiting on more information or the family wasn’t co-operating – we would allow more time.
“This will be more beneficial to children because there will be some cases that need more time and some that don’t.”
3 PERFORMANCE DATA
Paul Marshall, head of children’s social care at Knowsley Council, agrees timeliness was also a key issue for the Merseyside authority after it was allowed to extend the deadline between the strategy meeting and initial child protection conference from 15 days to a maximum of 45 for more thorough assessments. “Performance management systems need to be developed so that managers can effectively track and monitor the timeliness of assessments,” he says.
Another method is a file auditing system that can challenge assumptions made by professionals and provide an insight into practice and areas of improvement. To achieve this, Knowsley’s ICS provider is investigating how to make its software easier to use.
“The performance reports are being modified to allow managers the scope to use information on timescales and progress of cases meaningfully,” Marshall says.
Updating social workers with the changes through training, written and verbal guidance is vital.
Westminster Council issued a two-page document detailing the new procedures in March, when the deadline for initial assessments was removed, and discussed it in team meetings.
Titheridge says the next stage of the pilots, starting at Westminster in November when the distinction between initial and core assessments will be removed, will be launched in “a grander way”.
“We’re putting together a more formal guidance pack linked to social work tools that can be used to improve quality of analysis that social workers produce,” she says. “We’ll be running training alongside this to cover quality analysis and expectations for assessments.”
5 REVISE ICS
Most ICS programmes will need to be revised to allow professionals more freedom to exercise professional judgement. The way practitioners gather information and conduct assessments is to some extent influenced by the ICS data requirements which in turn was shaped by the Working Together guidance. However, Titheridge points out that some of the assessment forms, particularly for core assessments, in Westminster’s ICS had become “too tick-box”.
“We’re re-tendering for the provider of ICS but we will be making some changes to the forms,” she says.
This reflects other recommendations in the Munro report, which says case recording systems should be flexible enough to adapt to local child protection system needs, while being rigid enough to “maintain a systemic and family narrative” in each case.
6 EFFECTIVE SUPERVISION
The use of regular, structured supervision is key to developing a proportionate approach to assessments, says Marshall.
Group supervision sessions at Knowsley Council’s children’s services have helped to promote reflection, clear decision-making and risk management in line with new approaches to assessment.
“We have weekly round-table discussions covering performance data and feedback from chairs of child protection conferences to pool expertise and knowledge,” he says.
7 INFORM OTHER AGENCIES
To avoid confusion, partner agencies such as police, healthcare, and legal organisations and service users, should be kept informed about changes to assessment timescales and social worker practice.
“Other agencies and service users can still be under the impression that we would be following national standards, so it’s important to keep them informed that we’re doing things differently,” Titheridge says. “For example, a solicitor involved in a children and families case wrote asking why an assessment wasn’t completed within the initial 10-day deadline which made me realise that it’s important to convey these changes to different people so they’re aware.”
8 INVOLVE STAFF AND SERVICE USERS
Introducing new approaches to assessments should involve in-depth discussions with staff and service users. Morrison says Cumbria’s changes have been done from the bottom up.
“We wanted to move the system away from one that was about processes and ticking boxes to one that was focused on outcomes,” she says. “If senior managers had developed a new method based on our own assumptions it wouldn’t be half as effective. We have used focus groups to establish a dialogue and ensure everyone understands the new model.”
Marshall agrees and says managers at Knowsley have also worked hard to listen to the views of service users and professionals, in line with other recommendations in the Munro review.
“We want to improve the assessment process to take on board feedback not only from practitioners but also children and families of the whole child protection process,” he says. “We want the families to have a more positive experience and stronger relationships with the assessing social worker. This engagement is at the heart of Munro.”
Published in 29/9/11 edition of Community Care magazine under heading Changing Times for Child Assessments
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