By Yvette Stanley
Lots of things happen in a child’s life. Of course, not all of them have to be recorded in full. But the most significant events – for example, a placement move – should always be captured, so that the record properly reflects a child’s experiences and progress.
The record should clearly and succinctly explain what has happened to and for the child, both to inform the support provided to the child today, and, when they become adults, to help them understand what decisions were made during their childhood and why.
What does good like?
Of course, a child’s record isn’t all in one place, even within the same system. It sits in assessments, reports to court and case conferences, review records, chronologies, records of visits to the child, direct work with the child and so on.
To really understand the child’s experience, the reader needs concise summaries that show the social worker’s professional analysis and evaluation. Through drawing the child’s lived experience together in this way, managers can then both hold practitioners to account and track children’s progress.
The case record is not just a repository of information, but should assist social workers in planning and making the best decisions for children. Description without analysis makes it so hard to understand how and why some critical decisions have been made.
Practitioners need to think about the purpose of each piece of recording. For example, when recording a visit to the child, the record is about the reason for the visit itself as well as its contribution to the whole assessment; the importance of not just what happened or was said, but what that means for the child.
Inspectors tell me that sometimes they read a child’s record and feel the child is not ‘visible’. A good record will show children’s wishes and feelings and their understanding of what is happening in their life. Even though young children and those without verbal communication cannot talk about their feelings, recording observations of them is still very important.
An inspector recently said to me that when evaluating the quality and impact of social work practice, an excellent chronology becomes like a map that navigates you through a child’s life. It can be incredibly frustrating when its order does not make sense.
Really high-quality recording lets the quality of the relationship between social worker and child, and the social worker’s aspirations for that child, shine through. How important that must be to any care-experienced person looking at their childhood records in later adulthood.
What needs to improve?
Inspectors do find some common weaknesses, including records that:
- are not up to date, have gaps or lack analysis;
- only focus on the very negative things that happen to children, rather than their lives as a whole;
- are not bespoke to each child or use too much professional jargon;
- show a lack of care and attention, or are just poorly written;
- lack parents’ views or the level of their engagement;
- do not show clear decision-making;
- are not age appropriate;
- mix up recording about brothers or sisters;
- show little purpose for visits to children and families and do not influence the plan or the next steps;
- fail to capture disabled children’s views.
In October last year, we published the results of a survey of local authorities about their information recording systems. Many told us that their systems were poorly implemented or not working as intended.
Some said that workflows within the system mimic the order in which social workers carry out their work, which can lead to illogical and potentially misleading chronologies. For example, when something happens to a child but is not reported – and therefore recorded – until a few days later, it means that it can become more difficult to distinguish between historical information and the current picture.
We often see repetition across the case recording system, from assessment, to plan, to case record. We see users cutting and pasting within records rather than adding their professional analysis. This does not help anyone!
In some places, it’s also questionable how much training social workers have had to help them use the system they have well.
Getting language right
Language is so important. Anything that implies victims were to blame for any abuse they suffered during childhood can compound the impact of that abuse. So can casual statements about ‘lifestyle choices’ by vulnerable teenagers. Times have changed, but we still sometimes see inappropriate language in case records.
When we communicate with each other, usually by email these days, we must avoid mentioning other children or redact this information before it becomes part of a child’s record.
I’ve used ‘the child’ here, but in a child’s record we should always use their gender pronoun. And although we should not shy away from describing the impact of parental behaviour, it’s important to not use language that might later be seen as judgmental.
Poor recording may be symptomatic of high caseloads and other pressures on social workers, but it’s still important to try and get it right. On a positive note, in most inspections, social workers describe the intent and impact of their work with children well, even if the records do not fully do it justice. We do give credit for this in our inspection findings.
This is an edited version of a post on Yvette Stanley’s blog (dated 24 July 2019), which is published with Ofsted’s permission.