Step One: Hypothesise

The word hypothesis has its origins in ancient Greek and means 'a proposed explanation for a phenomenon' (Wikipedia - online dictionary). In modern day usage, a hypothesis is a provisional idea or explanation which has to be evaluated or tested. The idea needs to be either confirmed or disproved. The hypothesis should be 'falsifiable', which means it is possible for it to be shown to be false, usually by observation. Even if confirmed, the hypothesis is not necessarily proven, but remains provisional.

Hypothesising is a core activity within social work assessment. Holland (2004) states:

"The cornerstone of analysis in assessment work might be seen as the process of building hypotheses for understanding a family situation and developing these until they include a plan for the way forward."

This process of building, testing out and discarding hypotheses starts at the earliest point of contact. As soon as a referral is received into a social work team the practitioner will begin consciously or unconsciously to form some hypotheses of what is happening within the family. They would certainly check out some of their hypotheses during an initial conversation with the referrer and may even ditch one or more of them at this stage. The formation of various hypotheses and the decision taken about the steps needed to investigate the matter further will be influenced by a range of factors, for example: practice wisdom, personal values, and formal knowledge.

Munro highlights the fact that "The single most important factor in minimizing errors (in child protection practice) is to admit that you may be wrong" (Munro 2008: 125).

In risk assessment Raynes in Calder and others (2003) suggests that workers often remain narrowly focused on proving or disproving whether the original risk or perception about a family remains and fail to consider the broader picture, or alternative hypotheses about what is happening and why. Practitioners should therefore consider all the possibilities about what is happening and address each hypothesis, only discarding it when there is clear evidence to do so.

Stepwise requires that this is considered as part of a structured approach and that forming, testing out and discarding hypotheses needs to be a clear and recorded part of any assessment process.

The practitioner should record the possible hypotheses to which they are working and this needs to be done in a way that shows a) it's only a hypothesis not a conclusion, and b) that it's a reasonable hypothesis based on information to hand at that time (including research info) in order to avoid any later suggestion of bias/premature judgement. Planning the nature and source of information to be collected, should enable practitioners and managers to test out all possible hypotheses in the analysis stage, to prove or disprove the likelihood of one of them being the case in this situation. This will require use of the analysis models underpinning this framework.

In essence, at this step, practitioners should be asking:  "What are we worried about? What is the possible danger or harm to the child?" If our hypotheses are correct, what needs to happen?"

Where hypotheses relate to actual or likely abuse of a child, the child protection procedures must be followed, and the assessment planned as part of a strategy discussion or meeting.