Step Two: Plan
All assessments require planning, which addresses how the assessment, will be conducted. This includes agreement not just on how workers will assess the family but also how they will work together effectively with others. Workers tend to concentrate on the tasks they need to undertake in respect of the child and the family, but spend little time considering how they will maximise the combined skills and knowledge of other agencies, and how they can support and complement one another's work. Assessments should be multi agency, and should draw on the information held elsewhere, and on the child's records, if these already exist.
Understanding the impact of current concerns and risks must include an understanding of the history and therefore the significance of current events in the child's life experience. Building and accessing a good chronology, and using this to inform current analysis is central to good risk assessment.
Planning for the assessment must relate to the working hypotheses identified in step one, and identify what information must be collected to disprove or evidence the validity of one or more of these. Planning in itself, with other professionals may lead to one or more of these being discarded and at the next step it will be important to clearly identify for parents and other professionals what working hypotheses are now being explored. For example, in relation to suspected or alleged sexual abuse, the hypotheses may include:
The child is being sexually abused by X - or by someone else
The child (or someone else) has said or done something which is being misinterpreted
There is inappropriate handling or poor boundaries
The child is experiencing other forms of abuse or difficulties
The assessment will then need to focus on what information is needed to test out these hypotheses, and given that it is potentially a child protection issue, this will need to be planned via a strategy discussion unless initial enquiries at the referral stage clearly evidence that the sexual abuse hypotheses are not valid. Child protection procedures should be considered.
Where the child protection hypotheses are validated, or cannot be discarded as a result of initial assessment and action, following the step wise approach, an initial safety plan must be put in place for the child up to and including the convention of a child protection conference. The risk assessment tools outlined in the analysis step should be used to underpin this.
Where the child is subsequently made subject to a child protection plan, risk assessment and action is managed through the core group. The initial child protection conference should determine the overarching plan, and the core group will take this forward, ensuring that risks continue to be evaluated and the impact on the child assessed as the plan develops and is reviewed.
Everyone involved, including the family, should be clear about how long an assessment will take and what is expected of them at different stages. The following factors should underpin all decisions in this planning stage:
- Decisions about the child should not be unnecessarily delayed and immediate risks must be acted on in a proportionate manner
- The family will feel more empowered if they have a clear understanding of the time parameters and when decisions are likely to be taken
- Professionals contributing to the assessment and management of identified risks need to be clear about how long they have for information gathering, when and where to provide information and when and how this will be evaluated
Where the primary purpose of the assessment is risk assessment, the time scales will be dictated by the child protection process and reference should be made to the child protection procedures.
Where the focus is on needs assessment and danger or risk of significant harm to the child has not been identified as an issue, the timescale will be identified by the team around the child, in agreement with the family and the social work team manager.
Evaluating parenting skills
It is important that the family and the professionals involved in the assessment know what indicators will be used to evaluate the family i.e. what is a reasonable level of parenting for the children in this particular family and how this will be measured. The use of the tools underpinning this framework should be openly shared with the family, to enable them to contribute their views and to influence the outcome, including being clear about what is expected of them and why. We must explain what we want to do unless to do so might compromise a child's safety or compromise a criminal enquiry.
Andrew Turnell and Steve Edward's Signs of Safety model provides a method of engaging families in understanding what is needed to keep their child safe and to clarify their involvement and the expectations of agencies. At its simplest this can be understood as containing four domains for inquiry:
- What are we worried about? (Past harm, future danger and complicating factors)
- What's working well? (Existing strengths and safety)
- What needs to happen? (Future safety)
- Where are we on a scale of 0 to 10 where 10 means there is enough safety for child protection authorities to close the case and 0 means it is certain that the child will be (re)abused (Judgment).
What we are worried about, that is our hypotheses and our supporting evidence, must be shared with the family and their views sought about what these mean to them, and what they think professionals would need to see to be confident that the dangers and risks to their children are being managed and reduced. This involves a skilful approach to families, which moves from simply sharing information and telling families what must change, to appreciative enquiry - seeking to understand the family context and perceptions, and asking them, given what professionals are worried about, they think they need to do or can do to reassure professionals about that information and their child's welfare. Practitioners will need to demonstrate their willingness to understand the family perspective whilst maintaining clarity about the actual and possible danger to the child and what actions the department will need to take if this is not resolved. Central to this is the direct work with family members, and with children to understand and challenge family dynamics and behaviour, and transparency about the actions and intentions of professionals. Further guidance is available in the tools section of this framework.
Use of Finkelhor's four preconditions in sexual abuse can be very helpful in educating potentially protective parents in the initial stages of risk assessment and in working with them to protect their children in the longer term.
There will not always be a consistent view within the assessment 'team'. Agreement will need to be reached on what is a 'good enough' level of parenting and protection so that the family can understand what is expected of them, what they will have to do to meet those expectations, and what are likely to be the thresholds for children no longer needing a child protection plan, or in some cases, for legal action.
In cases where these issues have not been discussed and some level of consensus reached, assessment teams can become split and unable to function, assessments can be flawed and decision making impaired. If dissension remains within the group, supervisory input or an early return to a child protection conference will be required. The process of discussing this issue will, in itself be helpful to the group in planning their intervention with the family.
Turnell and Edwards state that:
"Constructive relationships between professionals and family members, and between professionals themselves, are the heart and soul of effective child protection practice." (2010:18)
Similarly, Munro's principles for a child centred system include 'working with families'. This means being clear with them about concerns and risks and, through, for example, motivational interviewing, and 'signs of safety' interview techniques, engaging them wherever possible in identifying and putting into place the measures that will keep their children safe.
These principles of transparency about our needs and risk assessment approach will support a relationship from the outset in which the safety and wellbeing of children is the paramount concern, and where families, and carers, are enabled as far as possible to play an active part in assessing and managing the actual and likely risks to their children.
Assessment team professionals will also need to regularly jointly assess how effectively they are working in partnership, whether they are all working at a similar level, and what is the highest level of partnership they can achieve without jeopardising the welfare of the child.
Equality and Diversity issues
The impact of equality issues needs to be considered throughout the assessment process. Anti-discriminatory practice involves; empathy, allowing children and families to explain their circumstances, addressing imbalance of power, considering the role that the identity of the worker plays in the process, considering issues of strength as well as weakness, checking out beliefs and hypotheses, being trustworthy and honest, attempting to improve partnership working at all stages of the process, combating power imbalances in the system, ensuring that institutionalised abuse is limited, appropriately using resources and systems to protect and promote children's health and development and understanding the effect of your professional power.
A good assessment will use a diversity model and will address these issues.- see Practice Guidance for safeguarding children in minority ethnic culture and faith (often socially excluded) communities, groups and families published by the pan London Safeguarding Children Boards, 2011, and available here.
- Worried about a child?
- Case Conference
- After the Initial Case Conference
- Supplementary Guidance