Assessments within social work are essential to practice as they ensure the best interventions are made and in turn children and families receive better outcomes. Assessment is vital to effective social work intervention and outcomes (Hepworth et al, 2009). Assessments in social work are legally underpinned by the Children’s Act (1989) in which Section 47 states that “local authorities have a duty to investigate if they believe a child is suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm”, and section 17 states that “it is the general duty of the local authority to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area who are in need”. The Professional Capabilities framework (PCF) states” that social workers should ensure practice is underpinned by policy and legislation” (BASW, 2015). A positive aspect of the children’s act is that local authorities are duty bound to carry out assessments if a child is in need or at risk or significant harm and they have a duty to protect the welfare of every child irrespective of their background. However defining what significant harm means can vary between local authorities and individual practitioners due to unclear legislation. Decisions as to what constitutes significant harm can lack consistency as there are many views that need to be taken into account (Dickens, 2007). As the legislation does not clearly define the term significant harm it is possible that practitioners may have different views on the level of need. Professionals should be provided with the tools and support needed for them to be confident in their ability to recognise a child at risk and to be able to carry out the necessary assessments and intervention (London safeguarding children’s board (LSCB) 2017).
An Early Help Assessments is used to “determine the need for early help and actions that need to be taken to improve outcomes for children and families, based on the holistic view of the needs of the family” (Barnsley Borough council, 2017). Early help assessments should identify what help the child and family require in order to put services in place to help overcome any issues before the needs escalate to the point of needing a statutory assessment under the Children’s Act (1989) (Surrey family information service, 2017). The Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance (2015) states that “effective early help relies upon local agencies working together to identify children and families who would benefit from early help, undertake an early help assessment and provide targeted early help services to address any unmet needs and improve outcomes”. Addressing a child’s needs early as they arise is more beneficial to a child’s wellbeing and the family, rather than waiting and intervening when the situation has already reached crisis level. A good early help assessment should be empowering, developmental, accessible and transparent. The principles underpinning it should include accuracy, clarity, professionalism, validity and be outcome based, professionals should ensure they remain non-judgmental and apply anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive principles to practice during the assessment process (surrey family information service, 2017). Early help assessments use similar principles to the assessment framework triangle in which the child’s wellbeing remains centre focus and it looks at all contributing factors that play a role in the child and families lives. Early help will assess the child’s development needs for example their physical health and educational needs, it will also consider family and environmental factors for example their financial situation and housing arrangement, and finally it will consider the parents or carers and look at how they are parenting the child, the attachment between parent/carer and child and also the parents health and wellbeing (Staffordshire safeguarding children’s board, 2017). To carry out this type of assessment social workers will need to gain consent for this from the parent/carer and the child. Early help assessments should be child centred and consider the voice of the child throughout as well as working in partnership with parents/carers throughout (NSPCC, 2014). The help that families can receive from early help assessments is wide ranging and can include services like parenting programmes, anger management and mental health support. The advantages of carrying out this type of assessment are that it enables families to receive early interventions and better outcomes. Also this type of assessment encourages more participation from parents therefore empowering them to make good choices for themselves and the children (Turney et al, 2011). However as early assessments are voluntary children and families need to give consent before a social worker can carry out the assessment, if a family refuses to give consent then the professional will decide if a statutory assessment is necessary based on the family’s needs and the risk of them escalating (NSPCC, 2014). Another disadvantage of this type of assessment is that because of all the paperwork it adds more to professionals workloads and this combined with time constraints means that not enough time is spent listening to the child (Holmes, L et al, 2012).
In relation to characteristics of a good quality assessment, when working with a child and their family it is essential for the assessment to remain focused on the child and their wishes, feelings and needs. Working together to safeguard children (2015) states “for services to be effective they should be based on a clear understanding of the needs and views of the children”. A child centred approach to assessment and safeguarding children is underpinned by the Children’s Act 1989 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children want to be heard and have their views respected, they also want to be able to trust and talk to professionals and so by using a child centred approach to assessment and focussing on the needs and wishes of the child we are able to build effective relationships with children, this then contributes to achieving better outcomes for the child (NSPCC, 2014). Having a good working relationship will allow the social worker to gather more information and assess the level of need more accurately (Milner, O`Byrne, 2009). The relationships formed between worker and service user lie at the heart of effective social work practice (Trevithick, 2003).
Of course adopting a child centred approach to assessment is not the only quality needed to carry out a good quality assessment in order to build a relationship with service users we need to ensure that we are communicating effectively. This means speaking clearly and using language that the children and families are able to understand. “Social workers have to be able to connect, engage, talk and support children if they are going to make a positive difference in their lives” (Morrison, 2016). Communicating with young children may be difficult and social workers may face barriers to communication for example if the child cannot speak, or they have a different first language or children with disabilities. In situations like this it is important for the social worker to find alternative means to communicate, for example through therapeutic play (Koprowska 2010). Some social workers may lack confidence in communicating with children which will affect their ability to form a relationship and assess their needs correctly (Parker, Bradley, 2014). Communication goes further than just talking and listening, social workers need to use a variety of methods to communicate with children, such as play, observing body language or using sign language (Winter, 2011). Using these skills will also ensure the child’s voice is central to assessment process. Communication skills also relate to relationship based practice. In order to build an effective relationship with service users, professionals need to communicate effectively with service users so they feel able to trust the worker and feel included in the assessment process and any decisions made about them. (Beckett, 2010).
Another characteristic of good assessment is multi-agency working. Working together to safeguard children (2015) states that “local agencies should work together to put processes in place for the effective assessment of the needs of children” (HM Government, 2015). There is evidence to suggest that in cases where multi agency assessments were carried out, better outcomes have been achieved for families, even in the most complex of cases (Turney, et al, 2011). Multi-agency working has proven effective and the need for information sharing between agencies is paramount to effective assessment and intervention, it has also proven effective in reducing safeguarding concerns for children (Boddy et al, 2009). However, although multi agency working has proven successful it does create challenges between professionals as each agency has their own policies and guidelines to follow and understanding when to share information or what information to share, can create a barrier to effective multi agency working. (Turney, et al, 2011). The Laming enquiry (2009) also highlighted serious concerns with the lack of information sharing and inadequate multi agency working which has led to serious failings with the local authority safeguarding children. Some practitioner still feel uncertain about the information they can share lawfully, especially in cases of early intervention work where information sharing decisions are less clear than in child protection (Newcastle safeguarding children’s board, 2010).
Partnership working with children and families is also paramount to effective assessments. The PCF states that “social workers should Negotiate and establish boundaries to underpin partnership work with service users, carers and their networks, using transparency and honesty” (BASW, 2015) This core social work value expects social workers to work in partnership effectively with service users effectively. The importance of effective partnership working with families in need of assistance lies at the heart of childcare legislation (Department of Health, 2000).
One theory that informs practice and assessments is Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) system theory. Maclean and Harrison (2015) stated that theory is a way to explain and understand situations and behaviours and helps professionals understand the issues enabling them to make informed decisions. This theory provides a framework that helps in understanding families and the complex systems they are part of (Calder, 2008). This theory works well with early help assessments as they both consider environmental factors and the role they have in a child’s life and how they can impact a child’s development. This theory can be used in practice as during the assessment process a social worker must consider all contributing factors before making decisions about further intervention. When applying this theory to practice it is crucial to always consider the child’s culture, values and beliefs as these can play a significant role in the child’s life. In order to achieve anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice social workers should always consider individuals values and beliefs (BASW, 2015). “Using this theory gives greater insight into what contributes to the crisis, strengths and resources in the family and what interventions will be most appropriate for the family” (Calder, Hackett, 2013).
Another theory that could be used with early help assessments is the task centred approach. This approach is based around “tasks that are central to the process of change and which aim to build on individual service user strengths” (walker, Beckett, 2011). In the approach the service user defines the problems and the social worker supports and empowers them to overcome the issues and move forward to make positive changes. Although this approach is considered to be empowering and anti-oppressive service users can sometimes feel disempowered and oppressed by professionals (Walker, Beckett, 2011). This is because tasks being set should be influenced by the service users and their needs but professionals may try to influence them because of their statutory agendas (Beckett, 2010).
In conclusion there are many factors that contribute to a good quality assessment. Child centred approach, communication skills, multi-agency and partnership working and relationship based practice are all paramount to a high quality assessment. Theories to inform practice are also vital as all these contributing factors to assessment provide social workers with vast amount of information, thus enabling them to make informed decisions and achieve better outcomes for children and families. However it must also be noted that the assessment process does not come without difficulty and the pressure of managing large caseloads, time constraints and sometimes inadequate training can all impact negatively on the assessment process.