Good assessment is a complex activity. It involves the systematic and purposeful gathering of information but is more than simply a process of collecting 'facts' (which may, themselves, be disputed).
Turney et al., 2011
Gathering information is a significant part of any assessment and review process. Information that is relevant can come from many sources including the child, the family, carers and significant others, professionals involved with the family and other sources such as neighbours and anonymous sources. If there has been previous involvement with the family then this information should also be reviewed.
In their report following an analysis of 147 serious case reviews between 2009 and 2010, Ofsted found most reviews identified sources of information that could have contributed to a better understanding of the children and their families. In particular, there were gaps in considering:
- The child's views
- information from or about fathers, whether living in the home or elsewhere, and other adults living in the home
- contributions from the extended family
- historical knowledge about members of the family
- relevant information from other agencies involved with the family
- the cultural background of the family
- research findings about abuse, neglect, domestic violence and substance misuse, where they were relevant to the particular case.
The same report went on to identify that often there were issues around accuracy of information and how this was used.
A paper by Research in Practice (2009) identifies a need to be aware of the human tendency of 'verificationism'. This means that people are more likely to look for information that will support rather than challenge conclusions that they may have already drawn. Therefore as practitioners there is a need to ensure that we remain open to what we are being told, whether this supports our view or not.
The level and amount of information required will depend on the reason that information is being gathered as well as the professional curiosity of the worker involved.
Gathering information from the child
All children, regardless of age and level of engagement, will be able to provide information about their feelings and relationships with others. As a child gets older this information becomes more verbal, but the use of verbal information should not lead to the exclusion of messages that they may be giving through non-verbal communication. In a report in 2011 into the importance of listening to the voice of the child, Ofsted identified the following five main messages:
- the child was not seen frequently enough by the professionals involved, or was not asked about their views and feelings
- agencies did not listen to adults who tried to speak on behalf of the child and who had important information to contribute
- parents and carers prevented professionals from seeing and listening to the child
- practitioners focused too much on the needs of the parents, especially on vulnerable parents, and overlooked the implications for the child
- agencies did not interpret their findings well enough to protect the child.
The voice of the child: learning lessons from serious case reviews (Ofsted 2011)
Hearing the "voice" of the child is therefore of paramount importance to any work that is being undertaken with a child and their family, and it is only through this and effective dialogue with key family members that an understanding of the family dynamics will be obtained.
Gathering information from the parents
Parents are invariably the most important people in the majority of children's lives. Understandably, parents can be resistant to the involvement of professionals in their family life, however they are also a primary source of information about both the current and historic circumstances for the family and the children. The locating of the child within the context of their family, and the significance of understanding the parent-child relationship is well established as part of any assessment process (e.g. Framework for Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families) and therefore information that can be provided by the parents is a key part to any involvement with a child and their family.
In his review following the death of Victoria Climbié, The Lord Laming stated:
While I accept that social workers are not detectives, I do not consider that they should simply serve as the passive recipients of information, unquestioningly accepting all that they are told by the carers of children about whom there are concerns. The concept of "respectful uncertainty" should lie at the heart of the relationship between the social worker and the family. It does not require social workers constantly to interrogate their clients, but it does involve the critical evaluation of information that they are given. People who abuse their children are unlikely to inform social workers of the fact. For this reason at least, social workers must keep an open mind.
The Lord Laming (2003; 6.602)
Forrester et al. (2012) identify five principle causes of parental resistance:
- social structure and disadvantage
- context of work with the family (e.g. child protection)
- parental resistance to change
- denial or minimisation of the issues
- behaviour of the professional
Parental feedback in a number of reviews supports the need for the involved professional to be open and honest with the parents, not being afraid to address issues head on. Parents report understanding that whilst this approach may lead to some difficult conversations, ultimately it is beneficial for all in the longer term.
Gathering information from the professionals
The status of the assessment will determine whether consent is required to obtain information from other professionals involved with the family, and this is covered in the section on consent. Dependent on the age of the child, attempts should be made to speak with the following (please note this is not an exhaustive list):
- Health visitor / school nurse
- Family doctor - it should be noted that a criticism that is often made of professionals within Children's Services across the country is that it is assumed that by speaking the health visitor or school nurse all the information available on the child / family has been obtained. It should however be noted that often these health professionals are not directly linked with the relevant doctor's surgery and therefore do not have access to information the doctor may have and vice versa. Doctors through their receptionists may also have information about how the family present in the waiting room.
- School - if primary school then the headteacher or designated child protection lead (if not the same person) is often a good place to start. If secondary school then it is often worth speaking to the head of year
- Police - dependent on the concerns that have lead to the involvement of Children's Services there may be a need to speak with the police. Thought will need to be given as to who would be most appropriate, e.g. do you need to involve the Child Abuse Investigation Team, or would it be more relevant to speak to the local Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) or Neighbourhood Beat Manager (NBM).
- Other health professionals - e.g. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) staff if involved. A theme that has come from several Health Overview Reports (completed when there are a number of different strands of health involved in Serious Case Reviews) is that often dentists have information about the family which has never been integrated into assessments. Dentists will often see the family on a regular basis and may have information about how they present both in the waiting room and further information in relation to a child's health.
With all professionals, the information being sought is a summary of their involvement. However, as demonstrated in the quote at the top of this page, good information gathering is not just about collecting the 'facts'. Each professional will be able to provide an opinion about whether the information and knowledge that they have of a child and their family is of concern. It is therefore important to ensure that you ask them for their interpretation of what they know, and that this feeds into your assessment and analysis.
Information from neighbours / anonymous sources
Information from neighbours and anonymous sources often presents a quandary for the receiving professional who has to make a decision about how much weight to attach to the information. There is often a need to establish whether they are indeed concerned about the child and the family or whether they are motivated by other factors, for example a grudge between the two households. No information should ever be discounted at point of receipt, and any such information should be considered in conjunction with all the other information gathered as part of the work undertaken with the child and their family.
The NSPCC provide some insight into the important role that members of the public play in terms of providing information and the dilemmas that a member of the public may go through before reporting their concerns. In research into calls to their helpline relating to suspected child neglect, they established that many people will wait at least a month longer before reporting neglect than other types of abuse. Reasons behind this are reported to relate to belief that it may be temporary, considering that it may be differences in parenting styles and concern that the parents may identify where the information came from.
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