Case study in developing a single assessment framework with a children's service

We worked with a local authority children's service to develop a single child assessment. The child is the focus of the single child assessment; the first stage requires a decision to be made about how much a child should know about the purpose and conduct of the assessment. It requires direct contact with children from the outset which will reflect their age, understanding and any specific communication needs.

Every aspect of the assessment is evaluated against what it means for the child in terms of their cognitive, emotional, psychological, mental and physical health. The single child assessment is rooted in exploring the development of an individual child taking account of their age, understanding and other circumstances. The single child assessment is supported by the application of evidence from research and from other sources such as serious case reviews and local learning audits.

The use of prompts embedded within the single child assessment is designed to draw attention to evidence about whether for example a child may be at an increased risk because of certain factors. This is not about predicting future harm but it is intended to give analytical and objective perspective to current observation.

The single child assessment encourages the triangulation of evidence about a child's circumstances; direct observation by the assessing social worker, consultation with third party sources for information (professionals and family) and checking historical family and individual history. The single child assessment is about identifying what the underlying patterns are rather than simply describing the relatively superficial observation of behaviour that can be an effort to deceive or misdirect the attention of the professionals.

The single child assessment creates a framework for analysing information about the strengths and resilience for a child and their family in order to build on their existing assets and circumstances as well as revealing relevant evidence of need and risk in order to provide timely and targeted help or protection from abuse or exploitation. It encourages exploration of the child's cognitive and emotional world as well as evidence of physical care or threats. The single child assessment is designed to allow further updating when appropriate to take account of new circumstances or new emerging information.

The three domains (child's developmental needs, parenting capacity and family and environment) describe sources of vulnerability and sources of resilience. This is an example of where the single child assessment uses research evidence in a practical way. There is a summary of the most significant factors that are associated with children being more likely to suffer ill treatment or conversely having better outcomes in spite of some adverse factors in their lives. The factors do not predict harm and should not be used as a tick box but prompt an initial pointer to areas in the assessment that merit closer examination in spirit of assessment being a journey of exploration about a child. For example, a parent may be expressing very positive intentions to overcome particular issues in their lives but have a history of high vulnerability and low resilience as described in other sections of the assessment that invites careful and close scrutiny and analysis.

The single child assessment includes reference and encouragement to use tools and other frameworks that are validated and also provide an objective benchmark or framework to explore what can be contentious issues for families. It removes the argument from being focussed on whether the social worker is being prejudiced for example and externalises it on a discussion around validated evidence for informing a judgment. The intention is to add to the list of local resources by encouraging social workers and other professionals to identify other tools or frameworks that are helpful in their assessment practice.

The single child assessment reduces the amount of different written reports by bringing all relevant information into a single format. For example the single child assessment can be used to provide information to child protection conferences, statutory reviews and to courts as appropriate. This means less time on computers and having more time for face to face work with children and families. The single child assessment was piloted prior to full implementation. It involved input from other professional disciplines such as the local authority's IT professionals to ensure integration with local systems. There was also consultation with solicitors and courts. The single child assessment is led and managed by a qualified social worker collaborating with the active input from other relevant professionals as well as from the child and family. This means for example input from a speech and language therapist, perhaps input around substance misuse or a particular assessment of mental or physical health. The single child assessment requires different individuals in children's services to carry out a particular aspect of the assessment. This may involve for example a children's assistant completing some specific tasks with a child or a parent.

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