It is essential in child protection work to:
- keep the focus on the child and his or her safety and welfare, and to:
- see the child alone where appropriate
- understand the daily life experience of the child and its meaning to them,
- understand his or her welfare, wishes and feelings, and to
- use information about the family’s history and functioning to inform decision making, including the meaning that the child has for this parent or carer, in this family, and the impact of this on parenting capacity.
The strategy discussion will have identified the best way forward and who should take action. At this stage the lead professional will be a social worker or a police officer, but they may work alongside workers from other agencies.
How to do it
Joint visits often save time and reduce communication problems between professionals as well as between professionals and family members.
The children should be seen and involved in the assessment. How this is done will depend on the age and ability of each child. Parents are usually willing for their children to be seen.
However, sometimes parents are not happy for their children to be involved, or seen alone. In this case there are four possible scenarios:
In the case of a younger or less able child who is not suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm, the social worker should still try to see the child, with or without the parent. But the worker would not be able to insist if the parent continues to refuse contact.
In the case of an older and competent child who wants to see the social worker and is not suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm, the child has the right to be seen and the social worker should see them. It may not be possible to complete an assessment without the agreement of the parents, but the social worker should make sure that the child is not suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm.
In the case of a younger or less able child who may be suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm, the social worker must see the child alone, unless this is inappropriate, as would be the case with a very young child. If the parents continue to deny contact, the social worker should contact their manager. A strategy discussion should be held immediately to decide the best course of action.
In the case of an older, competent child who wants to see the social worker and who may be suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm, the child has the right to be seen and the social worker should see them.
The findings of the initial assessment should be discussed with the child and their parents, and a copy of the completed assessment should be given to them; if this is not done, the reasons must be clearly recorded.
Based on their research with children and young people the Children’s Rights Office has drawn up a list of questions for adults to ask when deciding whether children understand something enough to make a decision about it:
- can the child understand the question they are being asked?
- does the child reasonably understand the main reasons for what is being proposed?
- does the child understand what choices they have to decide between?
- does the child reasonably understand what will happen if they choose each of the choices they can decide to take?
- can the child weigh up these different choices against each other?
- can the child tell you their personal choice, rather than repeating what someone else thinks they should do?
- can the child keep to one decision, without constantly changing their mind?
Make sure that you take seriously what the child is telling you. Remember that the child always knows what has happened to them; they may not be able to explain it or understand it, or they may have been told to lie about it, but deep down they do know. Although it is important to build good relationships with parents, you should never forget that you are there for the child.
Lessons from research
Lord Laming criticised the workers in Victoria Climbié’s case because none of them could describe a day in her life. Children are often confused and uncertain on meeting a social worker for the first time. Some are unsure whether they can speak, others feel pressurised to speak. Although many understand that the social worker is there to help them, they are not sure how.
Not enough attention is paid to what children say, how they look and how they behave. Ask yourself:
- have I been given appropriate access to all the children in the family?
- if I have not been able to see a child, is there a very good reason, and have I made arrangements to see them as soon as possible?
- how should I follow up any uneasiness about the children’s health or development?
- if the child is old enough and has the necessary communication skills, what is their account of events?
- if the child uses a language other than English, or alternative non-verbal communication, have I made every effort to get help in understanding them?
- what is the evidence to support or refute the child’s account?
See Cleaver H, Wattam C and Cawson P: Assessing Risk in Child Protection, London, NSPCC (1998) and Cloke C (ed): Participation and Empowerment in Child Protection (1995).