An initial assessment is a series of questions based on the child’s developmental needs, parenting capacity and family and environmental factors.
Once a parent (or someone with parental responsibility) has given permission, or if you think that the child may be suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm, the social worker should
- check with all other agencies whether they have relevant information, and
- consider any information obtained in the light of the referral.
This should include the police in a case where a criminal offence may have been committed. [WTSC 5.33] This should be done within 24 hours of the referral being made.
The social work manager must decide whether the child’s needs can be met by the provision of further services, taking into account the definition of ‘in need’ under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989.
If the child’s needs meet the criteria, they are eligible for (at least) an initial assessment, which must be completed within 7 working days of the referral being received.
If, during the initial assessment, it becomes clear that a core assessment will be required, the worker undertaking the assessment and the children’s services manager should together decide whether it is necessary to complete all sections of the initial assessment before beginning the core assessment.
If, during the initial assessment, it is suspected that a child is at risk of immediate harm, the social worker must follow the instructions contained in emergency action to protect a child.
If it is discovered during an assessment that a child of school age is not attending school, the Local Education Authority should be contacted as soon as possible to establish the reason for this.
How to do it
When children are seen, it is important that they are involved in the assessment. How this is done will depend on the age and ability (capacity) 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?
See Children’s Views on Standards www.csci.org.uk/pdf/childrens_views_on_standards.pdf
Exceptionally, a joint enquiry team may need to speak to a child without the knowledge of the parent. This could be because
- there is a possibility that a child could be threatened or otherwise coerced into silence
- there is a strong possibility that important evidence would be destroyed; or
- the child in question did not wish the parent to be involved at that stage and is competent to take that decision.
The strategy discussion should decide on the most appropriate timing of parental participation.
Lessons from research
Families often find an assessment anxiety-provoking and challenging. We need to remember that involuntary clients are more likely to be reluctant to work with us, or resistant to our suggestions. How well first contacts or enquiries go will influence the course of future work and affect the relationship between families and professionals.
Professionals tend to stress the procedural aspects of empowerment, for instance sharing records, attending meetings or making complaints. Families tend to place greater value on relational aspects around developing trust and being genuine, open, even-handed and sensitive. See Shemmings D and Shemmings Y: Empowering children and family members to participate in the assessment process, in The Child’s World Reader, ed. Jan Horwath (2000).