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Guidance on the Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009 and the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007

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Chapter 3- Information Gathering and Developing the Assessment

Relevant regulations: 3 and 4

In this chapter:

1. The Underpinning Principles and Key Stages of Care Planning
2. Information Gathering
3. Developing the Assessment
4. Options for Long-term Care Planning
5. Specific Care Planning Considerations for Infants
6. Specific Considerations in relation to Residential Placements
7. The Elements of a Good Assessment
8. The Importance of Partnership Working in Assessment

1. the underpinning principles and key stages of care planning

High quality care planning is essential to the discharge of a local authority's responsibilities to looked after children and their families. The fundamental principles that underpin effective care planning include the following:

  • Timeliness

Developing plans that take account of the developmental timescales of children, with particular importance attached to the needs of those less than two years old;

  • Stability and Permanence

Achieving stability and security for children with the minimum of delay, acknowledging that all changes and periods of uncertainty for children carry with them a high degree of risk of (further) damage;

  • Transparency

Making the basis for decisions clear to all parties, including the children and young people concerned, their families and those with responsibility for overseeing care planning;

  • Respect for each child's identity

Ensuring that all care planning decisions take account of the identity and heritage of each child.

The four key stages of care planning can be summarised as follows:

i. Information Gathering

ii. Developing the Assessment

iii. Drawing up the Child's Plan

iv. Monitoring and Reviewing the Child's Plan

The first two of these stages are addressed in Chapter 3 of this Guidance; the third and fourth in Chapter 4.

2. Information Gathering

Schedule 1 of the 2009 Regulations sets out the minimum requirements for the information that needs to be gathered to inform a child's plan. The information can be gathered using the three dimensions of a child's welfare outlined in the GIRFEC approach, as follows:

a) the child and how he or she is growing and developing physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally;

b) whether the people responsible for the care of the child can meet his or her needs; and

c) the child's place in his or her local network community and wider world.

Key elements to address therefore include:

  • initial risk assessment;
  • the child's development, needs and views;
  • parents' or guardians' abilities, understanding, lifestyle and motivation;
  • parent/child relationship;
  • other key family relationships - siblings and kinship network;
  • family environment;
  • chronology of events in the lifetime of the child and significant information from before the child's birth;
  • wider community links and supports.

As far as possible, the information gathering and assessment processes should involve the child, their family members and anyone else who has recently cared for the child or young person. Although previously gathered information gleaned from assessments may well be useful, care should be taken to ensure that the information relied upon in the formation of a care plan remains accurate and up to date.

The care plan is likely to be more accurate and supportive of the child's welfare if it draws from a wide range of relevant practitioners and individuals, such as Teachers and Health professionals. Information on educational and health needs are likely to be available from two important sources. The requirements set out in the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2009 requires all looked after children to be given a multi-disciplinary assessment to identify any support they require. In addition, Regulation 3 (3) (b) requires the completion of a written assessment of the health needs of each child who is, or who may become, looked after. Scottish Health Boards are required by the Scottish Government (Chief Executive Letter 16) to implement procedures to perform Health assessments of all looked after children in their area and this should complement efforts by Social Work to undertake a health assessment.

3. Developing the Assessment

Immediate Assessment

In urgent cases a comprehensive assessment may not be possible. However, for all children an assessment of their immediate needs should cover the elements required to discharge the authority's duty of care to the child. This might include the following areas:

  • The specific needs or difficulties which gave grounds for concern, or are revealed through the assessment. This should focus on the nature of the needs or difficulties, the possible reasons for them, and the likelihood of improving the child's situation or behaviour either through the child becoming looked after or through any alternative forms of action.
  • The availability of care, support, and guidance for the child from the family (including the extended family) which, where applicable, should be considered alongside the family's willingness to respond to the proposed intervention. The use of family group conferences is frequently helpful to consider in this context.
  • The level and extent of the risk involved for the child (and, where offending is a factor, the risk to others) of remaining at home or moving to a different placement.

Assessments for Looked After Children

Regulation 4 distinguishes between the child's immediate needs and his or her long-term needs. Even if a child remains at home, albeit under compulsory supervision, the change of legal status to becoming 'looked after' is a significant event.

In relation to every looked after child, regulation 4 indicates a number of areas that an assessment must cover, some of which apply at all stages from the point of intervention and others which relate more to longer term planning. Those that apply at all stages include:

  • the proposals for safeguarding and promoting the child's welfare;
  • the nature of services proposed;
  • the matters listed in section 17(4) of the 1995 Act, namely: the child's wishes and views; the views of the child's parents, of anyone holding parental responsibilities in relation to the child and of any other person whose views are considered relevant by the local authority; and the child's religion, ethnicity, cultural and linguistic background;
  • alternative courses of action, including kinship care;
  • the need for any change in the legal status of the child.

Planning for Permanence

In the longer term, regulation 4 also requires the assessment to address the sustainability of the arrangements for the child and look ahead to what arrangements need to be in place when the child will no longer be looked after by the local authority. These are particularly mentioned in Regulation 4(1)(b) to (e), (h) and (l). These aspects will recur at later points in a child's progress through the looked after children system. If a permanence order is under consideration, the child's welfare throughout childhood must be addressed; and if adoption is contemplated, one of the principles to consider is the child's lifelong welfare.

From the outset in every case, there should be active consideration of the purpose of a child becoming looked after and of the possible outcomes. The broadest interpretation of 'permanence planning' covers all options, with the aim of securing a stable living situation for a child which meets his or her needs for consistent, sustainable, positive relationships, normally best achieved within a family setting. The normal starting point for the local authority is assumed to be the maintenance or return of the child to their birth parents, or kinship carers if this is not appropriate. Planning should therefore take account of all available routes to permanence, including returning home. In order to avoid prolonged uncertainty and delay, models of 'twin tracking' (where different options are explored and progressed simultaneously) should be considered.

A growing body of research suggests that particular attention is required regarding decisions to return a child home from a looked after setting. Without adequate planning and focus upon the factors that led to the child becoming initially looked after such returns home can prove short-lived and detrimental to a child's welfare. See also Chapter 8 of this guidance.

4. Options for Long-term Care Planning

The options for the time when a child no longer needs to be looked after or requires long-term care away from home include:

  • for a child remaining at home, sufficient improvement in the parents' care of the child or in the child's behaviour that supervision is no longer required and the family functioning has stabilised;
  • the child can return to parent(s) from kinship carers or local authority accommodation with evidence that such a move is safe and sustainable;
  • there is a clear plan that return home is not safe or feasible but the child sees him/herself as a full member of their birth family and will require to remain with kinship carers on a permanent basis;
  • there is a clear plan that return home is not safe or feasible but the child sees him or herself as a full member of their birth family and will require to remain looked after by the local authority until he or she is able to be independent and make choices for adult life;
  • there is a clear plan that return home is not safe or feasible, the child's relationship with the birth family is non-existent, tenuous, damaging or dangerous, and the child has the potential to become a full member of another family.

The aim of the long-term planning therefore is to explore which of these routes to permanence is most appropriate. At the outset, the local authority should be clear with parents, children, family members, carers and other bodies and organisations who have a role, that becoming looked after is not an end in itself but is the start of a new process, with the overriding aim of securing permanence for each child.

5. Specific Care Planning Considerations for Infants

Particular attention needs to be given to planning for infants who require accommodation by the local authority immediately after birth and where such planning may start pre-birth. This is most likely to be the case where there is significant history of intervention with previous children.

The principles and tools developed in concurrent planning projects in other jurisdictions are useful in identifying the small number of infants where active exploration of permanence options away from the birth parents should be explored alongside potential rehabilitation. There is clear and robust worldwide research which shows that effective planning for infants requires urgency: a birth parent's progress with overcoming drug or alcohol addiction, for example, needs to be achieved within a timescale that meets the developmental needs of a young child. For children under the age of two, this implies making firm decisions about permanence and the suitability of birth parents within a matter months.

Timescales and expectations about risk factors in parental behaviour need to be specific, transparent and child-focussed: birth relatives should always be clear about what needs to change by when. Although openness and honesty with all families is essential, it is likely that a local authority will best meet its duties to a young child in particular if its needs are given precedence over those of the birth parents to overcome their own difficulties. See also Chapter 4 of this Guidance.

6. Specific Considerations in relation to Residential Placements

In relation to possible placement in a residential establishment, in addition to the overall assessment of the child's case, the local authority is also required to assess whether a particular placement is appropriate for the child's needs, taking into account the establishment's statement of functions and objectives. Each local authority should have such statements available for its own establishments and for others that it uses regularly. It should be clear where these are held and where advice can be obtained on the suitability of particular residential establishments for individual children.

7. The elements of a good assessment

It is good practice for assessments to have a strong evidence base and clear analysis. The following components can be found in high quality social work assessments:

i. Assessments should be recorded in writing. These should distinguish between information gathered as evidence for the conclusions and the evaluation of that information.

ii. This evaluation is the professional core of the assessment and is where the specific information is interpreted, weighed against the best available knowledge from research, 'good practice' models and overall criteria; and the balancing of all factors relating to the child's welfare occurs.

iii. The assessment should conclude with an outline of options and clear recommendations. This will be the foundation for the child's plan.

8. The Importance of Partnership Working in Assessment

Where the assessment has been prepared in partnership with the parents or carers and child, the content and recommendations should be explained to the family and fully discussed with them and the child. Even when co-operation has been limited, every effort should be made with parents and children to share as much as possible about the basis for intervention in their family life. Information should normally only be withheld wholly or partially when a child is unable to understand the assessment by virtue of his or her age or maturity, or disclosure to the parents, carers or child would breach confidentiality or cause harm.

Likelihood of change is increased when the key participants understand and acknowledge the need for that change and have had the opportunity to consider what will be involved in that process. Particular care should be taken when parents or children have additional challenges in understanding the content of an assessment, to ensure that they have time to absorb this. This includes when individuals have difficulty with the written word, have a learning disability, do not have fluent use of English or are extremely stressed.

Where key participants do not agree with the proposed outcome of the assessment, it should be noted in writing whether they disagree with the evidence, with the evaluation of that evidence, with the plan proposed as a result or with all of these.