This essay will discuss interrelating factors involved with social work assessment in relation to children who are at risk. In regards to social work practice good assessment matters and is vital to operative intervention and to improving outcomes for children. Martin (2010) articulates that social work assessment should not be viewed as a diagnosis of problems but rather a joint venture between social worker and service user whereby the service user is an expert by personal experience. Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (1970) will be discussed in relation to this particular service user group. The process of working anti-oppressively towards children who are at risk will be surface throughout. This essay will also illustrate the Understanding the Needs of Children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) framework and the benefits and limitations of this process. Overall it will incorporate theory, policy, service user perspective and law in regards to children at risk, such as the Children Order (Northern Ireland) 1995 (Order 1995). Child protection is a multidimensional issue and the significances of assessment, intervention and prevention should not be miscalculated. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) highlight child abuse as actions caused by both adult and children that result in substantial harm to a child. Statistics provided by the Northern Ireland Department of Health state that by 30th September 2018 there were a total of 2265 children on the child protection register (Department of Health , 2018).
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Legislation acts as an enabler for social workers to assess and intervene with children at risk in the confidence that this intervention is verified and by law. The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 is the primary decree governing the care, upbringing and protection of children in Northern Ireland. It underpins all fragments of the influences and obligations of the social care mandate governed by social work law. The first principle of the order states that The Childs Welfare must be the paramount consideration. This principle probes that any person who has a concern about the welfare of a child must take action. Article 66 of the Children (NI) Order 2005 places a duty only not only social workers but all other agencies to investigate all allegations or suspicions of abuse likely to cause harm to a child. Furthermore, communication between these agencies is critical to ensure that intervention is arranged for the child at risk in a safe and timely manner. Multi-agency working is crucial in child protection and fundamental to assessment of risk. Where agencies find evidence of a risk to children from neglect or abuse they are obligated to act swiftly to protect the children involved (Walker, 2008). Important to social work assessment is the workers capacity to communicate effectively with clients, staff and professionals at other agencies (Zastrow, 2010). Hence it is unfortunate that there are various child death enquiries that highlight a lack of communication between agencies as a key feature. In the case of Madeline and Lauren O’Neill (2005) both the Belfast and Western Care Trust released a statement apologising for a lack of communication by within both trusts. In regards to assessment it is essential that a social worker utilises the tools available to them to grasp when harm is imminent. So, to ensure the upmost safety of the child is guaranteed communication and collaboration with other agencies is not only desired but obligatory.
An ecological approach to social work assessment refers to an inclusive approach to the collection of data in practice. Pardeck (1988) highlights that operational social work intervention occurs by working not only openly with clients but also with familial, social and cultural factors that mark their social functioning. Urie Bronfenbrenners’ (1970) ecological theory has produced a holistic framework to aid the social worker in carrying out the most thorough assessment possible as they explore the various interrelated factors involved with children at risk. The Ecological Systems perspective coaxes social workers to integrate a transactional and dynamic approach to understanding children within their environmental contexts (Howers & Dulmus, 2008). In regards to child protection the ecological model stresses that it must be considered in the context of the individual child and parent factors, the relationship between child and parent factors, and their relationship with outside pressures and influences. The different system theories that occur within the model to include the micro-system, meso-system, exo-system and macro-system are reflected in the three domains of the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families. The welfare of the child is dependent on the interactions between the child’s developmental necessities, the parent capacity accessible to the child and the existing family and environmental factors (Basarab-Horwath, 2001). An ecological assessment is of great benefit to the social worker in that it investigates the balance between stresses and supports in the family environment and also the emphasis on an individual’s own subjective experience of his or her circumstances. This enables all the influences affecting parent-child interactions to become visible. In turn actions required to prevent maltreatment by lessening risk and emphasising protective factors at each ecological level can be conducted, evaluated, and replicated (Petr, 2004). The social worker is empowered to advocate for the child and for system change.
Coulshed and Orne (1998) determine assessment as obtaining and understanding of the service user while identifying needs, determining risks and creating areas for change. Understanding the Needs of Children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) refers to an assessment framework developed by significant professionals to ensure safe and effective decisions can be facilitated in regards to a child and their family’s needs. The key factor of the UNOCINI is that it holds the involvement of the child as the key priority, it exists to tell the child’s story and to provide an overview of their wishes, hopes and fears (Mullan, 2011). The objective of this framework is to facilitate an accumulation of information known about a child or family with a view to assessing the need for referral to social services (Stafford et al, 2012). Milner and O’ Byrne (2009) describe social work as a goal directed activity. The initial goal in the UNOCINI assessment tool is to be supportive in enhancing the current family situation. It incorporates an inherent aim to recognise the needs of a child before the situation reaches crisis point. The framework sets out a number of pathways to include family support pathway and child protection pathway. The inclusion of the family support pathway is evident of a commitment to intervene before the situation worsens (Stafford at al, 2012). The aim is to consider what further support and intervention can be offered before a referral is made to social services. The social worker is educated with a wealth of information so that the appropriate further referrals to help the child can be made. The tool is multi agency transferrable and obviously beneficial in that it is being used in health care, schools and youth justice (Stafford, Parton, Vincent, & Smith, 2012). The UNOCINI itself is at risk is in that budgets for early intervention in Norther Ireland having dropped by £743m in the last five years. Petr (2004) states that systems for children need to be available, affordable and effective in order to have maximum impact and benefit.
The Children and Young Peoples Strategy 2017 states that any child who is given the chance to contribute to their communities will feel part of their community and will be a positive role model for others. This can be compared to social work assessment in that any child who is given the chance to contribute to their outcome will feel a part of the process and act as an example for positive family planning. In regards to theoretical perspective a strengths based theory refers to viewing service users as resourceful and resilient in the face of adversity. Strengths-based practice involves a shift from a deficit method which emphasises difficulties and to a positive partnership with the family. Through a strengths based assessment the family social worker tries to relegate problems to a secondary position behind strengths (Collins, Catheleen, & Coleman, 2010). The Signs of Safety Approach (1999) is a strengths based approach that focuses on how the social worker can build partnerships with parents of children at risk while still working with the maltreatment issues. Productive operational relationships between professionals and family members, and between professionals themselves, are the heart and soul of essential practice in situations where children suffer abuse (Turnell, 1999). Conversely, the strength based approach proves problematic for the social worker when indications of significant risk require immediate attention and intervention. This is a risk that is too critical to be ignored (Collins at al, 2010). This is difficult for a social worker in regards to assessment. Taking a strengths based approach it is their role to assign the risk as secondary to the families’ strengths all while ensuring the immediate risk is eradicated. The issue arises when the paradox appears to be that the problem will not be overcome until the family member feels gratified enough to aim to overcome the risk of family violence (Collins et al, 2010).
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It is likely that a practising social worker in the child protection field will be working with children who are from a range of diverse backgrounds. Thompson (2006) believes that social work lacks when failing to recognise the uniqueness of individuals is in part due to the range of their social context. Social work is not primarily aimed at poverty yet a substantial amount of the problems that social workers deal with are linked to the limited resources available to clients, money does not solve all problems but lack of it makes life harder for children (Welbourne, 2012). Anti-oppressive intervention is required to successfully change relations at personal, cultural and structural levels. Thompsons PCS model (2006) articulates the oppression that occurs at each of these levels. To work effectively with diversity a social worker needs to consider a wide range of factors and be aware of specific needs for the child that may not be as direct as with any other child protection case. Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE 2018) recommendations for looked after children and diversity state that social workers must ensure that core assessments contain an accurate picture of the child’s needs to include culture and religion, particular attention must be placed on race, faith and sexual orientation. In order to be anti-oppressive a social worker must go beyond a basic assessment to facilitate the needs of the child at risk and to build on their own awareness of factors that are putting the child at risk in the first place. Furthermore the social worker needs to uphold an extensive knowledge of the ever changing environment and any new risks to children that develop over time. For example, there has been a prominent increase to children at risk in recent years with the development of social media and the opportunity for online grooming. This has added to a sense of moral panic about how technology is changing childhood (Race & O’Keefe, 2007). It is critical that a social workers knowledge on risk is current and widespread in order to carry out the best assessment for a child at risk.
To conclude it is evident that there are benefits of an ecological approach as it permits the social worker to view the service user in their whole environment which equips them with the tools to carry out the best assessment possible. For this assessment to be efficacious then it needs to be carried out in an anti-oppressive way in regards to the child at risk. Most apparent is the need of the social worker to be aware of the never ending and ever changing factors that may put a child at risk and how to overcome these risks all while ensuring the needs of the child are paramount. One has been influenced that the foundations of a good social worker reside in their ability to assess with precision. Although there is so much to consider that it may seem overwhelming assessment in social work is a crucial social work task (Milner and O’Byrne 2009).
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