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Disagreement about the use of early help assessments

What is the issue?

Agencies use the Common Assessment Framework because they’ve been told to, even though they don’t agree with this suggestion.

Early help is intended to address problems as soon as they arise and should be based on an early help assessment, for example using the Common Assessment Framework (CAF). Our analysis of SCR reports found examples of professionals undertaking a CAF on the advice of children’s social care (CSC), despite thinking the family needed statutory intervention

In one case, a health visitor made a referral to CSC who advised her to undertake a CAF. The health visitor said she thought the CAF was not appropriate for that family, but the issue was left unresolved. The health visitor did not escalate her concerns.

The reports we analysed mainly referred to the CAF, which is reflected in the wording of this briefing. However, we are aware that many areas are now using different forms of early help assessment.

Why does this occur?

The analysis within the SCR reports found the following reasons for carrying out a CAF, despite ongoing safeguarding concerns:

  • professionals feeling unable to challenge the decisions of another agency, and unsure about trusting their own judgement
  • escalation procedures not being used, or a lack of confidence in escalating concerns
  • referrals from senior practitioners not being checked by managers.

Participants at the three summits also identified a number of underlying reasons for this issue including the following:

Professional hierarchy and challenge

Professionals described their perceived difficulty in getting referrals accepted by CSC, and the difficulty of challenging CSC advice. One participant said:

It’s an issue of hierarchy with CSC at the top and you have to really build up your case before they’ll even listen to you.

Specialist Safeguarding Practitioner

Lack of clarity regarding service thresholds

Participants also identified that a lack of clarity about thresholds between services, and when families’ needs were sufficiently serious to require social care involvement. One person commented:

There seems to be confusion of understanding the threshold to include social care, all agencies, and early care.

Named Nurse

Another commented:

In [my area] I’m finding it harder to progress a case to Child in Need status. Unless I can clearly outline a role for a social worker it won’t go through.

Multiagency Safeguarding Hub social worker

How CAFs are used and who is best placed to complete them

Participants reported a lack of understanding of the CAF process, which may have contributed to feeling unable to challenge advice that one should be undertaken. People said that it was not clear when a CAF should be initiated, what to expect from the process, and in particular the role of the lead professional:

There’s a lack of clarity about what the role of lead professional actually entails and what the term means. I think sometimes people are daunted by that and feel as though they don’t have the skills to do it.

Named Safeguarding Nurse

Some people felt that there was a lack of training about the CAF process.

Solutions suggested by summit participants

Participants at the summits suggested the following possible solutions:

  • enhance understanding of what the CAF process involves, when it should be initiated and who is best placed to act as lead professional
  • improve clarity about the role of a CAF in current child protection and safeguarding policy.

Questions for you to consider

Unpicking the issue

  1. Is this issue familiar to you?
  2. Locally, is the issue exactly the same as described above? If not, what does this issue ‘look like’ for you?
  3. What good practice is there in relation to this issue? Are there weaknesses you are aware of and how would you describe them?

Why do you think this happens in your local area?

  1. Do some or all of the reasons described above apply in your area?
  2. Is it an issue that has been identified in local SCRs, audits or inspection feedback? What light have these activities shed on the issue?
  3. What knowledge do you have from your own experience about why this happens?
  4. What organisational factors are involved locally?
  5. How does local culture, custom and practice, within and between agencies, contribute to this?

Thinking through the solutions

  1. Have there been previous efforts locally to address this issue? What was the result?
  2. Given your understanding of the reasons for this issue, what further actions do you think would be helpful in addressing it?
  3. What strengths can you build on, and what are the areas of difficulty?
  4. What action would need to be taken at a strategic or leadership level?
  5. Who would need to be involved to achieve improvement?
  6. Are there any unintended consequences you anticipate for the different agencies and professions involved?
  7. How will you know whether any actions have had an impact?

Overview map: Inter-professional communication and decision making – practice issues identified in 38 serious case reviews