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Pitfalls for practitioners 2

The child is 'missing' from the record

This may appear to be an unlikely pitfall for a Children and Family social worker to fall into. The file is after all, in most social services departments, the child's file. Yet a depressingly common finding from Inquiry and Inspection reports is that the child is 'missing' from the record.

'This is the first of numerous observations disclosed as evidence to this Inquiry but not at any time recorded on Victoria's case file. The importance of accurately recording observations about children cannot be over-emphasised.' (1)

This is not to suggest that the child is not mentioned at all, but rather their wishes and feelings, their views and understanding of their situation, are not recorded. The absence of the child from the record suggests to the reader that no work has been undertaken with the child, or that the child has not been an active partner in any work.

Research indicates that there are a number of reasons why children may be 'missing' from the record.

Parent's needs dominate at the expense of the child

Often practitioners are working with parents and carers who may be facing a wide variety of problems. In many cases the route to improving the child's situation is by supporting and helping the parents.

However, it is important that the practitioner makes time to find out how the child feels about their situation and the impact of parental problems on the child. Giving the child a voice may not only support the child, it can also protect them (2). Research is clear that the involvement of children leads to better decision-making, and can support the development and evaluation of interventions (3). The parents may feel better - but are things better for the child?

A child may go missing from the record where files are kept on families rather than on individual children. Where each child does not have a separate file, there is a risk that the needs of one child may dominate the record, resulting in the needs and views of other children being overlooked. It will also prove very difficult to monitor outcomes for the child.

The practitioner is trying to protect the child

Some practitioners may wish to protect the child from talking about issues that are painful and difficult. However, research suggests that professionals often underestimate the abilities of children and their understanding of their situation (4). Issues will have to be approached sensitively, but they should not be avoided. We need 'to ensure that children have adequate information appropriate to their age and understanding with which to form opinions. Children cannot participate in decisions if they are not fully informed of the options available to them and the implications of those options' (5).

The practitioner has found the child uncommunicative, or expressing different views at different times.

Establishing a relationship where children feel able to communicate can be difficult because vulnerable children often think that adults do not hear what they say (6). The childhood experiences of many children have lead them to distrust communication with adults.

Practitioners do not simply have to hear what the child says (although research suggests that often we fail to listen to what children have to tell us (7)). Practitioners have to place this communication within the child's world. This helps practitioners to look beyond the words to the meaning of what children tell them. Many children communicate through their actions rather than their words. In these circumstances parents, carers and colleagues who have regular contact with the child can help practitioners gain access to the child's world (8).

It is essential that the views of the child are clearly recorded. In recording the views of children it is important to record when and how those views were expressed. Where different tools have been used to help children express their views, such as drawing or games, their use should be explained. Letters and notes from children, along with drawings can form a legitimate part of the social work record and can also be used to indicate progress (9).

Avoid the pitfall

  • Ensure that you regularly see children and young people alone.
  • Sessions must be planned to meet the needs and abilities of the individual child. Where interpreters, specialist workers or tools and activities are used to facilitate communication, this should also be clearly recorded.
  • Record what the child tells you, in the child's own words. You may wish to encourage older children to make records for the file.
  • Ensure that the child's views are clearly marked in the file. This will make them easy to find. You may wish to highlight them or to record them on separate detailed records.
  • Ensure that each child has a separate file, or section within the file, and that the needs and views of each child are recorded individually.

Activity

Review your files using Audit Sheet 2 (Microsoft Word format).

References

1. Laming (2003) The Victoria Climbie Inquiry Report HMSO, London p49

2. Cloke C and Davies M (1995) Participation and Empowerment in Child Protection. Pitman/NSPCC, Wiltshire. Butler I and Williamson H (1994) Children Speak: Children, Trauma and Social Work. NSPCC/Longman, London. Thoburn J, Lewis A and Shemmings D (1995) Paternalism or Partnership? Family Involvement in the Child Protection Process. HMSO, London.

3. Fletcher B (1993) Not Just a Name - The Views of young People in Residential and Foster Care. Who Cares? National Consumer Council, London. Freeman I, Morrison A, Lockhart F and Swanson M C (1996) Consulting Service Users: The Views of Young People. In Hill M and Aldgate J (eds) Child Welfare Services. Jessica Kingsley, London. Thoburn J, Lewis A and Shemmings D (1995) Paternalism or Partnership? Family Involvement in the Child Protection Process. HMSO, London.  Hill M (1997) What Children and Young People say they want from Social Services. Research Policy and Planning 15. Walker S (1999) Children's Perspectives on attending Statutory Reviews. In Shemmings D (ed) (1999) In on the Act: involving children in Family Support and Child Protection. The Stationary Office, London

4. Fletcher B (1993) Not Just a Name - The Views of young People in Residential and Foster Care. Who Cares? National Consumer Council, London. Freeman I, Morrison A, Lockhart F and Swanson M C (1996) Consulting Service Users: The Views of Young People. In Hill M and Aldgate J (eds) Child Welfare Services. Jessica Kingsley, London. Thoburn J, Lewis A and Shemmings D (1995) Paternalism or Partnership? Family Involvement in the Child Protection Process. HMSO, London.  Hill M (1997) What Children and Young People say they want from Social Services. Research Policy and Planning 15. Walker S (1999) Children's Perspectives on attending Statutory Reviews. In Shemmings D (ed) (1999) In on the Act: involving children in Family Support and Child Protection. The Stationary Office, London

5 Lansdown G (1995) Children's Rights to participation and protection : a critique. In Cloke C and Davies M (1995) Participation and Empowerment in Child Protection. Pitman/NSPCC, Wiltshire.

6. Grimshaw R and Sinclair R (1997) Planning to Care. Regulation, procedure and practice under the Children Act 1989. National Children's Bureau, London. Butler I and Williamson H (1994) Children Speak: Children, Trauma and Social Work. NSPCC/Longman, London.

Butler I and Shaw I (eds) (1996) A Case of Neglect? Children's experiences and the sociology of childhood. Ashgate, Aldershot. Cleaver H (2001) Fostering Family Contact. The Stationery Office London. Fletcher B (1993) Not Just a Name - The Views of young People in Residential and Foster Care. Who Cares? National Consumer Council, London. Walker S (1999) Children's Perspectives on attending Statutory Reviews. In Shemmings D (ed) (1999) In on the Act: involving children in Family Support and Child Protection. The Stationary Office, London

7. Grimshaw R and Sinclair R (1997) Planning to Care. Regulation, procedure and practice under the Children Act 1989. National Children's Bureau, London. Butler I and Williamson H (1994) Children Speak: Children, Trauma and Social Work. NSPCC/Longman, London. Butler I and Shaw I (eds) (1996) A Case of Neglect? Children's experiences and the sociology of childhood. Ashgate, Aldershot. Cleaver H (2001) Fostering Family Contact. The Stationery Office London. Fletcher B (1993) Not Just a Name - The Views of young People in Residential and Foster Care. Who Cares? National Consumer Council, London. Walker S (1999) Children's Perspectives on attending Statutory Reviews. In Shemmings D (ed) (1999) In on the Act: involving children in Family Support and Child Protection. The Stationary Office, London.
Jones DPH (2003) Communicating with Vulnerable Children: a guide for practitioners. Gaskell, London.

8. Cleaver H (2001) Fostering Family Contact. The Stationery Office London.

9. Prince K (1996) Boring Records? Communication Speech and Writing in Social Work, Jessica Kingsley, London.

 
 
 
By Steve Walker, David Shemmings and Hedy Cleaver
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