Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Dangers of Common Assessment

Ever since the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) was introduced, back in the time of the previous Government, I have felt uneasy about some aspects of it.

I never liked the emphasis on process implicit in ‘doing a CAF’ heightened by the use of a bureaucratic form to structure it. I have also felt uneasy about the risk that children who should be subjects of Section 47 Enquiries (into child abuse) could become the subjects of Common Assessments as a result of resource pressures and the misapplication of ‘thresholds’: “We are very busy today and this case looks a bit marginal so do a CAF and get back to us if something worrying emerges”.

That is what seemed to happen in the Khyra Ishaq case. I say ‘seemed’ because the Serious Case Review report does skate around this issue. One thing that is certain is that the members of staff at Khyra’s school were told that her case was NOT 'child protection'; and they were invited to complete a CAF instead.

Now another case raises similar concerns. The Isle of Wight’s Safeguarding Children Board’s Serious Case Review Overview Report in respect of Baby T ( considers the background to what it says was the preventable abuse of a small child. The report argues that the inappropriate use of a CAF in this case was an important causal factor in the child not receiving the help required. The report states:
“… the very fact that it (a CAF) was in place provided the First Response Unit with a reason to not intervene because the case was already subject to a CAF. This family should not have been dealt with at the common assessment level because of the background information available, the risks that the children were facing, the complex nature of the mother’s personality, and the evasive behaviour and disguised compliance that the mother presented.” (Paragraph 5.40, page 46)
The report goes on to demonstrate that the decision to undertake a CAF resulted in a lengthy time delay in according any kind of service, poor co-ordination and planning and the selection of the wrong person as lead professional. The report concludes:
“The CAF process as followed by that Centre and health professionals failed the mother and her children and provided little benefit to them.” (Paragraph 5.47, page 48)
I can remember being involved in discussions with senior civil servants and key sector representatives when the Common Assessment Framework was being planned. So convinced was everybody by the promise held by what was then the ‘flavour of the month’ policy that nobody seemed to want to examine the ‘error traps’ which lurked within the arrangements then and which are still part of the process today.

Recommending a CAF does not necessarily make an unsafe situation safer. Indeed it may make it less safe, because, as in the case of Baby T, it appears wrongly that something is being done to lower the risk, so reducing the priority of the case in the eyes of Children’s Social Care staff.

We all need to understand that that is a risk inherent in the process. That doesn’t mean not undertaking any CAFs at all, but it does mean thinking laterally when a CAF is being considered and not just batting a case into the long grass with a sigh of relief.