A structured framework for practitioners completing an assessment of a proposed carer’s capacity and ability to supervise and protect a child at risk of sexual or domestic violence.
Gareth Mc Gibbon – Independent Social Worker
Marcella Leonard – Independent Social Worker
Child protection is one of the most high profile and challenging areas of social work, as well as one where children’s lives and family life are seen to be at stake. The determination of a parent’s or carer’s capacity to protect a child from a risk of sexual or domestic violence is often incredibly challenging for social workers to conclude upon with any objective defensibility. Well-informed assessments concerning the ability of a non–abusing parent or a proposed carer (PC) to keep a child or children safe from a person of concern (POC) are essential to making appropriate decisions about whether children can be safely supported at home; whether they should be looked after while the PC increases their ability to supervise the person of concern’s interactions with the child; or whether they should be permanently placed away from home because the risk is unmanageable.
When social workers assess the risk of harm to children, research evidence suggests that the reliability of professional judgment alone could be improved (Munro, 1999). There is increasing recognition of the need for ‘structured professional decision-making’ which utilises data collected through evidence-based tools in addition, but not instead of, judgments that can be over-reliant on social workers’ intuition and experience (Barlow, Fisher and Jones, 2012).
Practitioners are prone to making errors when making decisions under conditions of uncertainty (Baumann et al 2011). Clinical judgement alone (based on how an individual presents in interview) is not a reliable method of assessing risk. Some studies have suggested that child protection assessments are ‘only slightly better than guessing’. Key reasons for poor quality assessments and decision-making are an inability or failure to appraise information collected, random errors, and susceptibility to sources of bias such as ‘observation bias’ (a tendency to see things and people in a particular way, based either on what we are told about them beforehand or on the basis of certain features), ‘cultural relativism’ (the tendency to exercise different standards across different cultures) and the dominance of first impressions. These, and other sources of bias, have consistently been implicated in decision-making, as analyzed by serious case reviews and inquiries into child deaths. Again, research suggests that providing professionals with tools to help them organise and critically appraise information in a systematic way can minimise bias and error and improve decision-making.
Structured professional judgments (SPJ) are universally recognised as an effective way to improve the quality and transparency of professional decision making. SPJ instruments draw together factors for which there is research evidence of relevance. They also draw on the shared knowledge and language that make up the professional ‘culture’ of expertise. SPJ tools provide a written set of definitions to facilitate inter-rater reliability and they can be validated against criterion measures to show that the instrument does what it claims to do.
The Capacity & Ability to Supervise and Protect (CASP) framework has been developed by utilising the author’s extensive years of experience nationally and internationally working within the area of child and public protection. Its origins were triggered by practitioners concerns that parenting capacity assessment tools were disproportionately influencing social worker’s decisions regarding family constitution in those cases where a person had engaged in sexual or domestic abuse. Many of these tools failed to consider specific issues relevant to the dynamics of intimate personal violence or child sexual abuse, including the capacity and ability of the primary carer to hold the person of concern accountable for their behaviour and supervise their interaction with their child/ren effectively.
The CASP was therefore developed as a structured approach to assess (including scoring) a proposed carer’s capacity and ability to supervise a person of concern’s (POC) interaction with a child at risk, their resilience to manipulation of potential vulnerabilities and their ability to meet the child’s needs for safety, security and appropriate development.
It is important to acknowledge from the outset that responsibility for an individual’s abusive behaviour lies solely with that individual. Even in those instances where a mother or carer has a challenging or ambivalent relationship with the child in her care she is not responsible for the abuse inflicted upon that child by the perpetrator. However, before beginning an assessment of a proposed carer, assessors should be diligent in their analysis of any evidence available which may suggest that the PC has either by omission or commission been involved in the abuse of this child or any other child in her care. In such cases where concern exists it would not be appropriate to continue with this form of assessment.
The CASP framework was informed by a review of the current literature, using such search terms as ‘parenting’, ‘risk and protective factors child abuse’ ‘signs of safety’ ‘parenting assessment’, ‘assessing parental capacity to change’ ‘parenting capacity assessment’ and bringing together some of the key research messages concerning those parental protective and risk factors which impact on the likelihood of a child or young person being sexually abused or exposed to violence within the home.
The literature review revealed an
extensive body of evidence that shows how problems such as domestic abuse,
substance misuse, mental health problems and learning disability can undermine
parenting capability and increase the likelihood of significant harm to children.
Parents’ unacknowledged experiences of abuse in their own childhoods can also
increase the risk that children will be exposed to maltreatment. However,
experiencing any one of these problems does not preclude loving and effective
parenting. The research suggests that it is where multiple problems interlock
and interact that there is a substantially increased risk that children will be
exposed to maltreatment and suffer significant harm.
 Dorsey et al 2008 cited in Barlow et al 2012)