By Sarah Lowe, creator of ParentAssess and awarded the Social Worker of the Year 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award
One of the questions I get asked most frequently is how long does it take to complete a ParentAssess assessment. The answer is not simple.
The first thing I remind people is what is at stake - the assessment may determine whether a child will be returned, or remain with their parent. It is so serious that affording the process sufficient time is vital but of course the issue of the child’s timescales and the pressures on the Family Court system are factors that must also be considered - but what is the correct balance to ensure fairness?
Ideally the assessment should start pre-proceedings when the parent can be given sufficient time and hopefully any support needed can be identified and provided. However, sometimes assessments either do not take place at this stage or the social worker does not have enough time to undertake a sufficiently detailed assessment. Sometimes social workers do not have the specialist knowledge required or they feel they lack the necessary experience (and perhaps confidence) to determine an outcome of this magnitude. In any event we are all familiar with the scenario of a court ordered parenting assessment either undertaken by the Local Authority or an Independent Social Worker, so it is useful to look at what this entails.
When the parent is vulnerable or has cognitive difficulties, they may find it hard to know what is expected of them and it could be the first time they are discussing aspects of their life in detail. They need to get to the point where they feel able to share their story and it can be a painful process. Some parents have had difficult relationships with professionals previously and may present as ‘defended’ and so the assessor will need to spend time reassuring the parent and building a relationship with them. If the parent requires an interpreter then a further relationship is added. It takes time to create an understanding of new concepts and their meaning within a different language. A 3-way dialogue between the parent, the social worker and the individual translator becomes an important part of the assessment but needs time.
The parent may need to develop a range of parenting skills across multiple domains. They will be observed with their child and they have to make sense of any feedback given. The assessor would usually undertake several observations to check progress. If there is more than one child, there is more to observe and different parenting skills to consider. New parents will be starting from scratch and will have even more to learn.
The assessor may need to explore the parent’s adaptive strategies and what helps them learn. Many parents learn through repetition, but restrictive timescales may rule this out. Assessors may need to insert breaks and continually check the language used to ensure the parent has understood the process and outcome. Inevitably this all takes more time.
The parent will likely need to think about very complicated elements of risk and show they can protect their child and possibly themselves. They may have been groomed not to recognise risk and so this may take more time to untangle.
The parent will have to put forward different members of their family and friends who will be able to support them. The assessor will need to speak to these people and consider if the support plan will address any gaps or risks.
Can all this work be completed in less than 10 hours? Is it reasonable to expect a parent to process all this in less than 4 weeks ?
While the assessment is in progress, the parent will of course need to manage daily life with all the usual stresses and strains. They may be separated from their child and this alone may pre-occupy their thoughts, compounded by the huge fear of what might happen next. It is extremely difficult to absorb learning when feeling stressed and yet this is what we expect parents to do.
I acknowledge that court time is precious but expecting any parent to complete all this in 4, 5 or 6 weeks is, in my view, unfair. It puts the parent (and the child) under tremendous pressure and gives them no time to process information between sessions. It is even more unfair when other parents might be permitted 12 or even 16 weeks. One argument is ‘more time can be requested later’ but in reality, this is extremely difficult to secure when court timetables are set down.
Another long standing issue which relates to timescales is the amount of hours allowed for an assessment defined by the Legal Aid Agency in the Guidance on the Remuneration of Expert Witnesses in Family Cases 2022. For a single parent having a specialist assessment the allocation is just 37 hours. In my opinion, this needs review. Very few assessors are able to keep within these limited hours and many report working in their own time or requesting more hours with the hope this will be agreed. The Guidance for ISWs suggests just 5 hours with the parent and 10 hours for writing a report - some limited additional hours are added for specialist assessments. If we consider that most assessors take between 15-25 hours to write a report and 5 hours to read the bundle, this leaves approximately 15 hours to spend working with the parent, the child(ren) and the support network. In my experience of completing over 600 assessments, the LAA Guidance does not reflect the reality of undertaking a parenting assessment and my colleagues agree.
In my view, time allocated for the assessment should have a range which takes account of the individual circumstances :-
· the parent’s cognitive difficulties and any previous trauma which will impact on their
ability to process information
· the complexity of the issues and nature of the risk
· the number of children
· the size of the support network
· cultural diversity
· whether an advocate or interpreter is needed
Even if the outcome is negative, it is vital the parent is given time to understand why they may be about to face one of the most traumatic separations anyone will experience. Surely, we must always give parents enough time to understand and participate in the assessment process. We should also acknowledge the important work of the social worker and give them sufficient time to work with the parent and complete their analysis within a reasonable timeframe that affords the parent fairness and respect.