Professional child care in the field of social work, have come under intense scrutiny recently. Much of this scrutiny, concerns the way in which partnership and interagency work contributes to best practice in the assessment of children, young people and families. This paper seeks to explore the principles of collaborative work and highlight why it is necessary that inter-agency work is successful and efficient in the field of social work. In doing so, will provide examples and discuss current guidelines for partnership work and strategies of new assessment practices to ensure its effectiveness. The essay will also address common problems of interagency and partnership work and identify policies to guard against these potential issues.
The Department of Health (1998) in encouraging the use of partnership, stressed that “joined up services” should be the hallmark of good service delivery. The Audit Commission (1998) declares that for services to be efficient and effective, there must be “mandatory partnership working”. At a basic level, inter-agency and partnership are formal institutional terms attributed to the practice of and need for different agencies and sectors to “work together”. According to Whittington (2003), “partnership is a state of relationship at organizational, group, professional or inter-personal level, to be achieved, maintained and reviewed”, while “collaboration is an active process of partnership in action.” It is within the umbrella term of partnership, that terms such as ‘inter-agency’ and ‘multi-agency’ arise to pin down the policies and concretise the practice of ‘joined-up’ work between agencies.
The principles of collaborative working stipulate that there should be seamless interaction between agencies to facilitate best practice and ultimately improving care services. In a research of 30 multiagency organizations in health and education and over 140 staff, Atkinson et al (2002) found the following necessary principles for inter-agency work:
- Common aims and objectives
- Organizational commitment to the aims and objectives
- Thorough understanding of the various roles and responsibilities of other involved professionals and agencies
- Solid leadership
- Ensuring task delegation and referrals are to the correct personnel
- Access to resources
In addition, Whittington and Bell (2001) established that the ability to work together effectively require many skills which are essential for social workers, such as: the ability to challenge discrimination by other agencies and professions, the ability to conduct multi-disciplinary meetings, the ability to respect and manage issues of confidentiality, and being able to handle conflicts and manage systems and human resource that will need to adapt to change.
There are many policy directives which mandate partnership work within services relating to child care and assessment, and one of these is the 2003 government green paper, Every Child Matters policy document which stipulates the development of Children’s Trusts, to ensure that agencies work effectively together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Children’s Trusts emerged after the death of eight year-old Victoria Climbié who even after repeated visits to hospitals and visits by social workers, her abuse was not identified and she subsequently died. The Laming Report of 2003, an inquiry into Victoria’s death concluded that the young girl’s death could have been avoided if individual social workers, police officers, doctors and nurses who came into contact with the girl, had effectively responded to Victoria’s needs. He emphatically declared that Victoria’s death represented a “gross failure of the system”, wherein, not one of the agencies or individuals “had the presence of mind to follow what are relatively straightforward procedures on how to respond to a child about whom there is concern of deliberate harm”.
The Children’s Act of 2004 in Section 10, mandated the “duty to co-operate” on agencies involved in child care protection and assessment. On November 18, 2008, the Children’s Trust outlined in a release which identified the partners with a duty to co-operate as: district councils, the police, the probation board, the youth offending team, the Strategic Health Authority and Primary Care Trusts, Connexions partnerships, and the Learning and Skills Council. Moreover, in 2004, the government rolled out the National Service Framework for Children and Young People (NSF), a ten year strategy document which aims to improve the support and services that young people, children, parents and carers receive. It stipulates ten different standards which will largely depend on efficient partnership and inter-agency work to be successful.
To assist in the efficient assessment of children and young people across services, the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) ensures that frontline delivery of integrated services to children and young people are streamlined for maximum efficiency. It is a standardised assessment methodology across service sectors, which aims to ensure that any inadequacies in service delivery to children are picked up quickly. The CAF looks into the child’s social and health environment to assess the role of the parents or carers, as well as the child’s own strengths and weaknesses, in order to make a reasoned and informed judgment about the child’s present and future well-being. This CAF method of assessment provides much more room and space for preventative action.
The Working Together to Safeguard Children (2006) is another policy guideline for frontline managers and social workers to improve inter-agency work in order to safeguard the welfare of children. It asserts that all persons with responsibility for children must display full commitment and that there should be clear lines of accountability. The job of safeguarding children and young people, falls under the authority of the Local Authority (LA) whose main objective is to ensure that young people are protected from harm, They ensure this by vigourously pursuing exacting partnership standards “with other public organisations, the voluntary sector, children and young people, parents and carers, and the wider community” (Working Together to Safeguard Children: 2006). A tripartite system which incorporating the police, the Local Authority and other agencies help to improve the quality of service and ensure the seamless interaction between agencies in safeguarding children. Social Workers who are directly involved in the assessment of children and young people, must be knowledgeable to these inter-agency links and all up to date protocols of inter-agency work to ensure best practice.
Behan (2005) at the National Conference for Integrated Children’s Framework, stated that “services must improve outcomes for children, and organise themselves round the child rather than expect the child to move from one service to another. To be successful services have to work in partnership.” As was demonstrated in the Victoria Climbié case, and more recently the case of “Baby P”, who died after being tortured by his mothers and two others and whose suffering was missed by the many individuals and agencies who came into contact with him, inter-agency does not always work, despite many policy guidelines and duty of care responsibilities. This essay will now examine some of the challenges to effective collaborative working.
One of the most prominent challenges to effective and efficient inter-agency and partnership work to safeguard children from harm, is the existence of power struggles between various agencies. As stated earlier, Atkinson et al (2002) asserted that a commitment to the ideal and practice of partnership must be bought into by all agencies to avoid power struggles. There are many instances, whereby social workers sometimes outline that their child care reports are not heeded by health care professionals who come into contact with children deemed at risk. Leiba and Weinstein (2003) argues that while many social workers have to work closely with nurses and doctors in the UK to safeguard children, there were significant ideological and cultural differences with how they approached their work. Mathers and Gask (1995) suggests that GP’s become frustrated with the long assessment process that social workers require for best practice.
Leiba and Weinstein (2003) lament that such differences can cause power struggles between health professionals who may thin that “medical-know-how” should trump seemingly long-winded assessment models. They further state that power struggles can be exacerbated by the nature of professional education which normalise professionals into different, values, jargon and culture and the “fear of dilution and associated professional protectionism” ( Leiba and Weinstein: 2003). The language of health has been said to be very alienating and does not usually give space to social work theories and assessments (Peck and Norman: 1999). Leiba (2003) maintains that even though the Health Act of 1983 and the National Service Framework stipulates greater co-operation between health and social care services, in practice this has been very hard to achieve. He cites the example of requirements for a single assessment strategy across services, but highlights how each agency continues to compile its own data. because accommodate the Douek (2003) further argues that parents and carers can become very frustrated when the collaboration process is not a seamless one and a lack of co-operation from a parent or carer can be extremely detrimental to the child assessment process.
Conclusively, it can be stated that the cases of Victoria Climbié and more recently “Baby P”, demonstrate that in order to safeguard and protect children and young people from harm, it is absolutely essential that inter-agency and partnership guidelines are executed. The many policy directives such as the NSF, the CAF, and the 2006 Working to Safeguard Children document should be zealously advocated across agencies and total organizational commitment to the principles around partnership should be elucidated from top to bottom in institutional structures, in order to eliminate power struggles. Social workers, with responsibility for child assessment, should vehemently pursue best practice by following Whittington’s (2003) earlier advice, and report negligence and discriminatory practices which could lead to the harm of children. Such practices ultimately benefit the children and young people and their families, when total commitment to partnership is shown and inter-agency policies do work.
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