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Assessments have been a key element to the social work practice and we have seen many changes and developments within assessments over the years. The Children's Act 1989 and other legislation such as Criminal Justice Act 1991 and NHS and Community Care Act 1990 all contributed towards the changes made within the assessment process. The objective has been refined based on two key factors. First being the public enquiries that indentified shortcomings in legislations, policy and practices within social work and secondly the governments agenda for modernisation. (Wilson, et al.2008). Historically the objective of assessments was primarily to consider the risks factors to children and families in accordance to legislation. However, since the framework for assessments was introduced in 2000, practitioners have been steered towards evaluating not only risks, but also needs and strengths of service users.
Assessments are carried out to help both service users and Social Workers identify and understand the nature, rationale and degree of professional involvement. Although there are numerous definitions of assessments from social work academics, however, there is no one conclusive definition. Coulshed and Orme define assessments as;
'An on-going process, in which the client participates, the purpose of which is to understand how people relate to their environment; it is a basis for planning what needs to be done to maintain, improve or bring about change in the person, the environment, or both.' (Coulshed and Orme, 1998, pp21).
There is a debate amongst academics as to whether assessments are an art or a science; Bradley and Parker (2007) have explored the different assessment definitions and have concluded:
'A balance approach would suggest that social work assessment is both an art and a science since it involves wisdom, skills, appreciation of diversity and systematic applied knowledge in practice'. (Parker and Bradley, 2007, p4)
Although there are many definitions of assessments the objective remains the same, it is to identify needs and have a plan of interventions, which meets the objectives of all concerned. Assessments are a working document that can be legally binding, which need assessing, reviewing and planning. Assessments are a systematic process that include various components and involve methods such as, gathering of information, analysing objectively, collaborating with service users and other professionals including sharing of information with colleagues, assessing the eligibility and recording information accurately. (Thompson & Thompson, 2008).
There are many vital interpersonal and communication skills that are required when gathering information such as, good listening skills and have the ability to observe and absorb information correctly. Pamela Trevithick (2005) emphasise on the importance of verbal and none verbal communication, as well as listening and observation skills, before embarking on the assessment process. (Trevithick, 2005). Assessments are not just about gathering information, but are about having the ability and knowledge to make correct judgments and analyse objectively. Milner and O' Byrne (2009) suggest that when analysing data, social workers will use knowledge and the theoretical perspectives which have been identified to expand their analysis. ( Milner and O'Byrne, 2009). In addition, upon analysing information consideration must be given to service users' social, economical, cultural and ethnic background. Although assessment involve making informed judgement, it is vital to assess an individual need in relation to their environment. Milner and O'Byrne (2002) stress that it is crucial while making judgements social workers must avoid any form discrimination, such as labelling or judging people's behaviour according to common stereotypes.
Assessments are not a one way dialogue but rather a joint venture between service user and social worker. Although there can be the issue of power imbalance, it is crucial that there remains a shared power relationship whenever possible. Middleton (1997) has emphasised the importance of respecting individuality of service user during the assessment process, so that it can empower and help them manage and identify their individual strength's. In addition it is essential that social workers build a good relationship with service users, as they, must collaborate and share information with other agencies. There has been a heightened awareness that multi agencies collaboration is vital; however there are many barriers which have often contributed to the lack of communication between agencies. Sharkey (2000) has noted the underlying causes as being the different structure and values of the individual organisation.
Social workers undertake assessments on behalf of the local authority therefore; eligibility depends upon a few factors, which include, need, the organisations criteria, resources and funding. Throughout the entire assessment process social workers must keep clear and accurate records of all the work undertaken and their findings.
Social work assessments can be broken down into two types, one which is on-going and will change according to need and information, and the second being specific to the issues and will be limited to a particular time. However, these two components will often exist simultaneously in most assessments. Coulshed and Orme (2006) clarify that assessments are not a one off practice but are a process that continues even after a piece of work has been carried out. An on-going assessment process could be the result of subsequent changes that may occur in the service users' life, and then responded to accordingly. By implementing this method of practice it ensures that the service user's needs are adequately assessed and evaluated at all times. Pincus and Minahan (1973) have described assessment as a process that can be altered and adapted after obtaining new information and data, enabling the assessor to reassess the situation and review the effectiveness of their chosen cause of action. (Pinus and Minahan, 1973).
Assessments that are carried out for a specific issues and are time limited, such as a court report or a case conference, are usually conducted in accordance to legal obligations. This formula is focussed on making judgements' and identifying what is needed and how it can be achieved. This may not always be an accurate presentation of the service user life and may not hold any relevance in the future, but will target the issue within a particular the timescale. Furthermore, the level of assessment can be determined through the two types of assessments mentioned and by identifying the need and response levels of intervention, will give the service user a well structured and focussed base service.
The importance of carrying out assessments is widely recognised in the area of social work practice and is a fundamental component in professional interventions. By carrying out assessments effectively and systematically, there are more chances of interventions to prove to be successful. At the heart of an excellent assessment there is careful planning, evaluating and applying appropriate professional involvement. Sutton (1999) has emphasised on the nature of assessment process with the ASPIRE model, Assessment, Planning, Intervention, Review and Evaluation. It is important that when discussing assessments, to be aware that this is not a singular action, but is also complemented by good interpersonal and communication skills. Due to the significance assessments have in social work practice, it is vital that the entire process is carried out with an objective and factual thought process. As inadequate preparation can lead to a catastrophic results as we have seen over the years.