By Robert Fitzgerald
Children’s services are changing with the move from dealing with children as individuals to looking at the child’s living situation as a whole. By reviewing the wider family dynamics and context it is possible to arrive at a more holistic and meaningful view of the child’s real needs. Integrated Children’s System (ICS) have been developed to support frontline staff and managers to record and analyse information for an individual child. The author explains how this technology can make a difference.
Last year, Baroness Delyth Morgan issued a letter to directors of children’s services signalling a change of direction in the future of the ICS in England. It focused on two key themes; handing back to local authorities the responsibility of how IT systems are to be used to support the delivery of social care services and reinforcing central government’s commitment to maintaining and improving the ICS concept to promote effective social work practice.
As the principal child case management system, the ICS is a critical tool in areas such as child protection and the management of risk to vulnerable children. Importantly too, it is based on an understanding of children’s developmental needs in the context of parental capacity and wider family and environmental factors.
Think family, think as one
Hilary Armstrong, minister for the Cabinet Office and Social Exclusion, describes families as the bedrock of our society. In ‘Think Family,’ published in 2007, Armstrong continued; “They (parents) can provide the greatest support in difficult times. They can build resilience and strength to overcome challenges. They can provide love, encouragement and inspiration that helps people succeed.”
This may be for a high proportion of England’s parents but a minority of the population, approximately 2 per cent, struggle to take advantage of opportunities such as advanced qualifications and heightened well being. Government has recently reported (November 2009) that over 300,000 children in England have been classified as ‘in need;’ that’s 276 out of every 10,000 children. Factors affecting these children’s lives can include abuse, poverty, insufficient housing and poor health. These problems can pass through generations and span whole lifetimes. Social workers that view the child’s living situation as a whole and review the wider family dynamics and context can arrive at a more holistic and meaningful view of the child’s real needs.
Armstrong added; “Services have far too long dealt with people as individuals…We want to build on the transformation that is taking place in children’s services to encourage greater integration…so that we can shape all services more closely around the needs of families. And we need to intervene earlier and more effectively to prevent problems becoming entrenched and costly to the individuals, the families and our communities.”
working with the whole family has huge potential to tap into family strengths and identify problems early on. It can empower even the most challenging families and transform lives dramatically.
Support from Integrated Children’s Systems
The ICS was created to support frontline staff and managers to record, assemble, analyse and produce the information for an individual child. Integrated Children’s System (ICS) is a dynamic and complex area within social care and the health and education sectors. Formerly created as a child-centric model, increasingly local authorities are keen to examine the family entity to ensure a well-rounded analysis of a child’s living situation. But here arrives a challenge for the suppliers of integrated systems, children’s services product manager of OLM Systems, part of OLM Group, explores the importance of developing ancillary systems that allow for family examination and duplication of information across a number of siblings.
Local authority programmes demonstrate that working with the whole family has huge potential to tap into family strengths and identify problems early on. It can empower even the most challenging families and transform lives dramatically. The question for IT support systems is how do we enable effective and useful family recording?
Increasingly, practitioners are demanding more from their IT systems; as suppliers, we must identify and exploit the current opportunities to build yet more into them. Working with children in need requires the skilled interpretation of detailed and complex information. The ICS was created to support frontline staff and managers to record, assemble, analyse and produce the information for an individual child. However, the assessment of families does not sit happily with ICS. Not only do the systems lack family analysis functionality, but they often require frontline workers to input duplicate data for each individual child record – a highly time consuming task.
If we are to support the shift in the current mindset to focus on the strengths and difficulties of the entire family rather than those of the child in isolation, we require technology that can be tailored to effectively assess, plan, intervene and review a child’s entire case. Practitioners require a system that focuses on the family unit and one that can hold the correct information, in the correct place for easy retrieval.
Take a moment to consider the following scenario; ‘Family Allen,’ comprising two three year old twins, one 10 year old son, one 13 year old daughter, mother and step father. At a weekend the twins visit their biological father ‘Alex,’ while their half brother and sister visit ‘Tom’, their father. Both Tom and Alex currently have partners; Alex has one other son, while Tom has another daughter. A highly complex family circle this is, but there are 12 individuals to take into consideration here. To review the entire living situation of Family Allen thoroughly all 12 individuals might well have to be assessed.
Is there a system that could support more easily this process and which can bring together the assessments or facilitate a ‘family assessment’? We are not suggesting that best practice should be put to one side; rather we are asking whether IT, which is extremely good at duplicating information, allowing the editing of it and reporting it in different forms can’t be better utilised to aid social workers in these complex cases. Indeed, it is when information is correlated by IT that we sometimes notice patterns and irregularities that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Currently as the ICS stands the system allows only limited duplication of information across children records. These limitations were imposed by the DCSF’s prescribed development phases and have only very recently been revised. It is not surprising that practitioners have been expressing considerable dissatisfaction about ICS installations which seemed to be forcing them to re-enter duplicate information into every case record and which contained no functionality to make it easier.
“The ICS, designed to improve the handling of child abuse cases, has led to social workers spending more than 100 hours filling out forms for every case” The Times, November 2009.
The result was to blame the systems for their inefficiency, view the whole process of record keeping as monotonous and time consuming and increase the costs overall. No wonder practitioners see completing a record on the ICS more demanding in terms of time than the most important job of all, assessing a child’s living situation and future.
Assessment is not the only prolonged procedure. When preparing for a court hearing there is an array of documents that are required to present the child’s current situation. The preparation of these can be understandably onerous when dealing with a group of siblings. No-one is suggesting that shortcuts be made, but the question is again to be asked as to whether we are making the best use of our electronic case management system to aid the practitioners in producing more easily this important documentation which is essential for making the right decisions.
Ultimately we, as a trusted supplier to the public sector of integrated systems, believe that practitioners should spend less time on their electronic case record systems and more time assessing a child’s situation. There should be one goal in mind and that is, making sure a child gets the best start in life as possible. The shorter duration social workers spend using the technology, the more efficient the system, and the more time the practitioner has on the front line; thoroughly analysing the child and family’s state of living.
Robert Fitzgerald is children’s services product manager of OLM Systems, part of OLM Group.
For further information please visit www.olmgroup.com, or telephone 020 8973 1100