Features: August 19th, 2011

Providing the right conditions and appropriate solutions to the issues related to looked after children is an absolute priority. Headlines show that failures happen. Records play a vital part in supporting social workers to do their job effectively. Steve Liddicott discusses a new approach to case recording.

Maintaining a record of contact with children, their families and other professionals provides the basis for an assessment of needs or risk and for decision making and planning. Recording an account of the services offered to a child and family enables peers and managers to see what has been done. Factual information is needed for legal proceedings and we must record the historical information that would otherwise be held by the parents of looked after children. Put together, social work records must also provide management information and data for performance indicators. The large amount of information that is recorded has often produced fertile ground for disagreement; the contentious question, however, relates to the means of recording it.

Weaknesses in records

There is a myth that at some point in the past social work records were uniformly well kept. Ignoring the frequency with which the words ‘inadequate’, ‘illogical’, ‘idiosyncratic’ and ‘illegible’ were applied to those hand-written paper records, the importance of recording then was not generally acknowledged. Indeed, a Director of Social Services commented: “my staff are good at what they do, not what they write down” (Recording with Care, Social Services Inspectorate, 1999). In that same report, however, it says, “good case recording helps to focus the work of social services staff and supports effective partnerships with service users and carers. It ensures that there is a documented account of their involvement with individual service users, families and carers”. Now twelve years later Professor Eileen Munro agrees – “Recording is a key social work task and its centrality to the protection of children cannot be over-estimated. Getting effective recording systems in place to support practice is critical.” (The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report – A child-centred system 2011).

With case recording now fully recognised as important by inspectorates and those evaluating the current arrangements for child protection services, the paucity of some recording has been blamed on the use of electronic recording systems, in particular the Integrated Children’s System . Criticised for diverting social work time from direct contact with children / parents into time spent in front of a computer, research has shown a far more complex picture. In one London authority in 1991 (prior to the introduction of electronic recording) social work staff spent less than 25% of time in direct contact with service users and in “How Social Workers Spend Their Time” (Lisa Holmes and others, Centre for Child and Family Research Loughborough University 2009) the authors show that it is not electronic recording itself that is problematic, rather the means by which the record is compiled. Few would argue, though, with the conclusion that ICS is no longer fit for purpose and that “while some of the teething problems arising from technical difficulties and inputting data might lessen with usage, we believe that some of the problems are inherent in the system and get in the way of rather than promote professional and analytic social work practice” (British Journal of Social Work, An Exemplary Scheme? – An evaluation of the integrated children’s system volume 39 issue 4, 2009).

So, what is to be done?

There is no objective reason why social workers are less able to work with information technology than other professions. Increasingly, social work staff will have used IT during their education and training. They manage their personal affairs on the internet and recent observations would suggest that most have no difficulty in keeping up with the latest mobile phone technology!

A start would be an objective re-affirmation of the need for and standards expected of good case recording. Professor Munro’s first ‘principle’ (to “maintain a systemic and family narrative, which describes all the events associated with the interaction between a social worker, other professionals and the child and their family”) is relevant regardless of the recording medium. “Recording with Care” provides a set of standards which could easily be updated. Data about both individual children and cohorts of children is unlikely to diminish (the Children in Need Census Review made only one, minor change to the data set) and we owe it to those coming into public care to provide them with a full and accurate record of their background.

Electronically recorded information needs to be easily accessible. As well as recording factual data and process the system must be capable of holding professional opinion, analysis and decisions. The ICS attempted to do this via insisting that data was recorded on a pre-defined forms set derived from the National Assessment Framework and the Looked After Children System.

Prior to its arrival older systems, geared more towards factual information, tried unsuccessfully to update themselves to record process and analysis. More recently, a new generation of systems has focussed on the pre-defined “exemplars”. Whilst offering improvement, the linkage to the “exemplars” defines and confines those developments equally. Experience of undertaking serious case reviews highlights the requirement for recording systems to assist in the creation of a chronological history (the significant events in a child’s life) which is simple to add to, access, filter and is easy to read both on screen and on paper. Essentially, systems must record information pertinent to both an individual child record and a family/sibling group so that the complexities of family interactions can be seen.

Can existing systems satisfy the three key principles for child and family social work identified by Professor Munro in her final report? Probably not.

Those designed prior to the introduction of the ICS have struggled to meet the compliance criteria; others, designed in the context of the ICS requirements, are likely to be restricted by their adherence to those criteria. They can be improved and some suppliers have worked closely with their user groups to do so. It is likely, however, that only new a system designed with new requirements in mind will now truly support social workers rather than hinder them.

Such a new system would not be constrained by the ICS requirements. It would embody Munro’s “three principles” and involve practitioners in the design. Above all, a new system would need to take an innovative approach to design and configuration. This would result in social workers finding it “familiar”, integrated with other common systems (e.g. email, calendar and document storage), intuitive and capable of producing individual or family records. It would be configurable to reflect local working practices, would cover all social care processes as well as early intervention and CAF if required. It would also minimise the burden of data entry whilst meeting statutory requirements. Surely not too much to ask for?

Steve Liddicott is the former Chair of the ICS Expert Panel, interim Social Care Manager and Associate to Tribal PLC.