Assessment in Practice with Vulnerable Children and Families Series - Part 1

This article was authored by Joe Tucci, CEO at the Australian Childhood Foundation.


There are many terms relevant to the practice with vulnerable and abused children and their families. This is the first in a four part series on examining the key dimensions of assessment in this contested area of professional decision making.   For this article, I focus on the construct of protectiveness in families and communities.

Protectiveness is a valuable construct in the landscape of ideas relevant to contemporary child protection practice. It is an encompassing frame that is interwoven in the fabric of extended family and generational relationships.

Protectiveness integrates the following dimensions:

  • relevant familial and community factors which can serve to disrupt or reduce the likelihood of future harm;
  • the strengths that a family has that can provide the basis for change; and,
  • the resources available in the community and network around the family that can support change and result in sustained protection of children and young people over time.

In combination, these three elements form the basis for shaping the nature of protective action that is required to reduce the immediate and future likelihood that children will experience harm.

The first dimension examines those factors which the research has identified as effective in shaping protective outcomes for children and young people.

For practitioners, this means that when conducting assessments, information will need to be gathered and analysed in relation to the following 9 areas:

  1. What is the extent to which a parent has acknowledged the harm to the child?
  2. What is the extent to which the parent/care has taken responsibility for the abuse and neglect?
  3. What, if any, action did a parent/carer take to seek appropriate treatment or assistance for the child/young person in relation to the harm they have experienced?
  4. What extent is the parent/carer assuming responsibility for making change
  5. What is the capacity and motivation of the parent/carer to make the changes that are required to reduce the likelihood of future harm occurring for the child/young person?
  6. What is the extent of secure relationships of the parents/carers with other adults in their lives? To what degree will these relationships be able to buffer the effects of stress as the parent/carer puts in place changes in their behaviour and attitudes?
  7. To what extent is there any other person available to the child and family who will increase the protectiveness of the parents/carers? To what extent does this person fulfil the following criteria for protectiveness:
    1. He/she is aware of the abuse and neglect and is motivated to protect the child/young person;
    2. He/she understands how the abuse and neglect occurred and acknowledges any likelihood of future harm;
    3. He/she does not pose a risk to the child themselves;
    4. He/she posses significant influence with the child/young person and his/her parent/carer;
    5. He/she is able to effectively protect the child/young person through their presence and actions.
  1. To what extent are there clear household boundaries, routines and family roles in relation to the care and supervision of children and young people in the family?
  2. To what extent is the family engaged already in a professional network (school, services, and informal community groups) that is able to support them during times of stress or difficulty?

There is also the need to consider the strengths within families that are the key characteristics that assist the development of positive coping and management strategies in the face of issues, problems or stressors. 

Here are 8 qualities that you can look for when conducting an assessment of in parents/carers:

  1. they know and apply a range of effective problem solving skills;
  2. they have a sense of purpose and future;
  3. they have a strong link to culture and knowledge of their place within their culture;
  4. they have knowledge and sense of competence in their parenting;
  5. they have effective conflict management skills;
  6. they are able to show a positive attitude and set goals for themselves and their children;
  7. their interactions with their children are characterised by warmth and affection; and,
  8. they have overcome adversity in the past.

Finally, it is also important in achieving a balanced assessment to consider the extent to which the community with whom the family interacts and is part of may have resources to offer the family. In this element of assessment, information is collected and analyse in relation to the 

  • degree of formal and informal connection between the family and other members of the community;
  • understanding of members of the community about the harm experienced by the children and young people and how that harm may have resulted;
  • capacity of the community to step into care for the children if required  when parents/carers are not in a position to do so;
  • presence of adults in the community who advocate for specific families to have access to the services and resources they need to raise their children; and,
  • the extent to which community members can offer practical support and assistance at times of crises.

In future entries in this series on assessment, I will also look at assessing risk, how to keep assessments trauma-informed and integrating how children’s needs can be identified and attended to in practice. These articles will be published one per month for the next few months.  


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