Assessment Part 4

This article was co-authored by Joe Tucci & Janise Mitchell,

CEO and Deputy CEO of the Australian Childhood Foundation.

In the fourth on this series of articles on assessment, I examine how to conceptualise and assess the needs of children and families as it related to case planning and intervention.

The final area of focus in the assessment process is the identification of the needs of the children and the family.

For children and young people, these needs represent key experiences that they have missed out on, developmental tasks that they have not completed and the limitations they have experienced in relationships to provide them with attuned responses to their feelings and expressions. These needs are identified as part of the assessment that focuses on the traumatic impact of harm experienced by the child/young person.

For traumatised children, they may have

– a need for comfort when they are distressed,

– a need to feel connected and belong,

– a need to identify with a community and culture,

– a need to experience attuned communication with a carer or adult,

– a need to feel safe and be safe,

– a need for routine and predictability,

– a need to experience playfulness.

There are so many more. All these needs represent something that the child is missing or has missed in their relationships with the people who are important to them. These needs form the basis of the direction of the case plan for any child. Each of these needs should be understood in very tangible and specific ways. Then, the plan sets out how these needs are met over time.

For parents/carers, these needs represent the challenges in their life that continue to act as restraints to their capacity to care for their children and keep them safe. Sometimes these needs come from a disconnection to their culture. These needs are those which are not offset by the strengths that parents/carers draw on to manage and deal with problems.

For parents/carers, they may experience the need

– for stability and continuity in their living circumstances,

– to feel and be trustworthy,

– to change patterns of addiction,

– for greater control over their finances,

– to identify with a community and a culture,

– to feel included instead of isolated and alone.

The richer we can describe the needs of children and parents/carers, the more likely we will be to find the resources that will help meet those needs. Choosing language that empowers hope and action in parents/carers can be the difference between change and resistance.

At a whole of family level, needs can be defined as the dysfunctional patterns of interactions that perpetuate abuse and neglect. A family’s needs are the expressions of qualities through which children experience their relationships as safe, responsive and respectful. Families need to be connected to each other and to their community in order to first survive and then begin to thrive. The most important needs for any practitioners to focus on are those which cannot be adequately met in a sustainable way by the resources available to them from the community. Of course, if there are only limited resources available, then the severity of the needs of the family are magnified.

For families, needs can be described as patterns of interaction and communication. For example

– a parent may withdraw from caring for an infant in response to other adults berating her about her parenting leaving the child in distress and not attending to them;

– children start fighting with each other because they cannot tolerate the level of anger that is demonstrated by the parents after one of them has been drinking;

– a parent who becomes enraged by a child’s distress because the sound triggers her own unmet needs of failing to be soothed when she was a child.

So called “needs assessments” are so often talked about and used in the fields of child protection, out of home care and family support. Yet, they are not always meaningfully understood or used effectively to map out the paths for change.

What do you think makes a good “needs assessments”? How do you do it?