National guidance for child protection in Scotland 2021

This guidance describes the responsibilities and expectations for all involved in protecting children and will support the care and protection of children.

Part 2B: Approach to Multi-Agency Assessment in Child Protection


2.218 Part 2B provides a bridge and preface to the following sections by outlining common elements in multi-agency assessment of children and families. Cross-cutting expectations and themes are identified. The section concludes with signposts to improvement that are relevant to all services. Part 3 then describes in detail steps in child protection processes. Part 4 provides guidance in relation to specific support needs and concerns.

2.219 Purpose of multi-agency assessments. Assessments may have a specific focus and legal basis. The general purposes of a child protection assessment are (a) to gather, share and analyse such information about a child, family and relevant context as may be necessary for the purpose of determining harm, or risk of harm, and (b) to inform planning of action and support necessary to ensure a child's safety and wellbeing.

2.220 Local assessment protocols should define how assessment and planning operates within local structures. It is beyond the scope of this Guidance to provide a comprehensive manual for all relevant forms of assessment. Whatever the specific focus, stage and format, there should be a focus on the journey for the child, and a shared understanding with those people the child needs alongside them.

2.221 Guiding considerations. Whatever the nature of concerns, all practitioners will ensure that child protection processes are underpinned by consideration of rights, relationships and resilience, as indicated below.

2.222 Rights. Child protection is integral to protection of human rights.

2.223 UNCRC underpins the Getting it right for every child approach. The child's best interests, right to non-discrimination, and appropriate involvement in decision-making are key requirements. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 supports implementation of key aspects of the UNCRC. The findings of the Independent Care Review further strengthen these expectations.

2.224 The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) provides an international framework for human rights. It was given domestic legal effect in the UK through the Human Rights Act 1998 which places a duty on public authorities (which includes the Scottish Ministers) not to act incompatibly with certain articles (known as 'Convention rights'). There are also specific legal requirements relating to Convention rights in the Scotland Act 1998. The Equality Act 2010 places duties on public authorities, which include the requirement to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation and any other conduct prohibited under that Act.

2.225 Relationships. Protecting children involves listening to families, being clear and honest about concerns, giving choices and seeking co‑operation, especially when compulsory measures are needed. ("All children must be supported to continue relationships that are important to them, where it is safe to do so." Independent Care Review (2020)).

2.226 Resilience. Practitioners protect children by considering the holistic wellbeing needs of each child, and by building on those strengths and potentials in the child and in their world that will help them move through phases of stress and adversity.

2.227 The GIRFEC National Practice Model provides shared practice concepts within assessment and planning. Practitioners should be familiar with the core elements such as the 'SHANARRI' wellbeing indicators, the My World Triangle, and the resilience matrix as summarised below. Together they support holistic analysis of safety and wellbeing, dimensions of need, and the interaction of strengths and concerns.

Using GIRFEC components in assessment

2.228 The wellbeing indicators provide a holistic representation of children's wellbeing needs and outcomes. Safety is paramount. The eight indicators are inter-connected. They encapsulate children's rights to be: safe, healthy; achieving, nurtured; active, respected, responsible and included, as set out in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014.

2.229 The My World Triangle is a starting point for considering what unmet developmental needs, including unmet needs for protection might be present in a child's life. The Triangle focuses attention on the three dimensions of a child's world: the child; their family; and their wider environment. When a concern has arisen, the Triangle is a useful tool for gathering information about strengths and concerns within an investigation. Practitioners using the My World Triangle will need to consider who is best placed within the family and professional network to provide information in relation to specific areas within a child's life. It is important not to pay as much attention to the 'My Wider World' part of the triangle as to the other two aspects.

2.230 The resilience matrix may be used in consideration of the dynamic interaction of stresses and protective factors in the child's world. 'Resilience' refers to positive adaptation despite serious adversities and threats to a child's development.

2.231 The concept of resilience promotes analysis. The matrix is a tool which may help practitioners and key family members share understanding about concerns, and think about how to target support. The matrix is not an exact formula or map. However, it may assist focus and review of progress in relation to:

  • dominant risks/concerns
  • protective factors and what is working well
  • what needs to change to ensure the child's safety and wellbeing

2.232 When reflecting on the current vulnerability of the child, it may be useful to consider the following factors:

  • are there any qualities or characteristics of the child which might render them more vulnerable?
  • does the child have disabilities or communication support needs?
  • how does parental understanding and expectation influence the child's safety and wellbeing? Are the expectations reasonable for the child's age and stage of development? How do services understand the family's cultural beliefs and expectations as far as this is relevant to safety?
  • are there issues from the parents' own history which shape their expectations, beliefs and behaviour?
  • how have the child's past experiences affected their vulnerability?

2.233 When considering adversity, recognise current factors which threaten wellbeing. These may include material challenges such as the effects of isolation, rural or otherwise; poor housing conditions; ill health; poverty or long-term unemployment.

2.234 When considering protective factors, consider who has reliably demonstrated support and commitment for the child's safety and wellbeing. Significant offers that come from untested supports will usually require careful, step-by-step evaluation. Protective factors are accessible from education, health, faith, therapeutic and community sources.

2.235 Resilience is not a standard formula. It will have distinctive features for each child in context. Child protection assessment and planning should seek to identify and build on strengths. What helps this child survive and grow through periods of risk and stress?

2.236 Resilience is a concept which supports consideration of the interaction of risk and strength in a child's day to day world. Resilience is likely to consist in the interactions between: significant close relationships; developing skills; and a child's growing sense of identity and confidence.

2.237 A child's resilience and experience of safety is likely to be strongly related to development of a secure base in dependent relationships; and of a growing, yet realistic confidence in themselves and their abilities to reach out, explore, learn things and get help when needed. The extent to which this capacity for resilience is realised by a child will also be influenced by their age, stage, understanding and culture.

2.238 In exploring concerns and strengths, practitioners should listen, take time and keep an open mind:

  • some children/young people may give an impression of resilience, when they appear to be 'fine' when under significant stress. It may take time to understand whether needs are hidden beneath an independent, self-sufficient front
  • others may be perceived as having 'strong' and protective attachments to significant adults; and it may take time to understand if anxiety is leading a child to cling to a source of security, avoiding healthy exploration and learning

2.239 "Children who have been harmed through relationships, must have supportive relationships in order to heal." (Independent Care Review, 2020)

2.240 Ecological. Whatever the specific concern, effective multi-agency assessment, planning and support is ecological. This includes analysis of the interaction of relationships between a child, their family and their wider world. An ecological perspective includes consideration of the present and historical context of harm. Other factors may be relevant. These include culture, use of technology, the physical location of risks, barriers to understanding or accessing services, and the intersection of adversities including key variables like housing, health and income.

2.241 Developmental. Effective multi-agency assessment must be developmental, meaning that it should consider a child's age, stage and transitional needs moving on to another stage, even if the preoccupation of a child protection assessment is prevention of significant harm. A developmental perspective encompasses attention to the impact of a child's experience of attachment and of trauma, and the relevance of relationships with significant others such as siblings and non-resident parents upon assessment of risk, strength and need.

2.242 Dynamic. 'Assessment', however structured, evolves with new information and understanding. Any assessment is at a point in time. Immediate safety is a priority. Best interests throughout childhood will be a constant and overarching consideration. There are likely to be distinctive stages, moving from initial assessment and prevention of significant harm to comprehensive inter-agency assessment of risk and need in context. Professional judgement and reflection on evidence and analysis is necessary at every stage. Even in urgent circumstances there should be a moment to pause and consider safety and best interests within the available options. Each situation is distinctive. Standard solutions cannot be derived from procedures. Attention should be paid to professional intuition. However this must be brought back and located firmly within an agreed and approved framework and approach. Professional curiosity about how children and families are experiencing their situation from the inside out is critical to effective engagement and formation of an understanding of risk and strengths in the child's world.

2.243 Structured assessment frameworks can bring depth and analysis to assessment of children, adults and families. They must be endorsed locally for use by the agency, and practitioners should be trained and confident in their application. An example of a well-evaluated framework with clear purpose and method is referenced below.

Example of structured assessment

2.244 The Graded Care Profile (v2) may be useful as a tool for aiding practitioners in the assessment of child neglect and care. Research suggests that, well implemented, it helps in the identification of parenting strengths as well as weaknesses, helps create a collaborative process, and helps parents understand professionals' concerns. The process should lead to a clear picture of what it is like to be a child in this family, and what needs to happen for the harm to stop.

2.245 A practice insight on this topic has been drafted to illustrate and explain key practice considerations, offer a resource, prompt reflection and signpost selected sources. It can be found in the Practice Insights supporting document alongside this Guidance.

2.246 Collaboration in assessment and planning: In forming a shared view of risks and strengths and options for supported change, strength-based approaches may provide a vehicle for partnership in critical situations. They may ensure that the expertise and resource available are brought to bear in the formation of plans focused on the child's needs. Signs of Safety and Family Group Decision-Making (FGDM) are just two examples of approaches which are congruent with the rights-based GIRFEC National Practice Model, and with statutory guidance on Part 12 of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014. (Part 1 of this Guidance references links between effective family support, children's rights and 'The Promise'). Other approaches are available and supported in different parts of Scotland.

Strength-based approaches

2.247 Effective engagement to reduce risk is more likely within approaches which stress respectful and rights-based communication with children and families, build upon strengths that have been evidenced, address need and risk, and work with the interaction of relationships and factors in the child's world. There are a range of such approaches. These are examples.

2.248 Signs of Safety (SoS) is a model of child protection and family support which is based on structured development of partnership between professionals and family members, and between professionals themselves. The model works by encouraging shared understanding and ideas about what needs to change, and by defining shared responsibilities in steps towards achieving these changes. This contrasts with approaches which depend on externally imposed solutions.

2.249 A Signs of Safety assessment is defined as a 'mapping'. This is organised under three, or sometimes four, headings, defining 'what we are worried about' (the harm, danger statements and complicating factors); 'what is working well' (including elements contributing to existing strength and safety); and 'what needs to happen' (the safety plan). An SoS assessment records harm that has occurred, future danger and complicating factors, which include interacting risks due to factors like poor mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence.

2.250 The model integrates respectful, open-minded and detailed exploration of risks and strengths with step-by-step action to achieve and sustain change in order to increase safety. It is recognised that coercion and co‑operation can be compatible, and offering choice is significant in forming plans that will hold firm. Plain language is fundamental to forming shared agreements in stressful and urgent circumstances.

Family group decision-making (FGDM)/family group conferencing

2.251 FGDM is an independently co‑ordinated process which empowers family members to shape plans for children. The process is applicable in a wide range of urgent circumstances when partnership with families is essential – for example, to develop participation in an agreed safety plan for a child at risk of significant harm.

2.252 Children and young people are normally involved in their own FGDM, although often with support from an advocacy worker. This is a voluntary process and families cannot be forced to have a FGDM.

2.253 Families, including extended family members, are assisted by an independent co‑ordinator in the crucial preparation phase before a family meeting. In the first part of the family meeting, shared purpose and parameters of decisions that can be made should be confirmed. Social workers and other professionals must be clear about concerns; available supports; and how the meeting outcome can inform other processes. The second part of the meeting is private to the family, who work through recommended elements of a plan for the child. In the final stage of the meeting all participants work together to crystallise practical steps in partnership. The principle of the model is that the family plan should be supported, unless, in the assessment of those with statutory responsibilities, it would not be safe. Review meetings are often a helpful part of the process.

2.254 FGDM is not a form of assessment and does not absolve statutory agencies from their responsibilities in this respect. However it is a way to explore known strengths and potential supports in partnership, keeping the child's needs and voice central.

2.255 The approach only works well if there is careful preparation; skilled independent co‑ordination; adherence to the principle of private family time; and commitment by services involved to support and follow up in partnership. The approach does not work well if the interface with other statutory and decision-making processes is not carefully considered and explained. Great care is needed in appropriate referral, preparation and conduct of meetings to prioritise the physical and emotional safety of participants before, during and after FGDM processes, taking in to account the potential for and impact of coercive control.

2.256 Leadership, training, supervision and resource are needed to ensure that the skills, values and distinctively effective elements within such approaches are understood and applied by the relevant workforce.

2.257 A practice insight on this topic has been drafted to illustrate and explain key practice considerations, offer a resource, prompt reflection and signpost selected sources. It can be found in the Practice Insights supporting document alongside this Guidance.

2.258 Context of harm. Child protection includes recognition, assessment and reduction of risk of harm from outside the family home where this is relevant. Understanding contextual harm or protective factors involves considering safety, risks and stresses within or faced by a family, especially from the child's perspective.

Contextual safeguarding

2.259 'Contextual safeguarding' is an ecological approach which complements the use of the My World Triangle and the concept of resilience. There are principles and tools within this evolving approach which may add depth to understanding and response, particularly in relation to risks and harm young people face beyond the family home. This does not deflect from core child protection steps described in Part 3 of this Guidance. Contextual safeguarding emphasises:

  • exploration of the dynamic between a young person, their family, peers, school context, and areas in their neighbourhood where they spend time, when assessing their needs and developing plans to meet them
  • recognition of the increasing 'weight of influence' that peer relationships, and other extra-familial factors, may have during adolescence, and the relevance of this for young people's experiences of harm and safety
  • a shift in focus towards the contexts in which young people make 'choices' or 'behave' – so that plans seek to create the conditions in which young people can make safer choices rather than simply focusing on changing young people's behaviour in persistently harmful contexts
  • the development of interventions that address the social conditions/environmental drivers of extra-familial risk and harm. This can be combined with support to individual young people and families. Such an approach can create safety for those identified as being at risk of significant harm in extra-familial contexts alongside broader populations of young people who spend time in those contexts

2.260 Partnerships and appropriate, necessary and lawful sharing of information across sectors are important in the interruption of patterns of harm, such as sexual exploitation for example, in relation to known places of concern.

2.261 Contributing factors such as poverty and structural discrimination, including racism, should be considered as part of the context of risk.

2.262 A practice insight on this topic has been drafted to illustrate and explain key practice considerations, offer a resource, prompt reflection and signpost selected sources. It can be found in the Practice Insights supporting document alongside this Guidance.

2.263 Analysis. Child protection assessment informs planning and action. This requires analysis of the probability of risk of significant harm, and the nature and immediacy of the impact of these risks upon the child. Analysis of immediate risks may inform immediate options. Protective episodes may be part of a pattern. Analysis must include consideration of patterns and an overall consideration of best interests. Steps and analysis in child protection processes are outlined in Part 3 of this Guidance.

2.264 Where risk of significant harm is persistent, assessment following immediate child protection should go beyond the current balance of strengths and concerns, and take into account 'capacity to change'. This includes identification and analysis of factors that are likely to promote, complicate or prevent those changes which are needed to ensure safety and stability for the child. Assessment of capacity to change is an essential component of robust reunification assessment and planning in those situations where a child has been removed from parental care. Further definition of this dimension in assessment is provided below.

Capacity to change

2.265 When child protection planning is needed to address complex and persistent risk of harm within the family, a central component of planning should be an appraisal of parents' 'capacity to change'. This refers to their abilities and motivation to change, given sufficient support, in a timescale that meets a child's needs.

2.266 Capacity to change is associated with parents and practitioners forming a shared understanding of concerns, parents accepting responsibility for their own actions, sustaining changes over time and taking up offers of (reasonable, sufficient and accessible) support from services. Successful behaviour change is likely to depend upon motivation to change, the relative significance of goals to the person, and the person's self-perception in terms of confidence and competence.

2.267 Constructive collaboration with families is associated with parental change and reduction in repeat reports of abuse and neglect. Lack of parental engagement is strongly associated with recurring abuse.

2.268 Key elements of the process are that:

  • particular behaviours that need to shift are defined
  • capacity to change is integrated within overall holistic assessment
  • parents or carers are assessed separately, but with attention to the dynamic between joint carers
  • barriers and facilitators affecting capacity to change and observable changes in behaviour are key sources of information
  • consideration is given to factors undermining change which are external to the child and family and require attention from a multi-agency partnership
  • the assessment considers whether parents can achieve change within the child's timescale

2.269 Guidance on capacity to change assessment may provide purposeful structure in work following a Child Protection Planning Meeting (CPPM, as described in Part 3), by informing the choice of intervention, informing analysis of contact plans and assessing and planning protective placement, or reunification. Capacity to change is likely to be an essential component of assessment when the complexity and persistence of child protection concerns prompt consideration of parallel or concurrent planning alongside intensive time-limited efforts at reunification.

2.270 A practice insight on this topic has been drafted to illustrate and explain key practice considerations, offer a resource, prompt reflection and signpost selected sources. It can be found in the Practice Insights supporting document alongside this Guidance.

2.271 Specialist assessment. Where risk of harm relates to behaviours or needs that require specialist assessment and support, early consideration should be given to inviting these professional perspectives to assist inter-agency planning around the child. Specialist assessments and assessments commissioned of specialists, if required, should form a considered element of multi-agency assessment.

A learning culture in child protection

2.272 Effective multi-agency assessment and planning is promoted by a learning culture open to concerns and oriented towards continual improvement in systems and practice.

2.273 Lived experience must be integral to learning. The table below was derived from the words of parents with learning disabilities who have had experience of child protection in Scotland. Advocacy services helped in distilling their messages about effective child protection assessment and action.

Bridges (what supports us)

  • when you take time to get to know us
  • when you give help when we look for it
  • when you try to understand why we feel as we do, what we are struggling with, and what help we need
  • when you work in relationship with us
  • when advocacy helps us understand processes and concerns
  • when different agencies work together to provide help
  • when you are honest about concerns and actions
  • when information is accessible, and given in a way each parent can understand
  • when you listen and realise that every family is different, every parent is different, every child is different
  • when the reasons for meetings are shared and agreed, plans for meetings are made in plenty of time, and meetings are structured so that we are supported, heard and respected
  • when you think about the whole family
  • when support is provided early (for example, early in pregnancy) and lasts for as long as needed
  • when workers use consistent standards of good practice with parents with learning disabilities
  • when plans are clear and step-by-step
  • real child protection is making sure we are supported so that our children can be supported

Cliffs and Walls (barriers to support)

  • when we are afraid to ask for help because we fear you will say we cannot cope…
  • when workers prejudge us
  • when home visits are scary rather than helpful
  • when workers seem distant, cold and uncaring … we react to this…
  • when it takes a crisis to get a response
  • when agencies involved in child protection are not communicating with each other
  • when we do not understand concerns or what is happening
  • when you do not share concerns clearly
  • when 'easy read' is not honest about what could happen
  • when social workers writing assessments do not know the child, the parents or the wider family
  • when you fail to build on our strengths and strengths in the family
  • when your training or supervision or experience has not given you enough knowledge and awareness of learning disabilities
  • when advocacy for parents or children is not available when we need it, or when our children need it
  • when support is short-term or only in crisis
  • when you do not recognise what we want to give our children

2.274 Assessment can also be enhanced by learning from research, inspection findings and case reviews. Complaints can also be a systemic safeguard and trigger for learning and review of practice. Cumulative lessons from research distilled by Broadhurst, Munro et al (2010) are relevant to 'avoiding common pitfalls' in multi-agency child protection. These have been re-framed below as reflective questions crucial to all practitioners in child protection.

Avoiding common pitfalls

  • What are children saying? How do they look? How do they behave? What is the apparent or potential impact of risks upon the child?
  • How are we engaging with parents (mothers/fathers/other family carers) to assess and reduce risk?
  • Has due consideration been given to information from family and others significant to this child's safety and needs?
  • How have we formed a shared understanding of concerns, plans and expectations?
  • Are records about response to concerns thorough and accurate? Do referrers need to know about response?
  • There may be obvious and urgent risks. What significant but less visible aspects of case history and circumstance may have been obscured by the headline concerns?
  • If the focus has been on one child because of age or known harm, what are the implications for other children who may be affected?
  • If a conclusion has been reached early, is assessment and decision-making based on information that is sufficiently tested and corroborated from the perspectives of those who know the situation?
  • How are practitioners supported to engage with individuals and families with whom they experience aggression or avoidance?
  • Are the child and family involved experiencing a 'joined-up', co‑ordinated assessment and planning processes?

2.275 Research, evaluation, training and supervision all play an essential part in the protective steps outlined in Part 3, and the response to specific concerns in Part 4 of this Guidance. Improvements in child protection depend upon a learning culture which promotes understanding of lived experience and sustains a reflective, analytical and evaluative approach. Recent developments in child protection (2019-21) relevant to improvement in multi-agency child protection are highlighted below.


2.276 Strategic improvements are informed by data analysis. A Minimum Dataset for Child Protection Committees has been developed as part of the Child Protection Improvement Programme. The aims are to deliver robust data sets to support child protection improvement, to develop a national resource for advice on using child protection data for local planning and service development, and expanded analytical capacity. Child Protection Committees' responsibilities involve collation and analysis of data and evidence to inform improvement planning and the Child Protection National Minimum Dataset 2020 is a 'package' of data collation, presentation, analysis, reporting and scrutiny supports which will assist in informing these processes.

2.277 Joint Investigative Interviewing (JII) Guidance and Training. Police Scotland and Social Work Scotland have worked with the Scottish Government to respond to the recommendations of the Evidence and Procedure Review to improve the quality and consistency of Joint Investigative Interviews (JIIs) of children. Revised guidance (which will become statutory on publication) and the development of the new Scottish Child Interview Model have been informed by international research. The model encapsulates an approach to investigative interviewing of children which is both trauma-informed and achieves best evidence through more robust planning and interview techniques. The aim is that JII statements can be used as Evidence in Chief, removing the need for children to give evidence in court and reducing trauma for child victims and witnesses. Evaluation and learning from pilots of the new Scottish model will inform national implementation beyond 2020.

2.278 Significant Case Reviews/Learning Reviews. As part of the Child Protection Improvement Plan, the approach to Significant Case Reviews has been revised, taking account of Care Inspectorate analysis, UK and international findings. There is a new focus on accessibility and applicability. Key objectives are to ensure that essential recommendations translate into effective learning to prevent recurrence of the most serious child protection events. To this end these reports will now be called Learning Reviews. (National Guidance for Child Protection Committees Undertaking Learning Reviews)

2.279 Child Participation in Child Protection Processes. A Child Protection Committees Self-Evaluation is an example of analysis which is comparative and practical, describing progress and challenges in the way practitioners and managers have worked to ensure children's rights and GIRFEC principles have been applied in child protection processes.

Summary. Elements within multi-agency child protection assessment outlined in this section are reduced to a seven-point summary (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Elements in child protection assessment.
Alt text: This figure is a wheel diagram which reduces the elements within multi-agency child protection assessment to a seven-point summary as follows:
1. Characteristics: Ecological/developmental; dynamic (responsive to immediate safety and
on-going needs); trauma-informed.
2. Components: GIRFEC National
Practice Model; approved frameworks; analysis of risks and strengths, integrating professional, child and
family perspectives.
3. Approach: child-centred; strengths-based; collaborative/teamwork.
4. Context: locations; culture; inequalities.
5. Co-ordination: for shared understanding; in practical support plans; through transitions.
6. Leadership & learning: supervision and reflective practice; evaluation and inspection; research on systems, practice and outcomes.
7. Guiding considerations: rights; relationships; resilience.



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