Updated: 15 November 2013
Parents play a vital role in their child’s life in terms of caring for them, protecting them from harm, and shaping them into adults who will go on to contribute positively within their community. The decision about whether or not a child or young person will remain in, or return to, their parent’s care has a significant impact on the outcomes for the child or young person and their family/whānau.
It is important that parents are confident and capable and have the necessary skills and insights to be a positive influence on their child’s life. We therefore need to have a robust model for assessing this in order to make the best possible decisions, to formulate a robust plan that will meet the child or young person’s current and future needs, and to make we keep the focus on the child or young person at all times.
Assessing capacity to care, or Kaitiaki Mokopuna, involves determining whether or not a parent or usual caregiver (e.g. nana, koro, aunt, family friend, sibling) is able or has the potential to safely care for the child or young person.
The assessment seeks to develop an understanding of their strengths, risks and needs as a parent or caregiver and that exist within their relationship with their child, their ability to meet the child's individual needs and basic safety and emotional needs, seek and accept appropriate support for themselves and/or their child as and when needed, set boundaries and clear directions, and provide love and encouragement.
The assessment is guided by the Tuituia assessment framework. The framework highlights the key areas that contribute to achieving safety and wellbeing for children and young people and provides structure for the social worker’s assessment.
Assessing capacity to care is something you do from your very first meeting with a parent or caregiver, whether this is as part of convening a youth justice family group conference or completing your investigation or child and family assessment.
As you get to know the parent or caregiver and learn about their history; current situation; skills and knowledge; relationship with the child or young person; and hopes for the future, you are gathering the information you need to assess their capacity to nurture and develop the wellbeing of the child or young person in their care.
The depth and breadth of any assessment will be determined by the particular circumstances of the case and the reason for the assessment. The Assessment and decision making policy outlines the particular points at which a Tuituia assessment must occur, including: when undertaking a care and protection assessment (investigation or child and family assessment); when a social work report and plan is required for a formal youth court order; when reviewing a child or young person’s plan; prior to discharge from a residential or high needs placement.
A Kaitiaki Mokopuna assessment can happen outside of the formal process of completing a Tuituia assessment (which involves both Mokopuna Ora and Kaitiaki Mokopuna with the Te Ao Hurihuri domains woven through each).
Assessing capacity to care can be complex and time-consuming, and it is easy to become overwhelmed by what needs to be done. Work with your supervisor to think about the information you need to gather and what might be the most accurate sources for this information, including who can then provide the information. Write up your tasks, attach a completion date to each one and be realistic – don’t give yourself timeframes which are too tight or completely unachievable.
Assessing capacity to care involves a five-pronged approach:
1. Review of records/history
It is important to evaluate currently held information as well as evaluate new information. What do we already know about the parent or caregiver? What are the patterns of behaviour that have developed over time?
Reviewing historical records also provides you with the opportunity to add to, correct and clarify existing information as part of the assessment, rather than simply duplicating what is already known (Budd, 2005).
Remember to create a genogram and ecomap to illustrate family/whānau dynamics and relationships between family/whānau members so that you know where everyone fits.
2. Interviews with the parent/caregivers
Think about the number of interviews you will need to complete, and plan your approach with your supervisor. A parent or caregiver can usually make a positive impression in a single interview but more interactions will offer a realistic view of how they handle multiple contacts and the stress that goes with them (Choate, 2009).
Be aware of the concept of ‘faking good’, keeping in mind that the parent or caregiver will likely always answer questions or act in a way that portrays them in the most positive light (Budd & Holdsworth, 1996).
A caregiving couple or group (i.e. mother and father; mother, father and kuia) should be interviewed together and separately. Being interviewed together helps you see their interaction with each other while separate interviews allow them to provide information they may have withheld in the presence of the other.
Is one parent or caregiver dominant over the other? Is information provided as a couple consistent with information obtained individually? How might this interaction impact on the child?
Consider the environment where the interviews will occur. A parent or caregiver will likely be more relaxed in their own home, although this location might present safety issues for you (Harnett, 2007); on the other hand, you might feel safer in a Oranga Tamariki office but this may represent a power imbalance to the parent or caregiver.
The length of interview sessions is important – parents or caregivers who become tired or unfocused are unlikely to give a true picture of themselves. If they do tire or lose focus in a short space of time, consider the impact of this on their capacity to care.
When English is not their first language or there are doubts about their use of the English language, make arrangements for a translator and enable them to communicate in their first language.
3. Interviews with the child or young person
Take every opportunity to gain the child or young person’s view of their parent or caregiver, either on their own or with support from another adult, sibling or close friend. How does the child or young person describe their parent or caregiver’s behaviour, how they react, how they play, and how they talk with them?
Bear in mind that the child or young person may feel pressured or be coerced into providing overly positive feedback about the parent or caregiver. In some cases, they may simply be unable to directly express how they feel. Children and young people like this may suggest much more about their feelings and experiences through drawings and play than they would in response to direct questions.
Also think about how you will record the information given by the child or young person, particularly as your assessment report may be shared with the parent or caregiver. If the child or young person has given you information that might put them at risk, consider how to record this in a way that lessens the likelihood of risk but doesn’t minimise the concerns.
4. Interviews with other key people
People who know the parent or caregiver well, such as family/whānau, friends, caseworkers, medical professionals and employers, can provide a rich source of direct information about the functioning between the parent or caregiver and child (Haynes, 2010).
This information is also useful in terms of providing details about the parent or caregiver’s strengths, vulnerabilities and progress, and confirming or countering claims made by the parent or caregiver (Budd, 2005).
Try to obtain permission to contact these people; if a parent or caregiver is reluctant to provide permission, this may indicate issues about transparency on their part. Also ensure that the people you talk to are aware that comments they make may end up in your report.
5. Observation of interactions between the parent or caregiver and child
Observing the parent or caregiver and child or young person together is an essential part of the assessment process and needs to happen on a number of occasions. Observations may highlight strengths and vulnerabilities not observed in an interview situation, and may also provide an index of the parent or caregiver’s attempts to demonstrate their best parenting skills (Budd, 2005). It is best if observations occur in a place familiar to the parent or caregiver and child.
You may set up structured tasks for the family/whānau which create a moderate degree of stress (e.g. excursion to the park or grocery shopping) or you may choose to observe ‘naturally’ stressful activities such as getting the child ready for school, helping them do their homework, or preparing the evening meal. In observing the parent or caregiver and child, look out for the following:
Look out for signs that the child or young person appears anxious or watchful in the presence of their parent or caregiver, and listen to how they describe their child and their child’s needs.
The areas to explore are outlined in detail in Understanding the Kaitiaki Mokopuna Domains. They include:
Once you have gathered the information you need about the parent or caregiver’s capacity to care, enter your analysis and understanding about what this all means into the relevant domains/sub-domains in the Kaitiaki Mokopuna section of the Tuituia assessment. Use scaling to identify where you think things sit currently, and summarise your conclusions in the summary section of the Tuituia assessment.
Remember to record where the information came from and how you came to your conclusions. How exactly do you know that the parent or caregiver’s capacity to care has improved? What have you observed during their interactions with their children? What have they told you? What have other people seen? What have their children told you?
Even though your Kaitiaki Mokopuna assessment is a ‘snapshot in time’, your conclusions need to address the capacity of the parent/caregiver or parent/caregiver group over the long term as opposed to what they might be able to do in the short-term with supervision and supports (Conley, 2003).
Once you have finished writing the assessment, get together with your supervisor and social work colleagues to complete a child and family consult (Child/young person and family consult guidelines) to help you formulate your next steps. Make sure you bring to the meeting the last child and family consult you completed, and use this and your assessment to reflect on what has or hasn’t changed from then to now.
Remember that past behaviour is often a good predictor of future behaviour. Pay particular attention to the parent or caregiver’s strengths and how these translate into protective factors and safety for their child, and also to what tips the parent or caregiver’s vulnerabilities over to risk.
When deciding on the next steps, bear in mind that the parent or caregiver can only do so much and overloading them with tasks and activities is, in reality, setting them up to fail (Choate, 2009).
Consider taking a phased approach whereby you would list the tasks in order of importance and get the parent or caregiver to complete a few at a time. If you are recommending the child doesn’t remain or return home, be clear with the parent or caregiver about why you have said this and what the next steps are.
If you are recommending the child returns to the parent or caregiver’s care, provide details about how the transition home might best be managed, within what sort of timeframes this might occur, and be clear about how the safety of the child will be assured during the transition process and when they have returned home.
Conclude the assessment process by completing a Tuituia Report. Remember to discuss the report with the child or young person and the parent or caregiver and where appropriate share it with them. Be sure to check that the report is clear, concise, jargon-free and, above all, child-centred.
There may be times when you need to seek specialist help in order to complete your assessment. The parent may present with complex issues such as mental ill-health, intellectual disability, severe drug and alcohol dependence.
The work that this subject matter expert undertakes with the parent or caregiver is then used to inform your Kaitiaki Mokopuna assessment.
While a parent or caregiver may be able to successfully parent one child, the nature or demands of another child could be beyond that parent or caregiver’s capacity. Your assessment needs to consider the parent or caregiver and each child along with that child’s specific needs.
Your personal judgment regarding appropriate parenting standards can have a significant impact on the assessment. Use the scaling descriptors to guide your analysis. Examine and make explicit the values that underpin your work, and reflect on and address this in supervision.
Cultural issues may affect not only the formulation of the assessment itself, but also your practice. Remember that what might be acceptable parenting in one country may not be in another. Seek appropriate cultural advice to help you understand the differing views held about ‘good’ parenting across cultures.
The way in which issues are negotiated and agreed with the family/whānau will often set the tone for the whole assessment. If the parent feels excluded from the assessment process, they may become resentful or resistant. While the assessment is likely to be stressful for the parent, remind them this is something that needs to be done to ensure the wellbeing of their child and to inform decision-making.
Assessment is an ongoing process – it starts from our first engagement with a family and only ends when we close the case.
Budd, K.S. (2005). Assessing parenting capacity in a child welfare context. Children and Youth Services Review, 27, pp. 429-444.
Budd, K.S. & Holdsworth, M.J. (1996). Issues in clinical assessment of minimal parenting competence. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 25, pp. 2-14.
Choate, P.W. (2009). Parenting capacity assessments in child protection cases. Forensic Examiner, Spring.
Conley, C. (2003). A review of parenting capacity assessment reports. OACAS Journal, 47(3), pp. 16-22.
Harnett, P.H. (2007). A procedure for assessing parents’ capacity for change in child protection cases. Children and Youth Services Review, 29, pp. 1179-1188.
Haynes, J.P. (2010). Parenting assessment in abuse, neglect and permanent wardship cases. In E.P. Benedek, P. Ash., & C.L. Scott. Principles of Child and Adolescent Forensic Mental Health. Virginia, USA: American Psychiatric Publishing Inc. (pp. 157-170).
Steinhauser, P.D. (1991). The Least Detrimental Alternative: A Systematic Guide to Case Planning and Decision Making for Children in Care. Toronto, CA: University of Toronto Press.