What did we find? Recording findings in child and family assessments and investigations

Updated: 01 April 2017

What's Important To Us

It is important that the information gathered as part of a child and family assessment or investigation, along with its underpinning analysis, clearly shows why we arrive at the ‘finding’ for that particular child or young person.

This key information provides guidance on the accurate recording of findings when completing a child and family assessment or an investigation.

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Key considerations

Determining whether the actions of a parent or caregiver can be defined as abusive or neglectful is not always straightforward and there are a number of things that need to be considered. Take time to think about the evidence you have to support a finding, and talk these things through with others about the circumstances of your case. Using a child and family consult to strengthen decision-making is a good idea, particularly in complex situations. Some ideas that you may need to factor into your thinking:

  • age and vulnerability of the child or young person - the vulnerability of the younger child means the impact of a caregiver's behaviour may be felt much more acutely. For example, a hit that may hurt a 14 year old may severely injure a two year old. Children and young people with specific vulnerabilities such as physical disability, mental illness and developmental delay may also be at greater risk of harm from abuse or neglect.
  • severity of harm - do we understand the actual impact of the harm on the child or young person? Has the physical abuse resulted in injury? What behaviour does the child exhibit that would result in a determination of emotional abuse?
  • frequency of harm - is there a pattern of events occurring that cumulatively result in a finding of abuse or neglect being justified? Severity may be lower, but if the frequency of the event is high, the impact on the child over time may be serious (see Key information: Cumulative harm).
  • history of harm - is this a one-off event or does the child or young person have a history of being abused or neglected?

When deciding on a finding take the time to consider what has happened to them - what has been the actual impact of the abuse or neglect?

Use the Tuituia assessment framework and other practice tools, consult with your colleagues, and support your findings with clear evidence and sound analysis.

Why do I need to record a 'finding'?

The purpose in recording a ‘finding’ is to identify the nature of any harm to the child or young person.

Being clear about this will help us to identify and put in place an intervention for the child or young person that will support the best possible outcomes for them.

In addition to supporting case planning, information from ‘findings’ informs us about the overall rates of child abuse in our community and is used to influence practice developments and service provision. It is therefore important we are accurate in our determination of findings following the assessment or investigative process.

How do I decide which 'finding' to choose?

Findings should not be attributed ‘lightly’ or ‘matter-of-factly’. Over the course of your child and family assessment or investigation you need to gather clear and sufficient evidence to substantiate a particular finding or findings. This evidence, along with its underpinning analysis, needs to be clearly recorded on the child or young person’s CYRAS record.

Careful consideration needs to be given to determining the most appropriate finding for each particular child or young person. For example, in a sibling group there may be different findings for each child as a consequence of their age and developmental level. You can also record more than one finding for a child or young person if this is appropriate.

The tools you use over the course of the child and family assessment or investigation - Substances and Choices Scale, Kessler and Suicide screens, child and family consult (PDF 359 KB), the Tuituia assessment framework (PDF 338 KB) will support your finding.

If a case involves actions or behaviour which may constitute a criminal (physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect) refer to the Child Protection Protocol (PDF 811 KB) (CPP) for details on how to work alongside the Police when investigating these matters.

Physical abuse

When we talk about physical abuse, we are talking about situations where the child or young person has sustained an injury or was at serious risk of sustaining an injury. We are not talking about situations of a smack or where parents may have been a little rougher in their handling of their child than is desirable. Physical abuse may be the result of a deliberate attempt to hurt the child or young person, but not always.

Signs to look out for include:

  • unexplained bruises, welts, cuts and abrasions - particularly in unusual places like the face, back, tummy, buttocks, or the backs of their legs. Also look out for the regularity of these injuries to see if there is a pattern forming
  • unexplained fractures or dislocations - many children and young people are active resulting in bumps and breaks, but people need to be thinking about how these injuries happen. Especially worrying are fractures to the head or face, and hip or shoulder dislocations. Be very concerned if this is happening in young babies, who are less active and not moving around enough to accidentally hurt themselves
  • burn marks - anywhere on the body are concerning, and if not easily explained need to be notified. Be mindful of burns in the shape of an object like a stove ring or iron, cigarette marks or rope burn
  • the child or young person and their parents/caregivers - can't recall how the injuries occurred or their explanations change or don't make sense.

In determining whether physical abuse has occurred there are three areas of information that we need to consider:

  • the action of the abuse: how the injury or harm to the child or young person occurred. Actions that may be considered physical abuse include blows to the head, shaking (of an infant), strangulation, use of an object as a weapon (e.g. broom, belt, bat, etc), attempted drowning.
  • the injury inflicted: the nature of any injury caused. Injuries may include death, a bone fracture, burn, concussion or loss of consciousness, any injury that requires medical attention (e.g. a wound that needs stitches), bruises, cuts, welts and abrasions, abdominal/ internal injuries, burns or scalds.
  • the circumstances (factors in the case): the factors that increase the level of harm or abuse of the child or young person. These factors may include the vulnerability of the child or young person, the number of perpetrators involved in the abuse, historical patterns of harm, degree of violence used, and the perpetrator's history and background.

A single injury or action may justify a finding of physical abuse, or an injury or action in combination with other circumstances may raise additional concern and may justify a physical abuse finding. Remember, injuries may be deliberately inflicted or the unintentional result of the adult's behaviour (e.g. shaking of an infant). Regardless of motivation, the result for the child or young person is physical abuse.

Currently, findings are recorded for all child and family assessments. However given the level of harm required of a physical abuse determination, we would not generally expect to see findings of physical abuse in the child and family assessment pathway. If you are in the process of completing a child and family assessment and think that physical (or sexual) abuse may be an issue, refer to the Child Protection Protocol to check that you are using the correct pathway and that appropriate consultation with the Police has occurred.

Remember that physical abuse is not about ‘light' smacking. In these situations an assessment finding of ‘Not Found' is more likely to be appropriate (in the absence of any other care or protection concerns for the child or young person). If you are unsure about whether or not an instance of smacking could be regarded as physical abuse refer Key information: The smacking issue and talk with your supervisor.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is any action where an adult or a more powerful person uses a child or young person for a sexual purpose. This may be consensual or not, and can happen within and outside the family/whānau. Most sexual abuse is done by someone the child or young person knows and trusts. Sexual abuse of children and young people is an especially complicated form of abuse because of its layers of guilt and shame. It is important to recognise that sexual abuse doesn't always involve body contact. Exposing a child or young person to inappropriate sexual situations or to sexually explicit material can be sexually abusive, whether or not touching is involved.

Sexual abuse can include:

  • non-contact abuse - exhibitionism, voyeurism, suggestive behaviours or comments, exposure to pornographic material
  • contact abuse - touching breasts or genital areas, vaginal, anal or oral penetration, encouraging the child or young person to perform such acts on the perpetrator
  • involvement of the child or young person in activities for the purposes of pornography or prostitution.

Sexual abuse can be found to have occurred regardless of whether or not criminal charges were laid against the alleged perpetrator, as long as this finding is supported by clear evidence (e.g. obtained via child-focused and/or forensic interviews, medical examinations, etc) and analysis. In these situations, it is particularly important that we record the rationale for the finding.

Children and young people involved in sexual behaviours

There will be times where children and young people engage in sexualised behaviour with other children or young people. This behaviour can often be part of a normal phase of experimentation (e.g. two 5 year old children showing each other their genitals), but there may be situations when children or young people are affected in more serious ways (for example, a 14 year old engaging in sexual acts with a 6 year old). It can be really tricky to know how to deal with these situations, and to determine the most appropriate finding.

It is important to consider:

  • differences in equality in the relationship between the child and the child they are behaving sexually towards (e.g. age and/or developmental differences)
  • the difference between consent and compliance (e.g. was this experimental behaviour between two children or was one child made to comply with the behaviour due to fear of the other child?)
  • coercion and the use of force and power (e.g. did the child or young person who behaved in a concerning way use physical and/or emotional threats such as ceasing a friendship as a way of getting the other child or young person to participate in the behaviour?)

Thinking about the actual impact of the behaviour for the child or young person will help you to clarify the appropriateness of a finding.

Working safely with families were children are displaying concerning sexual behaviour

Working safely with young people who display harmful sexual behaviour

Emotional abuse

When we talk about emotional abuse we are talking about situations where the child or young person's mental health, social and/or emotional functioning and development have been damaged by their treatment. Situations of emotional abuse are likely to result from repeat exposure to negative experiences, particularly in a context of insecurity.

Examples of behaviours that may result in emotional abuse include:

  • constant criticism, shaming and humiliating a child or young person; calling a child or young person names and making negative comparisons to others; telling a child or young person he or she is "no good", "worthless", "bad", or "a mistake"; frequent yelling, threatening or bullying
  • ignoring or rejecting a child or young person, or giving him or her the silent treatment
  • limited physical contact with the child or young person - no hugs, kisses, or other signs of affection
  • corruption of the child or young person through exposure to, or involvement in, illegal or anti-social activities
  • the negative impact of the mental or emotional condition of the parent or caregiver or anyone living in the same residence as the child or young person
  • the negative impact of substance abuse.

A child or young person who is being emotionally abused may show the following signs:

  • sleep problems like bed-wetting or soiling - with no medical cause, nightmares and poor sleeping patterns
  • frequent physical complaints - real or imagined such as headaches, nausea and vomiting, and abdominal pains. This might coincide with the child or young person being very underweight or dehydrated
  • signs of anxiety - including poor self-esteem, being unable to cope in social settings and sometimes obsessive behaviour. Children and young people who are emotionally abused are very sad and alone, and might talk about hurting themselves or ending their lives.

When determining a finding of emotional abuse, it is important to have an understanding of the impact that the behaviour has had on the child or young person. The one-off exposure to any one of these experiences, while hurtful for the child or young person, is unlikely to impact on their emotional or social functioning or on their development. It is the impact of ongoing or repeat exposure to harmful negativity that results in a determination of emotional abuse.

Family violence and emotional abuse

A child or young person witnessing adult-to-adult family violence may experience distress and be at risk of direct harm - sometimes the effect of this harm may be profound and lasting. While family violence is undesirable for children, not all incidents which result in a call-out from the Police will automatically result in serious harm to a child or young person. The physical and/or emotional impact of the incident on the child or young person needs to be considered (i.e. age, understanding, past history, the relationship context, severity of incident), and from this, the most appropriate finding or findings should be determined. Emotional abuse will only be recorded as a finding in relation to family violence when the assessment indicates the functioning, safety or care of the child or young person has been adversely affected or put at risk.

Regardless of whether or not a finding of emotional abuse is determined, it is important that we do whatever we can to reduce harm in these family situations. Exposure to family violence is deleterious for children and we need to go the extra mile to make sure families/whānau have the services and support they need to protect their children well.

Neglect

Neglect is evidenced through failing to provide for a child or young person's basic needs - adequate food, clothing, hygiene, or supervision. Neglect can be a one-off incident, or may represent a sustained pattern of failure to act. It is not always easy to identify and respond to. Sometimes, a parent may become physically or mentally unable to care for their child. They may sustain an injury that limits their ability to care, or they may suffer depression, or anxiety. Substance abuse may negatively impact on their judgment and ability to keep a child or young person safe. There may be times when a parent's care is limited by disability.

Older children may not necessarily show outward signs of neglect. They may present a competent face to the outside world. They may even compensate for a parent's inability to care and assume the parenting role. What we need to be able to assess is when neglect impacts on a child's safe care and development.

Neglect can take a number of different forms:

  • physical neglect - not providing the necessities of life like a warm place, enough food and clothing
  • neglectful supervision - leaving children home alone, or without someone safe looking after them during the day or night
  • emotional neglect - not giving children and young people the comfort, attention and love they need through play, talk, and everyday affection
  • medical neglect - the failure to take care of their health needs
  • educational neglect - allowing chronic truancy, failure to enrol children and young people in school, or inattention to special education needs.

Children and young people may show a combination of behavioural and physical signs including:

  • looking rough and uncared for – the children or young people might be extremely dirty and not have the right clothes to keep warm. Neglected children and young people may also be underweight or small for their age because they're not getting enough, or the right sort, of food
  • persistent nappy rash or skin disorders - can be an indication that children are not being well cared for
  • out and about unsupervised - if the child is left alone, or doesn't have a safe home to go to they might spend lots of time at the neighbour's house, steal food, or regularly hang out at school or on the streets. Neglected children are at greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse, and can drift onto a dangerous pathway to offending
  • falling behind in their school work and attendance - sometimes coupled with poor speech and social skills, or other development delays is a sign that children and young people are not getting the support and nurturing they need
  • indiscriminate attachment to adults - strong attention and affection seeking, or a severe lack of attachment to their own parents can be a sign of neglect.

There may be times when a finding of physical or sexual abuse is determined and in addition the investigation reveals that a non-offending parent has failed in their parental duty to protect the child or young person, whether intentionally or unintentionally. In these situations a finding of neglect is appropriate.

Self harm/suicide

Self harm (also known as deliberate self-injury or self-mutilation) can be used by some children and young people to cope with difficult and sometimes overwhelming feelings of anger, sadness and worry. Methods of self harm can include:

  • cutting or scratching or picking their skin
  • burning themselves
  • hitting parts of their body, punching walls, bruising themselves
  • taking an overdose of pills
  • pulling hair.

It may be determined that a child or young person is suicidal if they have:

  • recently attempted suicide
  • a clear suicide plan
  • expressed suicidal thoughts or ideation.

In cases where self-harm or suicide is suspected to be a factor for a child or young person, their social worker needs to complete the SKS screens and consult with Towards Wellbeing.

Behaviour/relationship difficulties

When we talk about a finding of behaviour/relationship difficulties we are talking about situations where there is a serious difficulty in the relationship between the child or young person and their parent or caregiver that impacts on their safety or wellbeing, or that of their siblings. We are not talking about your average dispute that teenagers and their parents will have. Nor is it about adult-to-adult conflict or violence.

These difficulties can include:

  • disagreement about life choice decisions to the point where there are irreconcilable differences
  • inability of parent or caregiver and child or young person to communicate with each other in a safe, effective and appropriate manner.

If the relationship is difficult to the point where violence occurs you need to consider whether ‘Behaviour/Relationship Difficulties' is, in fact, an appropriate finding. Physical and/or emotional abuse may more accurately reflect the situation.

Not found

If a finding has not been substantiated at the level identified above, then the outcome should be recorded as ‘not found’. A ‘not found’ finding does not necessarily mean that your work with the child or young person and their family has to end at this point; it just means that the focus of your ongoing work will be on the elements (other than abuse) that occur within the family system.