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Exercise 4: Step 3

Fact ... or professional judgement?

Now compare your answers with ours.

The answer is that only 8 and 9 are 'facts' . . . and even then, in statement number 8, only if the writer is accurately recording what happened - it would have been better to have written something along the lines of 'The child said to me "My dad hit me around the head last night"' - and, in number 9, only if everyone has the same ideas in mind when thinking about what 'playing with' means.

If you're not sure about the factual status of the above statements, have a quick look at the following summary of each one:

1. There are inadequate play and stimulation opportunities available

Comment: It's a professional judgement which needs substantiating.

2. The bruise and swelling are consistent with hitting his head on the door

Comment: Despite the temptation to read this as a fact, it is only a medical opinion. If you're thinking 'But the word 'consistent' makes it a fact doesn't it?' think about the many incorrect convictions that have been made on the basis of such assertions: sometimes what we think may be consistent later may prove not to be.

3. This is the first incident of abuse to the child

Comment: All that could be safely stated is that 'This is the first known or reported incident of abuse to the child': how does the writer know it was the first 'incident'; again, if this is what s/he was told it might have been better to write 'X told me that . . .'

4. The flat is unsuitable for bringing up a young child

Comment: It's both vague and imprecise to make such a statement. It needs to be supported by reasons for reaching this conclusion.

5. Mrs Green is good at keeping her flat tidy

Comment: Vague; and, as it's written, the relevance of such a statement is debatable, unless it is part of a longer explanation.

6. Experienced professionals are better at dealing with child protection issues

Comment: Better than whom? Evidence?

7. Children who were abused usually become abusers

Comment: This is one of many misinterpreted research findings: if it were true in respect of sexual abuse, for example, then it would imply that the majority of abusers are female (which is certainly not true) because most of those abused sexually are girls. Whilst a significant proportion of adults who abuse others were themselves abused as children, the finding does not apply the other way round.

8. The child said his dad hit him

Comment: A 'fact', given the earlier proviso

9. I saw Peter playing with his toys when I last visited

Comment: Again, a 'fact', given the earlier proviso

10. Mrs Green does not display appropriate parenting skills when relating to her son

Comment: Vague and imprecise: what does 'appropriate' mean, for example?

There are two key practice implications from this exercise:

1. It is essential to distinguish between 'facts' and 'professional judgements' and conclusions based on observations and research reports. Hypotheses may also need to recorded, provided it is made clear what information they are based upon. Nevertheless, they may still have to be shared if a family member seeks formal access to their file.

2. But it is very important not to think that you can 'stick to facts only': the key task is to substantiate any non-factual information - of which there will always be a great deal.

By 'non-factual' information, we mean 'assessments' and other information about which you will have to make certain judgements - but remember that 'using your professional judgement' does not mean 'being judgmental'.

Have another look at statement number 1 - There are inadequate play and stimulation opportunities available. Have a go at writing it in a way which overcomes the difficulties outlined.

You could have written something like:

I couldn't see any toys around when I visited yesterday. I mentioned this to Mrs Green and she explained that she had tidied them away/didn't have enough money for toys (etc.) .

Of course, either of these statements beg questions about the relevance of such recording. We discuss this more fully in Exercise 5.

Not distinguishing between 'facts' and 'professional judgements' can lead to a considerable amount of labelling, as the following 'record' of 'parents' problems' illustrates:

  • Drug use
  • History of abandonment and institutional upbringing
  • Financial/material insufficiency
  • Inability to prioritise the needs of the children (beyond physical care)

These are all listed as 'facts' - as indeed some of them might be - but, equally, they may be based on a considerable amount of third-hand information.

Substantiating information and assessments is not achieved simply by writing 'In my opinion ...' frequently. It sometimes means writing in a slightly different style. Have a look at the next example. First of all count how many 'facts' there are.

Yesterday Janet said 'John's driving me up the wall and I scared I'm going to overreact'. Whilst this insight is potentially an encouraging sign for the future I am concerned that both she and her partner see John as the 'one with all the problems' and, therefore, as the one who needs to change. We talked about this for quite a while and I explained how and why I saw it differently. (Further details on Core Assessment see p.27).

The only 'facts' are the reported speech; the rest is assessed information and is distinguished clearly.

When reading files it is noticeable that workers who do not substantiate professional judgements and assessments invariably have not discussed them - in exactly the way they have been written, that is - with relevant family members. Conversely, those workers who do discuss the contents of their records with family members tend to indicate this in files by writing statements such as 'I outlined the main points in the Conference report and left Mr Green with a copy' or 'Mrs Green did not agree with the following points in these notes: . . . '.

In the next extract the worker is both measured and fair in what is written: s/he has 'concerns', but acknowledges that there is doubt. What matters is a) how the concerns are pursued and b) whether and how the concerns are discussed with family members.

I have concerns that there is drug-taking going on in the house; however, the only evidence I have for this was how Mrs Green and Mr Green were behaving. They may or may not have been under the influence of drugs when I spoke to them . . .

Now consider the next examples:

Arlan has a good relationship with parents. Has a good circle of friends.

Jane appears to have an excellent relationship with her carers. She continues to be happy with the placement.

We are never quite sure exactly what is meant here: for example, what is 'good' or 'excellent' about the relationship . . . and what does 'happy' mean? Professional judgements are expressed but not substantiated. A similar problem exists in the next example:

Mrs Green's three children all seen. The children all looked very well. All the family seemed relaxed together.

This will mean different things to different workers; given that one of the reasons why records are kept is for continuity when another worker takes over, little information is communicated when records are so bland.

One of the problems with using imprecise language is that it means different things to different people. What do you think are some of the dangers in the following examples:

Mrs D is maternal, caring, not well-organised yet capable

Mrs E's family are not supportive

There is a somewhat 'over-involved' relationship between them

They each end up 'labelling' the family member - but, interestingly, probably not with the same 'label' for each worker reading the report. In the first example, many of us will 'hear' the words 'maternal', 'caring', well-organised' and 'capable' quite differently. In the second example, we know nothing about the most important aspect of the assertion i.e. in what ways are they thought not to be 'supportive'. The third example is more worrying in that some people will assume that something sinister is going on between the two people.

Repeated self-assessment question

How well do you think you can now distinguish between fact and professional judgement in your records?

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Not well

Very well

Exercise 5 >>

By Steve Walker, David Shemmings and Hedy Cleaver
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