Use of Written Agreements by Social Care Staff
The W3 Serious Case Review (SCR) which reported in March 2014 identified the need for a review of the use of written agreements and the (limited) circumstances in which they may be useful in safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children be clarified.
As well as informal discussions with staff, feedback at SCR briefings and management meetings, a review of cases identified that they are too heavily relied on as a means of attempting to put controls and boundaries around both individual's and family behaviours. This guidance is aimed at supporting staff in the appropriate use of written agreements and to avoid drift towards their inappropriate or dangerous use.
Planning to meet children's needs and to improve outcomes for them is an important aspect of work.
The analysis and decisions making which follow an assessment of the child and family will form the basis of any plan.
All children worked with through the Authority should have a plan in place.
2. Written Agreements or Written Undertaking
It is important to distinguish between a written agreement and a written undertaking.
A written agreement is a partnership document which aims to clarify the detail of and sign up to a plan or a particular aspect of a plan.
A written agreement is both a formal record of an agreement to cooperate and an essential working tool in safeguarding children. It is not legally binding and only applies when all parties agree and sign up to the actions recorded. The standard template should always be used and should be signed by all parties as the document does not constitute an Agreement unless all parties agree and sign up to the actions recorded.
A written undertaking is a means of obtaining evidence that a person has agreed to do or not do something. Written undertakings should only be used in emergencies and for short periods (hours/days) and when the practitioner judges that the individual is likely to comply, even if they do not like it e.g. a grandparent who has temporarily assumed care of a child agreeing not to allow unsupervised contact with a parent for the duration of a Child Protection Assessment/Section 47 Enquiry.
3. When to Use a Working Agreement
There are a number of situations when it is necessary to record an agreement between a parent/carer, Children's Services and other parties. These situations may include the details of contact for a child looked after or any requirements of parents or carers over and above those that will be detailed in the child protection, care or Child's Plan. A written agreement should only be used while the case remains open to Social Care.
4. When Not to Use a Working Agreement
There are some situations when written agreement should not be used. This will include situations when there is evidence that a parent or carer has failed to cooperate in the past, where there are global or long standing concerns or where the concerns relate to contact with a sex offender.
In some cases where an agreement might otherwise be appropriate, if one or more of the parties should refuse to sign, there can be no agreement with the person or persons concerned, and compulsory intervention may be needed. In these circumstances, legal advice should be obtained.
5. Good Reasons to Use a Written Agreement
- To provide family members and professionals with clarity about the detail of what they have agreed or are being required to do;
- To clarify what has already been agreed or particular aspects of it;
- To clarify the aim or goal of work/planned actions;
- To clarify timescales for work/planned actions;
- To clarify the consequences of success and failure of planned actions;
- To clarify what the contingency plan(s) is/are.
6. Bad Reasons to Use a Written Agreement
- To coerce individuals to behave in ways which they are reluctant or refusing to do. Coercion is sometimes required and appropriate but should be pursued in other more effective ways;
- As an attempt to put controls around a situation which has been out of control. Remember, it is only a piece of paper;
- To reassure concerned professionals and managers that a concerning situation is being appropriately addressed;
- Because a previous written agreement has been broken or reneged on;
- Because other attempts at control (legal orders, child protection planning) have been sought but not obtained. In these circumstances, a written agreement could provide a dangerous illusion of compliance.
7. Before a Written Agreement is Started
- Discussion of all aspects of what might go into the agreement should be undertaken with all participants before anything is committed to paper; do not start with a draft drawn up by a professional because the likelihood of 'ownership' by service users and other professionals will be reduced;
- Explain and discuss why a written agreement could help;
- Consider how the actions specified will impact on the child or young person;
- Explore participants' willingness, confidence and capacity in the proposed written agreement: Do they want to do it? Do they think it will work? Do they have the resources to make it work?
- Decide what all participants are committing to, not just family members. Include any input or support which professionals are going to provide as well as expectations of family members.
After doing all of the above, nominate one or two participants (if two, one should be a family member and one a professional) to produce a draft for everyone to subsequently discuss before signing; involving family in this way promotes ownership and compliance.
8. Good Written Agreements
- Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-limited;
- Balanced - clarifying everyone's full undertakings;
- Clear about their aim/goal;
- Consistent with and usually based upon other existing plans e.g. Child Protection Plans, Care Plans, Family Group Conference plans;
- Clear about the consequences of failure to deliver, for family members and professionals;
- Clear about contingencies;
- Written in clear language without jargon, acronyms or abbreviations;
- Clear about when they will be reviewed.
Written agreements are only effective if they are monitored rigorously, breaches dealt with quickly and the specified consequences of compliance or non-compliance implemented. All members of the group of professionals working with the family can contribute to the written agreement and should hold a copy securely on their records.
9. Legal Advice and Advocacy
The agreement stands from the time it is signed by parent or carers. All parties may wish to obtain legal advice; this should be undertaken within five working days. Parents have the right to involve an advocate in any meeting where a written agreement is made.
Written Agreements must be countersigned and dated by a Team Manager.
If for any reason an address must remain confidential and not put on the Agreement document, it should read 'Address is confidential and kept on Children's Services files'.
10. Failure to Co-operate
All parties should abide by the actions agreed.
Children's Service's has a responsibility to inform carers of the consequences of not adhering to the agreement. Any failures or breech of the written agreement must be followed up and the specific consequences of non-compliance implemented.
Equally Children's Services and other parties to the agreement also have a responsibility to comply. Parents and carers should be informed of their right to complain if agency representatives fail to adhere to actions they have agreed to.
11. Involving the Child or Young Person
Consideration should be given to sharing the written agreement with the child or young person so that they can be clear about what has been agreed. It may also be appropriate for a young person to contribute to creating the agreement and to sign the agreement.
12. Reviewing the Working Agreement
Any agreement should be subject to review; this may be possible through core group, statutory or Child's Plan review. Where particular actions are no longer required or where new actions are indicated the working agreement should be re-written.
All Working Agreements, including amended ones, prepared in a case, should be sequentially numbered for ease of reference.