Assessing parenting capacity
What's Important To Us
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 will remain in, or return to, their parent’s care has a significant impact on the outcomes for the child and their family. 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 and plans to meet the child’s current and future needs and to make sure we stay child-centred at all times.
Undertaking an assessment of parenting capacity involves determining whether or not a parent is able or has the potential to safely parent their child. The assessment seeks to develop an understanding of their strengths and vulnerabilities as a parent and the strengths and vulnerabilities that exist within the parent-child relationship, and their ability to meet the child's individual needs, adequately meet the child's basic safety and emotional needs (i.e. are they capable of providing 'good enough' parenting?), 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.- their ability to seek and
What guides an assessment of parenting capacity?
Any assessment of parenting capacity will be guided by Child, Youth and Family’s Assessment Framework and Family Strengths and Risks Assessment. The Assessment Framework highlights the key areas that contribute to achieving safety, permanency and wellbeing for children and young people, while the Family Strengths and Risks Assessment identifies areas of strength and protection along with issues which still require attention. When used together in the context of a parenting capacity assessment, the assessment framework and family strengths and risks assessment provide a comprehensive overview of the parent’s situation as well as indicating where things are going well and where things could be improved.
When do I assess parenting capacity?
Assessing parenting capacity is something you will find yourself doing from your very first meeting with a parent, as part of your investigation or child and family assessment. As you get to know the parent and learn about their history, current situation, skills, competence and hopes for the future, you are gathering the information you need in order to assess their parenting capacity.
There are also certain points during your work with a family where assessing parenting capacity will require a more in-depth and comprehensive approach:
- when evaluating the safety of a child in their parent’s care
- when considering removing a child (including unborn children) from their parent’s care
- if a child is already in care and the plan is for the child to be returned home
- if a child is not returning home and the suitability of the parent to have on-going contact (of any type) with the child needs to be assessed.
How do I assess parenting capacity?
Assessing parenting capacity involves a five-pronged approach:
1. Review of records/history
When assessing parenting capacity it is important to evaluate currently held information as well as evaluate new information. What do we already know about the parent? 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 dynamics and relationships between family members so that you know where everyone fits.
2. Interviews with the parent/s
Think about the number of interviews you will need to complete and plan your approach with your supervisor. A parent 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 a parent will likely always answer questions or act in a way that portrays them in the most positive light (Budd & Holdsworth, 1996).
A parenting couple (i.e. mother and father) should be interviewed together and separately. Being interviewed together helps you see their interaction with each other while separate interviews allow a parent to provide information they may have withheld in the presence of the other parent. Is one parent 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 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 Child, Youth and Family office but this may represent a power imbalance to the parent.
The length of interview sessions is important – parents 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 parenting ability. Also, when English is not the parent’s first language or there are doubts about their use of the English language, make arrangements for a translator and enable the family to communicate in their first language.
3. Interview with the child
Take every opportunity to gain the child’s view of their parent, either on their own or with support from another adult, sibling or close friend. How does the child describe their parent’s behaviour, how they react, how they play, and how they talk with them? Bear in mind that the child may feel pressured or be coerced into providing overly positive feedback about the parent. In some cases, the child may simply be unable to directly express how they feel. Children 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, particularly as your final assessment report may be shared with the parents. If the child has given you information that might put them at risk from their parent, 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 well, such as whānau, friends, caseworkers, medical professionals and employers “can provide a rich source of direct information about parent and child functioning” (Haynes, 2010). This information is also useful in terms of providing details about the parent’s strengths, vulnerabilities and progress, and confirming or countering claims made by the parent (Budd, 2005). Try to obtain parental permission to contact these people; if a parent is reluctant to provide permission, this may indicate issues about transparency on the part of the parent. Also ensure that the people you talk to are aware that comments they make may end up in your report.
5. Observation of parent-child interactions
Observing the parent and child 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’s attempts to demonstrate their best parenting skills (Budd, 2005). It is best if observations occur in a place familiar to the parent and child.
You may set up structured tasks for the family which create a moderate degree of stress (i.e. 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 and child, you need to look for the following:
- Do the parent and child ignore each other?
- Does either constantly demand the others’ attention?
- To what extent do they talk, listen and make eye contact?
- Does the parent respond appropriately to their child’s demands for attention, or do they appear distracted, uninterested or annoyed when the child tries to engage them?
- Is the parent’s need for control or to express affection so intrusive that they can’t allow the child to explore freely or play independently?
- Are the parent’s expectations of the child reasonable or excessive?
- Does the parent let the child speak for them, or do they always try to answer for them?
- Does the parent limit inappropriate behaviour or do they use strategies to manage it?
- If asked to set appropriate limits, can the parent do so effectively and without confrontation and/or excessive harshness? (Steinhauser, 1991).
Also look out for signs that the child appears anxious or watchful in the presence of their parent, and listen to how the parent describes their child and their child’s needs.
Completing an assessment of parenting capacity 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 and attach a completion date to each one. Review your plan regularly with your supervisor to keep yourself on track. Keep your plan realistic and feasible – don’t give yourself timeframes which are too tight or completely unachievable.
Remember that there are timeframes set around how long it is expected to take you to complete a child and family assessment or investigation – your assessment of parenting capacity needs to tie in with these.
Areas to explore in your assessment of parenting capacity
Using the ‘parenting capacity’ side of the Assessment Framework, alongside the Family Strengths and Risks Assessment, consider the following areas:
- How has the parent managed to keep going, even when obstacles have been put in their way?
- Do they have the flexibility and inner strength to bounce back when things aren’t going well?
- What helps them cope with everyday life?
- Are there any health factors that impact on their ability to cope?
- What are the primary stressors in their life?
- How do they manage stress?
- What are their specific coping strategies?
Parenting skills and knowledge
- What is the parent’s experience of care from their own parents?
- Do they wish this had been different? How?
- What impact have their own experiences had on their current parenting skills and knowledge?
- What personality traits affect their parenting?
- Does the parent consider their parenting style to be rigid or flexible? Keep in mind that parents should be firm over issues where they feel parental control is necessary, but flexible and responsive in other situations.
- How does the parent praise, encourage and reward the child?
- What is their sensitivity to the child’s cues?
- Do they know what makes their child happy/sad/afraid?
- Do they interact in developmentally appropriate ways with the child?
- Do they discipline the child in ways that are appropriate to their age and developmental stage?
- What is the parent’s ability to provide the child’s basic physical care needs?
- How is the parent anticipating the child’s physical requirements as they grow older?
- Is the nature of the parent’s physical contact with the child warm and affectionate, or overly punitive and abusive?
- In what ways does the parent provide safety to the child and protect them from harm and dangerous situations (i.e. self-harm, contact with unsafe adults or children, hazards in the home)?
- What are the child’s particular areas of vulnerability?
- What is the parent’s ability to cope with these areas of vulnerability?
- Keep asking yourself what is happening for this child, and what is it like for the child growing up in this home environment?
Attachment and bonding
- A secure attachment between a parent and their child requires the presence of a warm and caring relationship, and a parent who is consistently available.
- Understanding the parent’s own experience of attachment as they grew up will help inform their ability to develop a secure attachment with their own child.
- How is the parent able to provide the child with a stable family environment which will meet all of their needs?
Willingness and capacity
- Is the parent able to accept responsibility for their role in any abuse or neglect towards their child?
- Discuss each incident of concern, including injuries, in detail with the parent.
- What is their understanding of how the incident occurred?
- Does the parent blame others for their behaviour or minimise their actions? Remember, denial of responsibility for injuries or a refusal to accept concerns is a negative indicator to safe care in the future.
- A parent who recognises they can be a better parent is more likely to be motivated to, and capable of, change. What would the parent change about their parenting if they could? How much of a gap is there between the parent’s ‘ideal’ self and their real self?
Factors impacting on safe parenting
- Ongoing stress
- Substance abuse – e.g. drugs (prescription and illegal), alcohol
- Relationship instability (with partner/spouse, parents, siblings, wider whānau, friends, neighbours, etc)
- Mental illness
- Lack of social support
- Failure to put their child’s needs first: Is the parent happy in their parenting role? Do they speak positively about the child? Can they see things from the child’s perspective? Does the child have a particular meaning (positive, negative or otherwise) to the parent? Is the child perceived as easy to care for or as a burden?
- The nature, context, frequency and severity of offences: Is the parent remorseful for their actions? How would they handle things differently if they were able to do things over? What is different in their life now compared to when the offending occurred? How have they evidenced change? If part of a parenting couple, how open are they to sharing details with each other about their past offences?
Guidance and supervision
- Parents need to role-model appropriate behaviour, control their emotions, and set appropriate boundaries so their child can develop an internal model of values and behaviour appropriate to the society in which they will grow up.
- How does the parent encourage/teach their child to problem solve?
- How does the parent encourage/teach their child to manage their anger? How does the parent encourage/teach their child to have consideration for others?
Bringing it all together
Once you have gathered the information you need for your assessment summarise your findings and enter them in the Family Strengths and Risks Assessment tool in CYRAS. Remember to record where the information came from and how you came to your finding. How exactly do you know that mum and dad’s parenting abilities have improved? What have you observed during mum and dad’s interactions with their children? What have they told you? What have other people seen? What have their children told you? Use the scales to identify where you think things sit currently. Even though assessments of parenting capacity are a ‘snapshot in time’, your findings need to address the capacity of the parent/s over the long term as opposed to what the parent might be able to do in the short-term with supervision and supports (Conley, 2003).
Once you have finished writing up your assessment, get together with your supervisor and social work colleagues to complete a Child & Family consult to help you formulate your next steps. Make sure you bring to the meeting the last Child & 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’s strengths and how these translate into protective factors and safety for their child, and also to what tips the parent’s vulnerabilities over to risk.
When deciding on the next steps, bear in mind that parents 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 to complete a few at a time. If you are recommending the child doesn’t remain or return home, be clear with the parent about why you have said this and what the next steps are. If you are recommending the child returns to the parent’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. Refer to Key Information: Returning children safely home and Key Information: Supporting young people to return home safely for more details.
Remember that your assessment will likely be shown to the parent so it needs to be written in a way that is clear, concise, jargon-free and, above all, child-centred.
When specialist help is needed
The child’s social worker is often in the best position to assess parenting capacity given their knowledge of the family and the family’s history, including both the family’s strengths and areas of vulnerability. In cases where the engagement between you and the parent has been challenging and impacted on your relationship, or the parent presents with complex issues (i.e. mental ill-health, learning difficulties, severe drug and alcohol dependence), it may be more appropriate for parenting capacity to be assessed by someone other than yourself – perhaps another social worker or even a psychologist. Talk to your supervisor about who might be best to take on the role if it isn’t you.
- While a parent may be able to successfully parent one child, the nature or demands of another child could be beyond that parent’s capacity. Your assessment needs to consider the parent and each child along with that child’s specific needs.
- Your personal judgement regarding appropriate parenting standards can have a significant impact on the assessment outcome. It is therefore really important that you examine and make explicit the values that underpin your work, and that you 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 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.
- Assessment is an ongoing process – it starts from our first engagement with a family and only ends when we have formed the belief that there are no longer any safety concerns for the child or young person in their living situation.
For further information about assessing parenting capacity, go to the April 2011 edition of Social Work Now.
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.