Helping Birmingham Families Early: The 'Signs of Safety and Wellbeing' Practice Framework

The authors discuss the Signs of Safety and Wellbeing framework that has been introduced into Birmingham's early help services. This paper discusses the theoretical basis of Signs of Safety and how and why it is being used in Birmingham.

  • Authors Tony Stanley, Karol Keenan, Dawn Roberts and Richard Moore
  • Child Care in Practice, (February 2017)

Birmingham is a large urban authority with 1.2 million residents that experiences economic and social deprivation. There is a rising demand for early help services. This is taking place against a backdrop of reduced services and shrinking budgets.

Before Signs of Safety was introduced, more than 80 different assessment tools were being used across early help services in the city. This meant that families had to regularly repeat their situation each time a new service was engaged. Implementing Signs of Safety across the city provides a more coherent and consistent approach for families. It means that there is a shared language about strengths, relationships, needs and risk, which can be discussed collaboratively across different services. It therefore helps practitioners to reach confident and rigorous decisions.

Practice framework

For many families, receiving help is welcomed and can make a difference to their lives. The problem for some families is that requests for help can turn into assessments of need that are dominated by a focus on risks. Working with risk can lead to practitioner anxiety and an increase in referrals to statutory services.

The Signs of Safety approach is a strengths-based practice framework that emphasises the importance of identifying the child and family's view about their lived experience. How people interpret and describe their experiences are a powerful resource for practitioners to help bring about change.

The Signs of Safety framework helps practitioners to map out the needs and worries of the child and family. The one-page template contains a range of practice tools and a simple scaling question to help practitioners map out:

  • What we are worried about?
  • What's working well?
  • What needs to happen?

The framework promotes working with family support networks in helping with the family's issues and problems. The initial focus is on what is working well, who is around and what they might offer to help. This is followed by an exploration of the family's worries and problems and how these are affecting the family situation.

The scaling tool helps to initiate conversations and establish the views of different family members, who are asked to help co-produce the solutions needed. Families are clear on what needs to happen and why. Because they are actively involved in finding solutions, they are likely to be invested in making the changes that are needed.

The framework is not designed to stop families progressing to statutory services, or to reduce the services offered to families, when these are needed. It is aimed at improving the analysis of a case to help decision-making. If a referral to statutory services is needed, the family will be clear about the reasons, as will the allocated social worker.

Implications for practice

A number of challenges to implementation were identified: using the approach on a city wide basis; the cross-disciplinary nature of early help work; and identifying the impact of the approach. The paper does not discuss how these challenges have been addressed.

Support from leaders and ongoing support for staff are key to successful implementation. Practitioners need to understand that the framework is an overarching guide and that family involvement is a key principle.

The framework helps families understand what is needed, the role they can play and the role that services might play. The one-page template provides a visual representation of what is needed, who is helping and how long it is expected to take. This helps practitioners write clearer, purposeful and meaningful support plans. It should also mean that fewer referrals to children's social care are needed as early help practitioners become more confident in managing risk.

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on early help. Click here for more

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