Communicating the value of evidence

I presented at a couple of conferences over the last few weeks about my BERRI system. And I was struck, once again, by how little weight is given to evidence when it comes to services that are commissioned in the social care sector. Various glossy marketing claims and slick consultants were successfully persuading commissioners and service managers that it was equivalent to use their systems and “metrics” (in which people gave entirely subjective ratings on various arbitrarily chosen variables) to using validated outcome measures. By validated outcome measures, I mean questionnaires or metrics that have been developed through a methodical process and validated with scientific rigour that explores whether they are measuring the right things, whether they are measuring them reliably, whether those measures are sensitive to change, and whether the results are meaningful. A pathway that then leads to an established scientific process of critical appraisal when those studies are presented at conferences, published and made subject to peer review.

But outside of the academic/scientific community it is very hard to prove that having a proper process is worth the time and investment it takes. It means that you are running a much longer race than those who work without evidence. At one event last week, I asked a question of a consultancy firm making hundreds of thousands of pounds out of “improving children’s social care outcomes”, about their basis for what they chose to measure, how they measure it, and how they had validated their claims. The answer was that they were confident that they were measuring the right things, and that having any kind of scientific process or validation would slow down their ability to make impact (aka profit). My answer was that without it there was no evidence they were making any impact.

They couldn’t see that their process of skipping to the doing bit was equivalent to thinking that architects, structural drawings, planning permission and buildings regulation control slow down building houses, and selling houses they’d built without all that burdensome process. Thinking anyone can build a house (or a psychometric measure to track outcomes) feels like an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the idea that those with the least knowledge overestimate their knowledge the most. But the worst thing was that those commissioning couldn’t see the difference either. They find the language of evidence to be in the domain of academics and clinicians, and don’t understand it, or its importance. We are in an age where expertise is dismissed in favour of messages that resonate with a populist agenda, and it seems that this even applies when commissioning services that affect the outcomes of vulnerable population groups. I don’t know how we change this, but we need to.

For those who don’t know, I’ve been working on BERRI for 12 years now, on and off, with the goal of being able to map the needs of complex children and young people, such as those living in public care, in a way that is meaningful, sensitive to change and helps those caring for them to meet those needs better. For as long as I’ve worked with Looked After children, there has been a recognition of the fact that this population does worse in life along a wide range of metrics, and a desire to improve outcomes for them for both altruistic and financial reasons. Since Every Child Matters in 2003, there have been attempts to improve outcomes, defined with aspirations in five areas of functioning:

  • stay safe
  • be healthy
  • enjoy and achieve
  • make a positive contribution
  • achieve economic well-being

A lot of services, the one that I led included, tried to rate children on each of these areas, and make care plans that aimed to help them increase their chances in each area. Each was supposed to be associated with a detailed framework of how various agencies can work together to achieve it. However, whilst the goals are worthy, they are also vague, and it is hard to give any objective score of how much progress a young person is making along each target area. And in my specific area of mental health and psychological wellbeing they had nothing specific to say.

As with so much legislation, Every Child Matters was not followed up by the following government, and with the move of children’s social care into the Department for Education, the focus shifted towards educational attainments as a metric of success. But looking primarily at educational attendance and attainments has several problems. Firstly it assumes that children in Care are in all other ways equivalent to the general population with which they are compared (when in fact in many ways they are not, having both disproportionate socioeconomic adversity and disproportionate exposure to trauma and risk factors, as well as much higher incidence of neurodevelopmental disorder and learning disability). Secondly it limits the scope of consideration to the ages in which education is happening (primarily 5-18, but in exceptional circumstances 3-21) rather than the whole life course. Thirdly it doesn’t look at the quality of care that is being received – which has important implications for how we recruit, select and support the workforce of foster carers and residential care staff, and what expectations we have of placement providers (something I think critical, given we are spending a billion pounds a year on residential care placements, and more on secure provision, fostering agencies and therapy services that at the moment don’t have to do very much at all to show they are effective, beyond providing food, accommodation, and ensuring educational attendance). Finally, it masks how important attachment relationships, and support to improve mental health are in this population. I can see that strategically it makes sense for politicians and commissioners not to measure this need – they don’t want to identify mental health needs that services are not resourced to meet – but that is significantly failing the children and young people involved.

In my role as a clinician lead for a LAC service within CAMHS, I kept finding that children were being referred with behaviour problems, but underlying that were significant difficulties with attachment, and complex trauma histories. I was acutely aware that my service was unable to meet demand, leading us to need some system to prioritise referrals, and that there was a lot of ambiguity about what was in the remit of CAMHS and what was in the remit of social care. I wasn’t alone in that dilemma. There were a lot of defensive boundaries going on in CAMHS around the country, rejecting referrals that did not indicate a treatable mental health condition, even if the child had significant behavioural or emotional difficulties. The justification was that many children were making a normal response to abnormal experiences, and that CAMHS clinicians didn’t want to pathologise this or locate it like an organic condition inside the child, so it should best be dealt with as a social care issue.

On the other hand, I was mindful of the fact that this population have enormous mental health needs, having disproportionately experienced the Adverse Childhood Experiences that are known to lead to adverse mental and physical health outcomes. Research done by many of my peers has shown that two thirds to three quarters of Looked After children and young people score over 17 on the SDQ (the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire – the government mandated and CORC recommended measure for screening mental health need in children) meaning they should be eligible for a CAMH service, and various research studies have shown that 45% of LAC have a diagnosable mental health condition, but the resources are not available to meet that need. As The Mental Health Foundation’s 2002 review entitled “Mental Health of Looked After Children” put it:

Research shows that looked-after children generally have greater mental health needs than other young people, including a significant proportion who have more than one condition and/or a serious psychiatric disorder (McCann et al, 1996). But their mental health problems are frequently unnoticed or ignored. There is a need for a system of early mental health assessment and intervention for looked-after children and young people, including those who go on to be adopted.

My initial goal was to develop a new questionnaire to cover the mental health and psychological wellbeing issues that this population were experiencing, as well as considering attachment/trauma history and the child’s ability to trust others and form healthy relationships, and the behaviours that these often expressed through. I was also interested in what issues determined the type of placement given to a child, and the risk of placement breakdown, as well as what opened doors to specialist services such as therapy, and whether those services and interventions really made any difference. I therefore ran two focus groups to explore what concerns carers and professionals had about Looked After children and young people, and asked them about what they saw that might indicate a mental health problem, or any related concerns that led people to want my input, or that caused placements to wobble or break down. One group contained foster carers and the professional networks around them (link workers, children’s social workers, the nurse who did the LAC medicals, service managers) and one contained residential care workers and the professional networks around them (home managers, children’s social workers, the nurse who did the LAC medicals, service managers). I wrote their responses down on flip-charts, and then I sorted them into themes.

I had initially thought that it might cluster as behavioural and emotional, or internalising and externalising, but my items seemed more complex than that. In the end there were five themes that emerged:

  • Behaviour
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Risk (to self and others)
  • Relationships/attachments
  • Indicators (of psychiatric or neurodevelopmental conditions)

The first letters gave me the name for the scale: BERRI. I then piloted the scale with various carers, and then with a group of clinical psychologists involved with CPLAAC (the national network within the British Psychological Society that contained about 300 Clinical Psychologists working with Looked After and Adopted Children that I was chair of for about six years). I then added a life events checklist to set the issues we were identifying in context.

The working group I chaired in 2007 on the state of outcome measurement for Looked After and adopted children (on the invitation of CORC) came to the conclusion that no suitable metrics were available or widely used. We therefore agreed to further develop and validate the various tools that members of the group had home brewed, including my BERRI. There was acknowledgement that it takes a lot of work to develop a new psychometric instrument in a valid way, but a consensus that this needed to be done. So I resolved to find a way to follow that proper process to validate and norm BERRI, despite the lack of any funding, ring-fenced time or logistical support to do so. The first challenge was to collect enough data to allow me to analyse the items on the measure, and the five themes I had sorted them into. But I didn’t have the resources to run a research trial and then enter all the data into a database.

My way around this barrier was to get my peers to use the measure and give me their data. To do this I took advantage of some of the technically skilled people in my personal network and developed a website into which people could type anonymous BERRI scores and receive back a report with the scores and some generic advice about how to manage each domain. I tested this out and found my peers were quite enthused about it. We then had a formal pilot phase, where 750 BERRIs were completed by Clinical Psychologists about children and young people they were working with. I then talked about it with some young people and care leavers to check that they felt the areas we were covering were relevant and helpful to know about*. Then I started to use the system in a large pilot with residential care providers and developed tools to focus in on particular concerns as goals to work on, and track them day by day or week by week, as well as creating tools to give managers an overview of the progress of the children in their care. We’ve had a lot of feedback about how useful and game-changing the system is, and how it has the potential to revolutionise various aspects of commissioning and decision-making in children’s social care.

But I really wanted the process to be one in which we were truly scientific and based our claims on evidence. I’ve never marketed the BERRI or made claims about what it can do until very recently, when I finally reached a point where we had evidence to substantiate some modest claims**. But to me the process is critical and there is still a long way to go in making the data as useful as it can be. So from day one a process of iterative research was built in to the way we developed BERRI. As soon as it was being used by large numbers of services and we had collected a large data set we were able to look closely at how the items were used, the factor structure, internal consistency and which variables changed over time. We ran a series of validity and reliability analyses including correlations with the SDQ, Conners, and the child’s story – including ACEs, placement information and various vulnerability factors in the child’s current situation. But even then I worried about the bias, so a doctoral student is now running an independent study of inter-rater reliability and convergent/divergent validity across 42 children’s homes.

BERRI will always be developed hand in hand with research, so that there is an ongoing process of refining our outputs in light of the data. For example, it seems that it might be meaningful to look at two aspects of “Relationships” being distinct from each other. If the evidence continues to show this, we will change the way we generate the reports from the data to talk about social skills deficits and attachment difficulties separately in our reports. We might also tweak which items fall into which of the five factors. We also want to check that the five factor model is not based on the a priori sorting of the items into the five headings, so we are planning a study in which the item order is randomised on each use to repeat our factor analysis. We also want to explore whether there are threshold scores in any factor or critical items within factors that indicate which types of placements are required or predict placement breakdown. We might also be able to model CSE risk.

The results to date have been really exciting. I have begun to present them at conferences and we are currently preparing them to submit for publication. For example, I am currently writing up a paper about the ADHD-like presentation so many traumatised children have, and how we have learnt from our BERRI research that this reflects early life ACEs priming readiness for fight-or-flight rather than proximal events or a randomly distributed organic condition. But the findings depend on all the groundwork of how BERRI was developed, our rigorous validation process and the data we have collected. It is the data that gives us the ability to interpret what is going on, and to give advice at the individual and organisational level.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m somewhat cynical about systems that request a subjective likert rating of five domains from Every Child Matters, or an equally subjective score out of 100 for twelve domains pulled from the personal experience of the consultant when working in children’s social care services, that then claim to be able to map needs and progress without any validation of their methodology, areas to rate, sensitivity to change or the meaning of their scores. Having gone through the process the long way might put me at a commercial disadvantage, rather than going straight to marketing, but I like my houses built on the foundations of good evidence. I can feel confident that the load bearing beams will keep the structure sound for a lifetime when they are placed with precision and underpinned by the calculations and expertise of architects, structural engineers, surveyors and buildings control, rather than cobbled together as quickly as possible, marketed with amorphous claims and sold on rapidly to anyone who will pay for them. After all, I’m not in it to make a quick buck. I know my work is a slow and cumulative thing, and BERRI still has a long way to go before it can create the greatest impact. But my goals are big: I want to improve outcomes for children and young people who have experienced adversity, and I want that impact to influence the whole culture of children’s social care provision in the UK and to continue to be felt through the generations. And to do that, I need to build the thing properly.

*I’m still intending to act on the advice to also have a strengths scale to recognise resilience and positive factors, so that it doesn’t feel like we see the children purely as a list of problems. However, I didn’t want to duplicate the work of others, so I am following up a potentially exciting lead in terms of a collaboration with the Mulberry Bush School, who have explored the positive factors they have seen as markers of progress in their environment.
** that carers, therapists and managers find it useful and easy to use, that using the BERRI pathway demonstrated an improvement of 14% over 6 months for the first 125 children placed on the system, and that BERRI has the basic statistical qualities that suggest sufficient validity for use. We also have some testimonials, including a commissioner who used BERRI to map the needs of 15 high tariff children and found four suitable to move to foster or family placements with support, saving nearly half a million pounds per year from his budget – a finding we would like to replicate with a much larger study, given the opportunity.

 

 

I am not a therapist

I’ve always been someone that likes to keep busy, and has a lot of ideas about places where psychological thinking can make a positive impact. The aspect of my character that I now identify as entrepreneurial and put to good use in my business has always led me to want to try new things and create innovative solutions to problems. I like a lot of things about being a clinical psychologist, and particularly our ability to turn our hand to multiple types and levels of work. However, unlike many other clinical psychologists, I don’t really see myself as a therapist. In fact, I haven’t seen more than a handful of clients for individual therapy over the last decade, and even before that it was a pretty small proportion of my qualified jobs. I’ve always had more of a focus on the other facets of being a clinical psychologist. I think the picture of a clinical psychologist as a therapist is so strong that a lot of people will now be wondering how I fill my time!

So I will answer that question: I have done loads of highly specialist assessments (of neurodevelopmental concerns, attachment, parenting capacity, mental health, life skills, self-esteem, wellbeing etc) and lots of formulating and report-writing – some in collaboration with psychiatric or medical colleagues or within a wider MDT, but more as an external expert or second opinion. I have advised the family courts as an expert in care proceedings and complex custody disputes, and completed numerous pre-court assessments for local authorities to help inform their care planning. I’ve managed teams and services, and supervised from 2-20 other staff at a time, along with sitting in various organisational/management structures. I have designed and delivered training to parents, carers and professionals, and I have done lots of consultancy to various organisations and professionals (mainly those providing health and social care services, or involved in the family courts), and help placement providers to improve their services. I design and deliver group programs (eg Managing behaviour with attachment in mind), but then rapidly cascade train other staff to continue to deliver them. I wrote a book about attachment/developmental trauma, and lots of papers and policy documents about Looked After children, and acting as an expert witness to the family court. I sat on a BPS committee and I contributed to NICE and SCIE guidelines. I’ve designed, managed and evaluated therapy services (but employed others at lower bands to deliver the therapy). I’ve been an expert advisor to the HCPC in a fitness to practice case and to the team investigating a death in public care. I’ve done loads of practice-led research about each client group I’ve worked with, from looking at the psychological and health economic impacts of offering brief therapy to hospital users with diabetes, to commissioned evaluations of other services. So I have plenty to fill my days despite not having a therapy caseload!

I have reflected on why it is that I don’t feel drawn to therapy, and reached the conclusion that, whilst I see it as a very worthwhile endeavour, I don’t really have the patience for resolving difficulties one person at a time over sessions spanning many months. I’m always more interested in grappling with the bigger questions of why people are in distress, and what we can do to most effectively prevent or ameliorate those difficulties. When I’ve solved the riddle (or at least, reached a plan that improves upon existing solutions) I like to evaluate its efficacy, modify it if necessary and then disseminate the learning and/or train others to replicate the solution. I try to step outwards from the individual issue to the broader themes and ways that we can intervene on a wider scale. To use a visual metaphor, if dealing with mental health problems is like bailing out a ship, then rather than scooping out water one cup at a time, I am trying to work out how to plug the leaks, and to design boats that won’t have the same vulnerabilities to leakage in the future. It also helps me to avoid feeling hopeless about factors outside my control and demand exceeding supply, or burned out by an accumulation of traumatic stories.

Jenny Taylor, a past chair of the Division of Clinical Psychology, once described our profession as the structural engineers of the therapy world. Unlike a therapist trained in a single modality of therapy, we can survey the landscape and assess the need, then design the intervention that best meets that need – even if we are not always best placed to deliver it. We can base that recommendation on our knowledge of the current evidence base, which can change as new information comes to light.  If we consider the challenges people face as a river they need to cross, a therapist trained in a single model of therapy might be a bridge-maker. A psychodynamic therapist might be a mason who can build traditional stone bridges and claims that this design best stands the test of time. A CBT therapist might be a carpenter with a set of designs for wooden arched bridges that he claims are cheaper and quicker to erect. Each sees their own skill as either suitable to solve the challenge or not, but also has some incentive to sustain their own livelihood by continuing their tradition. A clinical psychologist can survey the land either side of the river, the span length required to cross it, and the materials available in the locality. They can then advise on the various options, including the relative costs and the evidence of how they fare in different conditions. They may or may not feel that bridge required is within their own skill-set to erect, but have a reasonable overview of other bridgebuilders in the area to recommend. If new designs of metal suspension bridges are developed, this is not threatening to the structural engineer, who can adjust their recommendations to incorporate the emerging evidence base.

I really like this metaphor and strongly identify with the role of structural engineer rather than bridgebuilder. I had always thought that this was instilled in me by my first graduate job, where I was an assistant psychologist on a research project about improving quality of life in residential care homes for older people, and I could see how the research and clinical work were closely tied together and built on each other reciprocally. But now I think my love of data and the scientific method runs deeper than that and I can see it infused throughout my whole approach to life since childhood. When it comes to my work I am a scientist practitioner down to my bones, as I always collect data as I go along. Where I don’t feel like I understand the situation well enough, I first look to the literature and then to gathering data and doing my own analysis to try to gain insight. When I develop something new to try, wherever possible I try to evaluate what we are doing, and refine it through an iterative process until we can prove maximum efficacy. I see that process as being part of the USP of a clinical psychologist – that we think like scientists and gather data to inform our interventions.

But I’m not sure that we communicate this mindset well enough, or that it is universal amongst the profession. It certainly isn’t what draws people into the profession in my experience. Too many clinical course application forms I review could be paraphrased as “I want to learn to be a good therapist” with an afterthought of “and do/use research” because they think that is what selectors want to hear – but in my view therapy can be done by lots of cheaper professionals, who might do an equally if not better job of it. I believe that clinical psychologists should be more than well paid therapists. We should know the evidence base and be able to take on the most complex assessments and formulations (even if others then deliver part or all of the treatment) but also to be able to develop, refine and evaluate novel therapeutic interventions, supervise other staff, improve services, consult, train and manage – things that extend beyond the skillset of most therapists. I’m sure it is clear by now that this is where my own interests lie. And I think it shows through in everything I do.

For example, when I was asked to lead the CAMHS service providing neurodevelopmental assessments I started with a literature review and current policy and best practice guidance. I then conducted an audit of the existing pathways, then tried to make things better. We set up a new clinic system with more rapid throughput and more thorough assessments, and then re-audited showing a reduction from an average of 18 months of input to five, with increased clinician confidence in the service and higher client satisfaction. I also wrote a booklet to help provide the information to parents whose child received a diagnosis of an Autistic Spectrum Condition. Although it required dedicated clinician time for the multi-disciplinary clinic and for the psychometric assessments generated, overall the new pathway freed up capacity because less cases were being held open by other clinicians whilst waiting for assessment, or kept open for prolonged periods afterwards to help the family understand the diagnosis and connect up to local sources of support.  I also sat on a multiagency strategy group to look at establishing best practice standards for the county.

I had the same approach when I was asked to support the adoption and permanence service. I initially set up a consultancy clinic, where social workers could bring cases to discuss or book in families to see jointly. I found that I was explaining similar information about attachment, trauma and neuroscience to multiple professionals, parents and carers in the consultations. So I designed a group to share this content. I called it “Managing Behaviour with Attachment in Mind”, and developed some “doodles” I would draw on flipchart paper to explain the concepts more accessibly. I evaluated the impact and showed it to be an effective format for supporting parents in this situation. The groups were popular and over-subscribed, so I trained others to deliver the group to keep up with demand, first in my service and then more widely. Many people in the groups liked to photograph the doodles to remind them of the topic, so I decided to write a book to share them and Attachment: In Common Sense and Doodles was born.

But I also wanted to know about how we could achieve permanence for more children. I started by looking at the literature about what makes effective adoptive matches. Very little information was available, so I systematically audited the paperwork from 116 adoptive matches and followed them up over 7 years to see what factors influenced the placement outcomes. I was able to look at whether the innovative adoption project to place children with more complex needs had better or worse outcomes, and was able to explore the impact of different motivations for adopting. Whilst to me this was just a natural process of answering the question as an evidence based practitioner, it transpired that these studies of adoption risk and resilience factors were amongst the largest ever done, and I have discovered unique findings that I really should publish*.

You could argue that I was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut by doing all this research and trying to change process when organisations are notoriously slow to change, and that I could have spent my time more productively working with more individual adoptive families. But that’s not how I’d see it. The research I did helped me to understand what the key variables are when considering whether a child can achieve permanence, what kind of family we need to look for to place them successfully, and what kinds of support might ensure that the placement succeeds. I hope that I have fed that knowledge back through my court work, and into various organisational and policy work over the last decade. I have also disseminated it at conferences. However, I would still like to spread it further, because it is my belief that such knowledge can have positive impact at multiple levels – it can help to inform individual placement decisions, service-wide strategies for helping optimal numbers of children to access permanence, and national policy about adoption.

That work led naturally on to developing our services for Looked After Children when I left the NHS and set up my own company, LifePsychol Ltd. We provide training and consulting to foster carers and residential care staff, the social care organisations that support them, and the wider professional networks surrounding them, including education and health staff, police, lawyers, magistrates and judges. As I started to get more immersed in working with children in and on the edge of Care, it led me to recognise that there was a lack of validated and reliable tools to identify the needs in these populations, no outcome measurement tools that could reliably measure change over time in a way that was sensitive to the context and type of life events these young people experience, and a dearth of clinical governance in terms of the efficacy of both placements and interventions for this group of children. That seemed shocking to me, given their highly complex needs, and massively elevated incidence of mental health problems, challenging behaviour, risk to self and others, and prevalence of intellectual or neurodevelopmental difficulties.

As well as the human cost of not being able to identify the best choices for people, it seemed unacceptable that huge amounts of money were being spent on placements and specialist services for this group without any evidence of them changing their wellbeing or life course for the better. Placements seemed to struggle to identify what to work on and how, and there was little objective indication of what defined a successful placement, beyond annual visits from Ofsted (who were predominantly focused on process and procedure). The high level of need and the lack of clinical governance in the sector has allowed various specialist therapists and services to spring up that are virtually unregulated, and many placements have adopted terms like “therapeutic” without these having a consistent definition or meaning. So I wanted to see whether I could make any headway in changing that.

Meanwhile there is pressure from the government to improve outcomes for children in public Care, because they are seen to fare badly compared to the general population of children the same age. The difficulty is that this isn’t comparing like for like – children in care have many more adversities to face, both organic and in terms of their life experiences, that mean they often deviate from the norm. For example, I found that there was a 20 point skew downwards in IQ distribution in children in residential care compared to population norms, meaning that 20-25% of children in this setting had a learning disability, compared to 2% in the general population. Likewise the incidence of Autistic Spectrum Conditions and other neurodevelopmental difficulties amongst children in Care is more than triple that in the wider population. The same is true of young offenders. If we don’t acknowledge that, then the sector is being asked to seek impossible goals and will inevitably be seen as failing, even if placements and services are performing optimally and adding a lot of value to the lives of the children they work with.

To state the obvious, children in care are not just randomly drawn from the population – by definition their needs have not been met, and this can mean both the presence of additional challenges and exposure to harm or deficits in care. I believe that to look at the needs of this population and the degree to which these are met by placements or interventions, we need to either compare them to carefully matched controls or ensure that outcomes are always considered relative to baseline. The latter seems more pragmatic. Scores for young people also need to be considered in the context of what is going on in their lives – as changes in placement, daily routine, contact arrangements, or the arrival or departure of other children from the home can make big impacts on the child’s functioning.

So I’ve been beavering away exploring these issues and developing systems to measure needs and make the data meaningful for those providing care and services. The impact might not be as obvious as delivering psychological therapy directly, but I’d like to think that over time it can improve services for thousands (or even tens of thousands) of children, and make a greater net change in the world.

 

*Maybe I’ll write more about this in a future blog. But the short version is that I have been trying to secure some funding to complete the statistical analysis and disseminate this information, and would still like to do so, so if you have any ideas or useful connections to assist with this please let me know. Failing that I hope I’ll find enough time to write a book on making better adoptive matches at some point in the future.