The Use of Safety and Risk Assessment in Child Protection Cases - California

Date: March 2021

Safety Assessment

Citation: DSS Pol. & Proc. Man. § 31-002; SDM Man. 3.0

From the policy manual: The term 'safety assessment' means documented information collected from the child(ren), caregiver, and/or collateral support persons that evaluates and determines whether there are present dangers and/or imminent threats of serious harm or maltreatment to a child, while including objective values of different cultures that will not result in a disparity of treatment services provided to all families receiving child welfare services.

From the SDM Manual: The purpose of the safety assessment is the following:

  • To help assess whether any child is likely to be in immediate danger of serious harm or maltreatment, which requires a protective intervention
  • To determine what interventions should be initiated or maintained to provide appropriate protection

Safety assessment differs from risk assessment in that it assesses the child's present danger of immediate/serious harm and the interventions currently needed to protect the child. In contrast, risk assessment looks at the likelihood of any future maltreatment.

Using the safety assessment field guide, the safety assessment process is completed for a new referral, before leaving a child in the home, or returning a child to the home during the investigation, following the initial face-to-face contact with all child victims. The safety assessment form should be completed within 2 working days of the first contact.

Each referral should have one initial assessment, completed during the first face-to-face contact with at least one child victim in the household where there are allegations. However, if there are allegations in two households within a single referral, there may be two initial safety assessments.

Factors that may be addressed in the safety assessment include the following:

  • Caregiver complicating behaviors, including evidence that one or more caregivers are experiencing substance abuse, mental health concerns, domestic violence, or cognitive/developmental or physical health concerns
  • Household strengths and protective actions, including protective capacities that are present for any child or caregiver

Safety Decisions and Safety Planning

Citation: DSS Pol. & Proc. Man. § 31-002; SDM Man. 3.0

The term 'safety plan' means a plan for providing services to promote the health and safety of the children in a family. The safety plan shall specify the number and frequency of in-home visits required.

From the SDM Manual: The safety assessment provides structured information concerning the danger of immediate/serious harm/maltreatment to a child. This information guides the decision about whether the child may remain in the home with no intervention (safe), may remain in the home with safety interventions in place (safe with plan), or must be protectively placed (unsafe).

The following must be included in any safety plan:

  • Each safety threat that has been identified and a description of the conditions or behaviors in the home that place any child at imminent threat of serious harm, written in language the family understands so it is clear to them what caused the worker to identify the threat
  • Detailed information for each planned safety intervention, including the following:
    • What needs to happen to keep the child safe
    • How safety threat(s) will be mitigated
    • What the family will do to keep the child safe
    • What other people outside the family will do to keep the child safe
  • A written statement of actions or behaviors, to be taken by a responsible party, that will keep the child safe in the current conditions
  • Who is participating in the plan, the role of each participant, and information that describes how the safety plan will be monitored (e.g., who is responsible for each intervention action)
  • The timeframe in which each intervention will remain in place

Risk Assessment

Citation: DSS Pol. & Proc. Man. § 31-002; SDM Man. 3.0

The term 'risk assessment' means documented information collected from the child(ren), caregiver, and/or collateral support persons that evaluates the protective capacity of the caregiver, any likelihood for future maltreatment, and the age and vulnerability of a child or children, while including objective values of different cultures that will not result in a disparity of treatment services provided to all families receiving child welfare services.

From the SDM Manual: The family risk assessment identifies families with low, moderate, high, or very high probabilities of future abuse or neglect. By completing the risk assessment, the worker obtains an objective appraisal of the likelihood that a family will maltreat their child in the next 18 to 24 months. The difference between risk levels is substantial. Families classified as high risk have significantly higher rates of subsequent referral and substantiation than families classified as low risk, and they are more often involved in serious abuse or neglect incidents.

When risk is clearly defined and objectively quantified, the choice between serving one family or another is simplified: agency resources are targeted to families at higher risk because of the greater potential to reduce subsequent maltreatment.

A risk assessment will consist of the following elements:

  • Caregiver strengths and needs
  • Household context, including how the family's culture may influence or shape parenting and caregiving
  • Significant areas of family functioning that may support or impede a family's ability to provide appropriate care, as follows:
    • Resource management and the ability to meet the child's basic care needs
    • Physical health as related to the caregiver's ability to adequately parent and protect the child
    • Parenting practices, including the knowledge, skills, and abilities demonstrated by the parent or caregiver
    • A social support system that can provide concrete or emotional support
    • The quality of household and family relationships
    • Domestic violence, including physical violence or a pattern of threats/intimidation or controlling behavior between the caregiver and any adult household member
    • Substance use, including alcohol, other illegal drugs, and prescription drugs that are not used according to prescription
    • Mental health, including conditions that affect family functioning
    • Prior adverse experiences or trauma, including actual or threatened death or serious injury, a threat of serious physical harm to him/herself or others, or emotional abuse
    • Cognitive or developmental abilities, including developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, or dementia/Alzheimer's disease
  • Child strengths and needs assessment in the following domains:
    • Emotional/behavioral health
    • Trauma
    • Child development and education
    • Social and family relationships
    • Physical health/disability
    • Use of alcohol or drugs
    • Delinquency

Family Strengths and Needs Assessment to Determine Service Needs

Citation: DSS Pol. & Proc. Man., SDM Man. 3.0

The family strengths and needs assessment (FSNA) is used to evaluate the presenting strengths and barriers that caregivers encounter when trying to provide safety, permanency, and well-being for their children. This assessment is used with caregivers to collaboratively identify critical family needs that should be addressed in the case plan. This tool is used to systematically identify critical family needs that underlie safety in the family and risk of subsequent harm, and it helps plan effective interventions with the family. The FSNA serves several purposes:

  • It ensures that all social workers consistently consider each family's strengths and needs in an objective format when assessing the need for interventions that improve child/youth outcomes.
  • It provides a guide to support collaborative assessment for development of case plans by workers, supervisors, and family members that assists in identifying key areas of need and strengths and resources that can be used to increase child safety.
  • The initial strengths and needs assessment, when followed by periodic reassessments, permits family members, social workers, family support workers, and their supervisors to assess changes in family functioning together and thus assess the effects of their work together over time during the case plan service period.
  • In the aggregate, needs assessment data provide management with information on problems families face. These profiles can then be used to develop resources to meet family needs.

Ongoing Assessment to Evaluate Progress on the Service Plan

Citation: DSS Pol. & Proc. Man., SDM 3.0

Once completed, the initial assessment and the resulting case plan can be used as a foundation for ongoing conversations and periodic (monthly) assessment between the social workers and family members about progress in identified areas of need and use of identified strengths and resources to increase child/youth/young adult safety, permanency, and well-being. This ongoing assessment process, documented in the case record during the service period, then serves to inform formal reassessment tools.

The purpose of the risk reassessment is to help assess whether risk has been reduced sufficiently to allow a case to be closed, or whether the risk level remains high and services should continue. This is accomplished through evaluating whether behaviors and actions of the family have changed as a result of the case plan. The family risk reassessment combines items from the original risk assessment with additional items that evaluate a family's progress toward case plan goals.

Assessment for Reunification and/or Case Closure

Citation: DSS Pol. & Proc. Man., SDM Man. 3.0

For children in placement who have a goal of reunification, the purpose of the reunification reassessment is to help assess whether any of the following options apply:

  • Be returned home to the removal household or another household with a legal right to placement
  • Be maintained in placement while reunification services continue
  • Have a permanency alternative implemented and reunification services terminated

Following the principles of family-centered practice, the reunification reassessment is completed in conjunction with each appropriate household and begins when a case is first opened. The case plan should be shared with the household at the beginning so that the household understands what is expected. The reunification reassessment form should be shared with the household at the same time so that the family members understand exactly what will be used to evaluate reunification potential and the threshold they must reach. Specifically, the caseworker must do the following:

  • Inform the family of their original risk level and explain that this will serve as the baseline for the reunification reassessment (unless a new referral is received, in which case the new risk level will be used)
  • Explain that a new substantiated investigation or failure to progress toward case plan goals will increase their risk level, and that progress toward case plan goals will reduce their risk level
  • Explain that both the quantity and quality of their visitation with the child will be considered and that they must attend at least 65 percent of their visits, and those visits must have at least adequate quality (and provide the definition for adequate quality)
  • Provide information on the reunification safety assessment and explain that if everything else would permit reunification, the final consideration is safety

The parents must demonstrate that the safety threats that led to placement have either been mitigated or can be controlled by a safety plan and that either no safety threats are currently present or there is a safety plan in place to address any identified safety threats.

The following elements must be included:

  • A reunification risk reassessment that determines the final risk level
  • A visitation plan evaluation for each child in the household based upon the participation of the caregiver demonstrating the least progress
  • A safety assessment if required by the results of the reunification risk reassessment and visitation plan evaluation

Risk must be either low or moderate and visitation must be acceptable. The caseworker must consider how the safety threats that led to removal have been mitigated; whether additional safety threats have been identified since removal and if so, whether those threats have been mitigated; or if current safety threats can be controlled in home through a safety plan.