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

Date: March 2021

Safety Assessment

Citation: Policy SSA-CW #15-21

From SSA-CW #15-21: The safety assessment for every child (SAFE-C) form is a tool designed to identify situations that pose an imminent danger to children. Imminent danger describes a situation that presents a serious threat to a child's physical and/or mental well-being and that demands immediate intervention to protect the child.

Each caseworker is responsible for assessing the safety of each child in his or her caseload with the information that is available.

The following is the preferred order of safety assessment interviews:

  • Recent--most direct source of information for reports of maltreatment (for child protective services (CPS) only)
  • Professional collateral contacts when necessary and appropriate (e.g., police, medical, or school personnel)
  • The child
  • Siblings or other children living in the home
  • The alleged maltreator

Whenever there are other adults in the home, they should be interviewed, but the timing of the interviews depends on the facts in the case.

Families and children should be assessed for safety at each of the following points:

  • Immediately following a face-to-face contact with an alleged victim and contact or attempted contact with the caregiver
  • At the completion of the investigation if the case has been open longer than 3 months
  • Within 7 working days of case acceptance
  • Within 10 working days of the assignment or transfer of the case to the caseworker

Caseworkers must consider various characteristics of the child that may increase the child's vulnerability. The following characteristics should be considered:

  • The child is age 5 or younger.
  • The child has a diminished mental capacity.
  • The child has a significant diagnosed medical or mental disorder.
  • The child has diminished physical capacity.
  • The child is of school age but is not attending school.
  • The child has extreme anxiety or fear about the current placement or home environment.

The caseworker must see and conduct a developmentally appropriate interview for each child. A child too young to speak must be seen and, if possible, observed in interaction with the caregiver to determine the caregiver's responsiveness to the child, the nature of the child's responses to the caregiver, and the caregiver's ability to protect the child and meet the child's safety needs. Each danger influence identified must be discussed individually on the form. Any comments made on the SAFE-C needs to be addressed in the safety plan.

Caseworkers must consider the following protective capacities:

  • If a child has the cognitive, physical, and emotional capacity to participate in safety interventions
  • If the caregiver is able and willing to participate in creating and carrying out safety interventions to protect the child
  • If the caregiver is able and willing to use resources that are necessary to protect the child
  • If the caregiver has a supportive relationship with one or more persons who may be willing to participate in safety planning and is willing and able to accept this assistance
  • If the caregiver has the ability to recognize and prioritize a child's needs ahead of his or her own needs or wants
  • If the caregiver has an emotional bond with the child that is expressed or evidenced in their interaction and which suggests a willingness to protect the child
  • If the caregiver has demonstrated effective problem-solving skills
  • Whether there are relevant community services or resources immediately available to the child and/or family

Safety Decisions and Safety Planning

Citation: Policy SSA-CW #15-21

The local department caseworker must act immediately when any child is found to be in an unsafe situation. The two immediate responses are 1) develop a safety plan with the caregiver or 2) remove the child from the unsafe environment.

A safety decision should be made after safety assessment interviews with all parties have been completed. There are four types of safety decisions. If a danger influence has not been checked 'yes' on the SAFE-C, the child is considered 'safe.' A child is considered 'conditionally safe when any influence #1-16 is checked 'yes' and there is a completed safety plan signed by all parties. If danger influence #17 (previous services resulted in no changes in the caregiver's behaviors toward the child) and/or #18 (multiple reports regarding the family received or previous concerns about the safety of the child) is checked 'yes,' the child is considered 'conditionally safe' if all actions in a required case staffing are implemented and there is a professional judgment that the child can remain safely at home.

A child would be considered 'unsafe' if any influence is checked 'yes' and any of the following apply:

  • There is no safety plan.
  • A caregiver did not agree to a safety plan.
  • Danger cannot be addressed by a safety plan.
  • A child has an out-of-home program assignment and it is not safe for the child to return to this caregiver.

When a safety plan has been developed with a family, a service plan also should be completed to address the issues that required to the need for a safety plan. The tasks in the service plan and the safety plan should be reevaluated often.

The supervisor will review the SAFE-C to ensure the following:

  • Timely completion at designated intervals
  • That the caseworker's assessment reflects an accurate judgment of the situation
  • That the safety plan strategically addresses all safety concerns

The caseworker and family will identify when deciding what action is required to complete the safety plan. The plan must be clear as to whom or what resources will be supporting the family when selecting one of the following responses:

  • The caregiver will use family resources, neighbors, or individuals in the community as safety resources.
  • The caregiver will use community agencies or services as supportive resources.
  • The alleged perpetrator will leave the home, either voluntarily or in response to legal action.
  • The nonmaltreating caregiver will move to a safe environment with the child.
  • The caregiver(s) will place the child outside the home (formal voluntary placement).

Risk Assessment

Citation: Policy Circular SSA # 04-03

From SSA # 04-03: The Maryland Family Risk Assessment (MFRA) helps child welfare staff identify risk factors and determine the services the family needs to reduce risk to the child. Caseworkers should consider factors such as special needs and racial, ethnic, and cultural background specific to the family to determine which service approaches are likely to be more effective.

Families and children should be assessed for risk and a MFRA completed at each of the following points in the life of a child welfare intervention:

  • At the completion of a new CPS investigation (only when the SAFE-C decision was 'not safe')
  • Within 30 calendar days of acceptance of service if no MFRA was included as a part of the referral packet
  • When there are significant changes in family structure or dynamics, including the placement of the child

Each risk category contains factors that have been identified by research and practice as reliable indicators of risk of harm to a child. The interaction of these factors and their impact on the child must be recognized and collectively influence the ability to predict behavior.

There are five risk-related categories to be assessed:

  • History of child maltreatment
  • Type and extent of current maltreatment investigation
  • Child characteristics, including the child's age, physical/mental abilities. and ability to self-protect
  • Caregiver characteristics, including, as applicable, as substance abuse, physical disability, mental illness, violence. and basic parenting knowledge
  • Familial, social, and economic characteristics, including family environment and social support network

Each category contains a series of risk elements that are to be rated. Risk decisions are rated according to their intensity. The categories of risk ratings include high, moderate, low, or no. Workers should select the appropriate risk rating for the element, the category and then for the overall MFRA.

The ratings for the category and overall MFRA are as follows:

  • High risk:
    • Extensive negative family conditions and circumstances are present and are influencing family functioning.
    • Unacceptable and ineffective individual and family functioning tends to be extreme.
    • The nature of the family conditions requires immediate, comprehensive, and focused CPS involvement or ongoing services.
    • The risk influences that are present will require the implementation of a service plan immediately.
  • Moderate risk:
    • There is generally an even distribution between negative and positive family conditions and circumstances. However, the negative influences that are present are assessed to be serious.
    • The assessment of the family suggests likelihood that a child will be maltreated.
    • The nature of the family conditions suggests need for ongoing services. Without services, the family conditions will likely worsen.
  • Low risk:
    • There are generally more positive than negative family conditions and circumstances. The negative influences that are present are of low to moderate seriousness.
    • Indications of ineffectiveness, or questionable functioning within the family may be isolated within certain risk areas.
    • The assessment of the family suggests an unlikely or slight probability that a child will be maltreated. Referrals for service should occur as appropriate.
  • No risk:
    • There are generally positive family conditions and circumstances. The negative influences that are present are low to none.
    • The assessment of the family suggests that there little/no likelihood a child will be maltreated.

Family Strengths and Needs Assessment to Determine Service Needs

Citation: Policy SSA-CW #15-21

The safety plan is the document that demonstrates the caseworker's planning with the responsible caregiver to reduce the immediate danger to the child. Actions in a safety plan are specific, time limited, and must be reevaluated. Reevaluation is a key component of safety planning as it lets the caregiver know that there will be follow-up.

There will be times that the caregiver is unwilling to cooperate with safety planning. The caseworker should recognize the barriers to cooperation; explain the options to the caregiver in a nonthreatening manner; and take the appropriate action, including removing the child should removal become necessary. When a safety plan is in place, the case should be monitored closely for compliance as well as for the effect of the safety plan with regard to the immediate danger to the child. Child welfare staff should be aware of the safety plan and document activities that were used to reduce or eliminate the behaviors that created imminent danger.

Ongoing Assessment to Evaluate Progress on the Service Plan

Citation: Policy SSA-CW #15-21; Policy Circular SSA# 04-03

The SAFE-C form will be completed for families and children at regular intervals established in the safety assessment process.

Families and children should be assessed for safety at each of the following points:

  • When the caseworker discovers there is a significant change in the composition of the home
  • When circumstances suggest that the child's safety may be jeopardized
  • When the safety plan is revaluated

The current caseworker should conduct a status review the most recent MFRA within 45 calendar days after acceptance into in-home family services and out-of-home placement services, as follows:

  • If the MFRA that was completed after an investigation, intake, referral, or voluntary placement contains sections ranked 'high' because the worker could not obtain information, the current caseworker (if applicable) should complete the MFRA and make any changes that are warranted.
  • The in-home family services worker should review the previous MFRA and make changes if applicable.
  • The out-of-home placement services worker should review the MFRA for children in the care and custody of the local department of social services as well as any siblings who remain in the home of the birth family or family of origin home setting and make changes, if applicable.

The MFRA also is reviewed at reconsideration. Effective service/case planning is dependent on continuous assessment of risk and safety. These reviews must be conducted at the following intervals:

  • In-home family services workers should review the previous MFRA no less than every 3 months of service.
  • Out-of-home placement services worker should review the previous MFRA no less than every 6 months of service.

Assessment for Reunification and/or Case Closure

Citation: Policy SSA-CW #15-21; Policy Circular SSA# 04-03

Families and children should be assessed for safety at each of the following points:

  • Within 7 working days before beginning unsupervised visitation
  • At the time of a trial home visit with a caregiver
  • Within 7 working days prior to returning the child home
  • Within 7 working days prior to completing a case reconsideration or closure

If a child is moved with the permission of his or her caregiver as a condition of the safety plan, the legal status of the child must be established before closing the case. A case cannot be closed unless all participants have a full understanding regarding if or when the child can return home.

The MFRA is to be completed on every child receiving child welfare services residing with their family of origin and/or when a reunification with the family of origin is planned for children in out-of-home placement. At termination of service, the MFRA should be completed to support the decision to terminate all child welfare services with a family.