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

Date: March 2021

Safety Assessment

Citation: DCF Policy Manual, Chapter 1 (II, A & M)

In policy: The following definitions apply to this policy:

  • Collateral contacts: contacts made by the Department of Children and Families for the purpose of obtaining, clarifying, or verifying information the department has gathered or received concerning a particular family or child. A collateral contact can be any of the following:
    • A professional: a person who interacts with the family and/or child through the context of their job such as a therapist, teacher, or doctor
    • A nonprofessional: a person who interacts with the family through their community, such as a friend, neighbor, or relative who has been identified as having information about a reported incident of abuse or neglect or about the child, parent/caregiver, and/or family who is the subject of a reported incident
    • Kin collateral: an adult who is not the child's parent and who acts now, or may act in the future, in a caregiving role (may reside in or outside of the home)
  • Danger: a condition in which a caregiver's actions or behaviors have resulted in harm to a child or may result in harm to a child in the immediate future The department's first priority in every response is to address immediate concerns regarding the child's safety and well-being and determine whether the child can safely remain in the home. These procedures apply to responses conducted during either regular business hours or after-hours.

The caseworker continually assesses whether there are immediate threats to child safety that require out-of-home placement or whether a safety plan can be developed to the enable child to remain with a parent. The caseworker considers the following factors in assessing child danger and safety:

  • Child vulnerabilities, including the following:
    • The age of the child
    • The presence of an intellectual, developmental, or physical disability or medical or mental/behavioral health disorders
    • A school-age child who is not attending school
    • Limited visibility in the community and/or access to other adults
  • Danger indicators, including the following:
    • The parent caused serious physical harm to the child or made a plausible threat to cause physical harm.
    • Sexual abuse is suspected, and no parent or caregiver in the household is willing or able to keep the child safe.
    • The parent is unable to protect the child from serious harm or threat from others.
    • The parent's explanation for a child's injury is questionable or inconsistent with the type of injury.
    • The family does not provide access to the child and/or there is reason to believe the family is about to flee.
    • The parent does not meet the child's current/imminent needs for supervision, food, clothing, or medical or mental health care.
    • The physical living conditions are hazardous and immediately threatening to the health and/or safety of the child.
    • The parent's current substance use/misuse seriously impairs his or her ability to supervise, protect, or care for the child.
    • Adults in the household are violent and pose a risk of serious physical and/or emotional harm to the child.
    • The child is a danger to self or others, acting out aggressively, being sexually exploited, or being severely withdrawn and/or suicidal/homicidal.
    • The parent's emotional stability, developmental status, or cognitive limitations seriously impair his or her current ability to supervise, protect, and/or care for the child.
    • There is a pattern of prior incidents or behavior, and current circumstances are near, but do not necessarily meet, the threshold for current danger.

Safety Decisions and Safety Planning

Citation: DCF Policy Manual, Chapter 1 (II, A)

The following definitions apply to this policy:

  • Safety: a condition in which caregiver actions or behaviors protect a child from harm.
  • Safety planning: a process of engaging an individual and their identified supports to explore child safety concerns and identify strategies to utilize in times of crisis. Strategies should mitigate risk or danger and increase safety for the child. Safety plans are developed with caregivers and are changeable. A safety plan should be revisited regularly with the family to ensure the plan is relevant and whether additional components are needed. Identified supports can be family members, friends, health or service providers, or others identified as safe and helpful to the family.
  • Substantial risk of injury: a situation arising either through an intentional act or an omission that, if left unchanged, might result in physical or emotional injury to a child or that might result in sexual abuse to a child.

Risk Assessment

Citation: Code of Regs., Tit. 110, § 5.03; DCF Policy Manual, Chapter 1 (II, A & Q)

A full assessment must be completed within 45 working days after the initial contact/case opening (i.e., the date of a supported investigation, voluntary application, or referral from a court) and includes evaluations of risk to children based on factors identified in the department's Risk Factor Matrix.

In policy: The term 'risk' refers to the potential for future harm to a child.

The caseworker assesses the parent's capacity to safely parent a child who is the subject of the report. In making the assessment, the caseworker must consider the following factors:

  • The parent's knowledge of parenting and child development, including whether the parent demonstrates the following:
    • Understanding how to keep the child safe
    • Providing age- and developmentally appropriate discipline
    • Having knowledge of the child's unique developmental needs
    • Ensuring that the child is attending school or early childhood programming
  • The parent's ability to build the social and emotional competence of children, such as through the following:
    • Having a meaningful attachment to the child
    • Knowing how to help the child safely regulate and express emotions
    • Supervising the child to have safe and secure peer and adult relationships in the community
  • The parent's parental resilience, including having the ability to make positive changes that sustain child safety and well-being while managing stress and adversity
  • The parent's social connections, including the ability to maintain healthy, safe, and supportive relationships with people, institutions, and the community to benefit the child and the parent
  • The parent's concrete support in times of need, including the parent's ability to do the following:
    • Provide for the child's health and medical needs
    • Provide for the family's basic needs
    • Know how to access and advocate for services that promote safety and well-being for the child

Prior to concluding an investigation, the caseworker must complete the department's risk assessment tool based on the information gathered during the investigation. The caseworker may ask the family to participate in completing the risk assessment tool. The caseworker shall consider the following information when assessing risk level:

  • The child's age as well as cognitive, physical, and emotional capacity to participate in safety interventions
  • Other vulnerabilities of the child (e.g., medical, behavioral, or developmental needs)
  • Whether the current report relates to abuse or neglect, how many children were involved in the report, and if there were child injuries
  • The number of prior investigations by the department
  • Whether there has been a prior case opened for services
  • Whether the primary caregiver has history of abuse/neglect as a child
  • Whether the primary caregiver has a past or current alcohol or drug problem
  • Whether the primary caregiver has a current or past history of mental health challenges
  • Whether there are concerns about the adult relationships in the home
  • Whether the primary caregiver meets the physical care needs of the child
  • Whether the family has stable housing

Family Strengths and Needs Assessment to Determine Service Needs

Citation: DCF Policy Manual, Chapter 1 (II, A)

Parental capacities: The department uses the Protective Factors framework to help assess child safety. An understanding of the child's age and developmental status as well as the parent or caregiver's culture, abilities, and any disabilities (e.g., intellectual, physical, developmental) must be considered when assessing a parent or caregiver's capacity to safely parent their child. The protective factors that must be considered in a determination of parental capacities include the following:

  • Knowledge of parenting and child development: The parent understands how to keep the child safe, uses age- or developmentally appropriate discipline methods, and responds to the unique development of the child during different ages and stages.
  • Building social and emotional competence of children: The parent, through a nurturing and responsive relationship, helps the child develop the ability to form safe and secure adult and peer relationships and to experience, regulate, and express emotions.
  • Parental resilience: The parent has the ability to make positive changes that sustain child safety and well-being while managing stress and adversity.
  • Social connections: The parent maintains healthy, safe, and supportive relationships with people, institutions, and the community that provide a sense of belonging.
  • Concrete support in times of need: The parent provides for the family's basic needs and knows how to access and advocate for services that promote safety and well-being for his or her child.

Ongoing Assessment to Evaluate Progress on the Service Plan

Citation: DCF Policy Manual, Chapter 1 (II, Q)

When a risk assessment tool has been previously completed, the caseworker completes the department's risk reassessment tool before concluding the investigation. The caseworker considers the following information in reassessing risk level:

  • Information from any new maltreatment reports received or investigations conducted
  • Any changes or updates in any of the following:
    • Vulnerabilities for children in the household
    • Substance use/misuse in the household
    • Adult relationships in the household
    • Physical care provided to the children
    • Housing
    • The primary caregiver's mental health

Assessment for Reunification and/or Case Closure

Citation: Code of Regs., Tit. 110, § 9.03

The caseworker and his or her supervisor make the case closing decision. Case closing is a clinical decision between a caseworker and his or her supervisor, and the decision is subsequently discussed with the client family. Case closing takes into consideration the stated goals of the case, the individual's or family's participation in services, the reduction of risk to the child, legal issues, and the department's responsibility to provide services.