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

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Safety Assessment

Citation: DSS Child Welf. Man., § 1, Ch. 5

In policy: The primary concern of the Children's Division is always child safety. Whether the division is responding to threats to child safety that are actively occurring or likely to become active, or whether resources are focused on families with a high probability the child will be maltreated in the future (risk), the focus is on keeping children safe.

Safety assessment refers to all the actions and decisions required throughout the life of a case to accomplish the following:

  • Ensure that a child is protected
  • Make efforts to support and facilitate the child's caregiver and safety network in taking responsibility for the child's protection
  • Establish a safe, permanent home for the child

When assessing whether a child is safe or unsafe, the practitioner must assess the following:

  • Is there a threat to the child's safety?
  • Is the child vulnerable to the threat?
  • Does the caregiver have sufficient protective capacities to protect the child from the threat?

Threats to child safety refers to specific situations or behaviors, emotions, motives, perceptions, or capacities of a family member that is out of control, imminent, and likely to have a negative impact on a vulnerable child. Practitioners should always be alert to threats to child safety at the time of initial contact and at the time of any contact with the family.

A threat to child safety is an immediate, significant, and clearly observable threat to a child that is presently occurring or likely to occur, which could result in severe harm without intervention, as in the following:

  • An immediate response is needed to control the threat.
  • The caregiver may be a direct danger to the child or may be unable to protect the child from the threat.
  • The threat may involve physical aggression; failure to protect the child from aggression or a dangerous situation; or neglectful behavior that deprives a child of essential, immediate safeguards, and/or basic necessities.

Potential threats to child safety exist in virtually every household, but generally caregivers have the protective capacity and safety network to control or manage them. A child becomes unsafe when they are vulnerable to that threat and their caregiver's protective capacity is insufficient to protect them from the threat.

Child vulnerability refers to a child's capacity for self-protection. Typically, age, developmental disabilities, or mental and/or physical disabilities are identified as significant factors for child vulnerability, but less obvious factors such as the visibility of the child, children targeted as the scapegoat, or children exhibiting behaviors that are provocative or irritating can also affect a child's vulnerability.

The caregiver's protective capacities refer to knowledge, ability, and/or willingness of individuals in the household responsible for the child's care, to protect the child from the threat of danger. Primary caregivers and extended safety network are responsible for a child's protection; therefore, the focus of safety assessment is on them. Other household members or safety network members are often protective resources that are available and accessible for use in safety planning. Once the practitioner identifies a threat to child safety and identifies the vulnerabilities of each child in the household, they must assess whether the caregiver has sufficient or diminished protective capacity to keep the child safe.

Caregiver protective capacities are generally understood in terms of the caregiver's behavioral, cognitive, and emotional functioning.

Safety Decisions and Safety Planning

Citation: DSS Child Welf. Man., § 1, Ch. 5; 9

A child can be considered safe when there are no threats to child safety within the caregiver's household or when the caregiver's protective capacities and safety network are sufficient to manage or control the threats.

A child is unsafe when a child is vulnerable to an identified threat to their safety within their caregiver's household and when the caregiver's protective capacities and safety network are insufficient to manage the threat to child safety. An immediate safety intervention plan is required to control the threat to child safety.

Safety interventions are actions or supports put in place to manage the safety threat to the child. Immediate safety interventions are used to manage the safety threat to the child when a child has been determined to be unsafe to allow for more thorough assessment and long-term safety plan development.

The Immediate Safety Intervention Plan (CD-263) is to be used to document any necessary interventions to address immediate safety concerns. The plan is utilized when there is not sufficient time to develop the Family Safety Planning Document (CD-267) due to the immediacy of the safety concerns.

Generally immediate safety interventions that address immediate danger should meet the following criteria:

  • Be immediately available
  • Be action oriented
  • Offer flexible access
  • Have immediate impact
  • Require no promissory commitments from the caregiver

If staff believe a child is in imminent danger or cannot be safely maintained in the care of their parent, a referral to the juvenile office should be made when it is unlikely that the threat of danger will be eliminated in a reasonable timeframe. It may be necessary to develop an Immediate Safety Intervention Plan placing the child outside the home while waiting for the court process to occur.

Any time a CD-263 is needed to manage a safety threat to the child, the plan may only be put in place for 10 days but may be extended in certain circumstances. There are two general types of Immediate Safety Intervention Plans:

  • When the child is maintained in the home with their parent/caregiver
  • When the child and the parent/caregiver have been separated

Components of the CD-263 include the following:

  • The concerns being addressed, including a danger statement
  • The specific action steps that need to be taken to reduce the danger to the child, including a safety goal
  • The steps that will need to be taken in the event that the prevention plan does not work and the child becomes unsafe
  • A list of any safety network member actively involved in the immediate safety intervention

The Family Safety Planning Document (CD-267) is to be used to guide caseworker conversations with the family and their network to develop the plan that will enable them to achieve and maintain the safety goal(s) for their children. The CD-267 should be used once a safety goal has been developed with the family. It creates the road map for how the safety goal will be achieved.

The danger statement and safety goal must be developed prior to starting the CD-267. The danger statement is needed so everyone is clear about the concerns for the children and family. Having clearly established safety goals will ensure that everyone comes to the safety planning endeavor with a common vision of the desired outcome the plan is meant to achieve.

The CD-267 should not focus on services that will be provided to families. Instead, the CD-267 guides the development of a specific set of rules and arrangements that describe how the family and network will show everyone that the child will be safe in the future. As the case progresses, it is expected that the CD-267 will be modified and refined.

Risk Assessment

Citation: DSS Child Welf. Man., § 1, Ch. 6

Risk is the likelihood or probability child abuse or neglect will occur or reoccur in the future.

The following six practice elements assist the worker in their assessment of risk and safety:

  • Understand the position of each family member
  • Find exceptions to the maltreatment
  • Discover family strengths and resources
  • Focus on goals
  • Scale safety and progress
  • Assess the family's willingness, confidence, and capacity to carry out plans

The Case Mapping Tool is used to organize conversations to capture the information needed to create the Family Risk Assessment Map (CD-220). Once the CD-220 is completed, the caseworker shares it with the family. The most important part of creating danger statements and safety goals is that the family is involved in the process. Once the worker drafts the CD-220, it must be shared with their family to ensure it is clear to everyone involved and that it accurately captures everyone's perspectives. The family does not have to agree but it is imperative that parents fully understand the division's worries. Shared investment in safety goals is much more critical. When parents are fully invested in the safety goals, workers can have more confidence the parents will remain motivated to keep the children safe after the case closes.

Family Strengths and Needs Assessment to Determine Service Needs

Citation: DSS Child Welf. Man., § 1, Ch. 6

Comprehensive Balanced Child Protection Risk Assessment: All too often the focus in child protection case work is on what the professionals believe, based on their experience and knowledge, to be the danger to the child. This creates an unbalanced view of the risk and safety. To achieve balance, it is important to also consider the family's strengths. Parents do not abuse or neglect their children all the time. The caseworker should equally assess when parents respond to their children appropriately. These are times when parents can demonstrate safety, and the caseworker will be able to build on these strengths to create a more effective safety plan. When the focus is on what parents have done wrong, they are likely to feel judged and are likely to put up walls and defenses that interfere with building a collaborative relationship. For family engagement to occur, it is important that problems that led to the division's involvement be regarded as the starting point, not the sole focus.

The information gathered from contacts can be documented and organized in the case mapping tool. This tool is easy to use in any number of settings. At its most basic function, the mapping tool contains four areas for inquiry:

  • What are we worried about?
  • What's working well?
  • What needs to happen?
  • Where the family is on a scale of 0-10, where 10 means everyone knows the children are safe enough for the division to close their case and zero means things are so bad for the children they cannot live at home?

Ongoing Assessment to Evaluate Progress on the Service Plan

Citation: DSS Child Welf. Man., § 1, Ch. 9

A detailed plan for monitoring a safety intervention/plan is a critical piece of the safety planning process. It must be clear to everyone involved in the safety interventions what their responsibilities are in relation to the intervention, what the plan for monitoring is, and that monitoring includes a focus on the following:

  • Successful use of the plan/intervention
  • Safety plan effectiveness and the need for adjustment and modifications
  • Ongoing assessment of the identified safety threats
  • The emergence of new threats or escalating threats
  • That conditions are either resolved or no longer meet the safety threshold criteria

In developing a plan for monitoring a safety plan, the worker must consider the following:

  • As long as conditions are unsafe, safety interventions must be in place.
  • When there is no longer a safety threat, the need for a safety plan is resolved.
  • Understanding up front that Immediate Safety Intervention Plans must be monitored and may need to be adjusted or modified to assure the interventions are effectively controlling the threat of danger.

Monitoring includes the following:

  • Verification of implementation
  • Participation of participants
  • Effectiveness of intervention
  • Credibility, availability, and accessibility of the safety network
  • Flexibility and adjustability of safety interventions that are not controlling the safety threat
  • Understanding from the participants that plans must be modified if the plan is no longer effective in controlling the safety threat
  • Understanding that the Immediate Safety Intervention Plan is short term until the Family Safety Planning Document can be completed, if the division needs to continue to be involved with the family

The Immediate Safety Intervention Plan should be evaluated, readjusted, or modified as needed. After the plan is developed with the family, the worker may need to revise it until the Family Safety Planning Document can replace it or there is no longer a need for an immediate safety intervention.

As the Family Safety Planning Document is utilized, it must be constantly evaluated, monitored, and adjusted as necessary. Families should be given opportunities to demonstrate how they are using their plan as the case progresses. As the use and effectiveness of the plan is demonstrated, contact with the children should gradually increase and become less restrictive.

Some ways the safety plan can be monitored may include the following:

  • Unannounced home visits by division staff or safety network to observe how the plan is being used
  • Have the family keep a safety journal where they can write their comments about how the plan is working
  • Safety network meetings to review progress and assess the level of confidence in the safety plan based on how it is working

Assessment for Reunification and/or Case Closure

Citation: DSS Child Welf. Man., § 1, Ch. 12

The decision to terminate services is based on a thorough evaluation of the family situation. Ideally, ending the involvement the division happens when sufficient change has occurred through the delivery of change strategies and interventions. Families involved with the division may have experienced past endings that have been challenging or even traumatic both in their life histories as well as their experience with community agencies. Therefore, it is important to help minimize the tradeoffs of case closure. This not only helps families sustain important changes they have made during the division's involvement but also recognizes their success.

Termination of services should be a planned and natural component of the casework process. Discussion of case closure should begin during the assessment phase and continue to case closure. A final updated version of the Family Safety Planning Document and the Family Risk Assessment Map should be completed and reviewed with the family at case closure.

Community collaboration is an important part of the closing process. Some families need ongoing intervention and/or support from community agencies even after case closure. Stabilization of the changes that have been made by the family is important. Staff must work with families to identify any factors that might counteract the changes made in the helping relationship and take steps to prevent this from happening. Helping the family locate and utilize outside support systems and resources throughout the treatment process is a good way of facilitating family empowerment. Such measures will assist the family beyond the time when the division closes the case.