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

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Safety Assessment

Citation: CPS Assessments Policy, Protocol, and Guidance; Form DSS-5231

From the protocol: A North Carolina Safety Assessment (DSS-5231) must be completed during an assessment to address the safety issues and the caregiver's capacity to ensure safety for the children. The safety assessment must be at the time of the initial contact, during a home visit, and prior to allowing the child to remain in the household.

Face-to-face interviews with the parents or primary caregivers with whom the child resides must be conducted the same day the child is seen. Face-to-face interviews with nonprimary caregivers (family or friends) known to be living in the child's household must be conducted within 7 days of initiating the CPS assessment.

From Form DSS-5231: The safety assessment examines both child and parent characteristics. The first part looks at factors influencing child vulnerability. The vulnerability of each child needs to be considered throughout the assessment. Younger children and children with diminished mental or physical capacity or repeated victimization should be considered more vulnerable. The assessment is based on the most vulnerable child.

The second part addresses current indicators of safety. Safety indicators are defined as behaviors or conditions that describe a child being in imminent danger of serious harm, and the list of indicators includes the following:

  • The caregiver caused and/or allowed serious physical harm to the child or made a plausible threat to cause serious physical harm.
  • Child sexual abuse is suspected to have been committed by a parent, other caregiver, or an unknown person; the parent or other caregiver cannot be ruled out; and circumstances suggest that the child's safety may be of immediate concern.
  • The caregiver is aware of the potential harm and is unwilling or unable to protect the child from serious harm or threatened harm by others.
  • The caregiver's explanation or lack of explanation for an injury to the child is questionable or inconsistent with the type of injury, and the nature of the injury suggests that the child's safety may be of immediate concern.
  • The caregiver fails to provide supervision to protect the child from potentially serious harm.
  • The caregiver does not meet the child's immediate needs for food, clothing, or medical or critical mental health care.
  • Physical living conditions are hazardous and immediately threatening to the health and/or safety of the child.
  • The caregiver's current substance abuse seriously impacts his or her ability to supervise, protect, or care for the child.
  • The caregiver persistently describes the child in predominantly negative terms or acts toward the child in negative ways.
  • The caregiver's physical ability, emotional stability, developmental status, or cognitive deficiency seriously impairs his or her current ability to supervise, protect, or care for the child.
  • The family currently refuses access to or hides the child and/or seeks to hinder an assessment.
  • Current circumstances, combined with information that the caregiver has or may have previously maltreated a child in his or her care, suggest that the child's safety may be of immediate concern.
  • The child is fearful of the caregiver, other family members, or people living in or having access to the home.

Safety Decisions and Safety Planning

Citation: CPS Assessments Policy, Protocol, and Guidance; Form DSS-5231

A safety agreement must be used when there is a specific safety factor or risk of harm identified. The plan must be developed with the family, including all parents or caregivers and temporary safety providers, for the use of the Temporary Parental Safety Agreement (TPSA) to ensure safety. If a TPSA cannot ensure safety, the caseworker must file a juvenile petition for court intervention.

The TPSA must specify what actions the parents or caregivers, agency, and any identified temporary safety provider will take to ensure the safety of the children. The intent of safety planning is to reach an agreed upon plan with the family that imposes the lowest level of intrusiveness possible while ensuring a child's safety. 

When any high-risk situation is alleged, the county child welfare services agency must immediately see the children to assess the situation and implement safety measures to protect the children.

From Form DSS-5231: The caseworker will identify the safety decision based on the assessment of all safety indicators, child vulnerability, and any other information known about the case, as follows:

  • Safe: There are no children likely to be in immediate danger of serious harm.
  • Safe with a plan: A family safety intervention is required, including one of the following:
    • Monitoring and/or use of direct services by county child welfare agency
    • Using family, neighbors, or other individuals in the community in the development and implementation of a safety agreement
    • Using community agencies or services
    • Having the alleged perpetrator leave the home, either voluntarily or in response to legal action
    • Having a protective caregiver move to a safe environment with the children with no restrictions on the protective caregiver's access to the children
    • Having the parent identifying a temporary safety provider with the social worker monitoring, as follows:
      • A temporary safety provider will move into the family home.
      • The children will reside in the home of a temporary safety provider.
  • Unsafe: A child welfare safety intervention is required. The child is removed from the home. Removal is required when a family safety intervention does not adequately ensure the child's safety.

Risk Assessment

Citation: CPS Assessments Policy, Protocol, and Guidance; Form DSS-5230

Prior to or at the time of the case decision, the North Carolina Family Risk Assessment of Abuse or Neglect (DSS-5230) must be completed. The assessment must be completed on the home of the alleged perpetrator. In cases where both parents are alleged perpetrators and they live in separate homes, a risk assessment must be completed for each home.

The risk assessment must be completed based on all information obtained during the assessment (including information associated with a new report), including face-to-face interviews with and/or observation of parents, caregivers, others living in the child's home, children, and pertinent collateral contacts.

From Form DSS-5230: The family risk assessment determines the level of risk of future harm in the family and determines the level of service to be provided to each family. It identifies families that have high, moderate, or low probabilities of future risk of abuse or neglect of their children. By completing the risk assessment, the caseworker obtains an objective appraisal of the likelihood that a family will maltreat their children in the next 18 months. The difference between the risk levels is substantial. High-risk families have significantly higher rates than low-risk families of subsequent reports and substantiations and are more often involved in serious abuse or neglect incidents.

The risk scales are based on research on that examined the relationships between family characteristics and the outcomes of subsequent abuse and neglect. The scales do not predict recurrence, simply that a family is more or less likely to have another incident without intervention by the agency. One important result of the research is that a single instrument should not be used to assess the risk of both abuse and neglect. Different family dynamics are present in abuse and neglect situations. Hence, separate scales are used to assess the future probability of abuse or neglect.

The risk assessment shall be completed and documented prior to the case decision. It is one of the elements considered in making the case decision. A risk assessment also shall be completed when a new maltreatment report occurs in an open in-home or out-of-home services case. The risk assessment identifies the level of risk of future maltreatment and guides the case decision, including whether to close a report or open a case for in-home or out-of-home services.

Family Strengths and Needs Assessment to Determine Service Needs

Citation: CPS Assessments Policy, Protocol, and Guidance; Form DSS-5229

Prior to or at the time of the case decision, the North Carolina Family Assessment of Strengths and Needs (DSS-5229) must be completed. The assessment must be completed based on all information obtained during the assessment (including information associated with a new report), including face-to-face interviews with and/or observation of parents, caregivers, others living in the child's home, children, and pertinent collateral contacts.

From Form DSS-5229: The family assessment of strengths and needs (FASN) is a tool designed to evaluate the presenting strengths and needs of the family of a child alleged or confirmed to have been a victim of child abuse or neglect. The FASN assists the caseworker in determining areas of family strengths and needs that should be addressed with a family open for in-home or permanency planning services.

The FASN is one of the elements considered in making the case decision. The FASN documents the parents' social activities, economic situation, environmental issues, mental health needs, activities of daily living, physical health needs, and summary of strengths. In in-home services cases, the FASN must be completed at the time of the in-home family services agreement updates and within 30 days prior to case closure. A FASN should be completed with an involved noncustodial parent. Their identified needs should also be addressed within the in-home family services agreement whether on the same one or on a separate agreement.

The FASN identifies the strengths and highest priority needs of caregivers and children that must be addressed in the service agreement. Goals, objectives, and interventions in a service agreement should relate to one or more of the priority needs. If the child has more than one chronic or severe problem, all should be listed under child's well-being needs.

Ongoing Assessment to Evaluate Progress on the Service Plan

Citation: CPS Assessments Policy, Protocol, and Guidance; Form DSS-5226

A new or modified safety assessment is required at the following times:

  • When a new CPS report is received on an open assessment
  • Prior to the case decision
  • Prior to the return home in cases where the caregiver temporarily arranges for the child to stay outside of the home as a part of the safety intervention
  • At any other point that safety issues are revealed

The frequency of ongoing face-to-face contact with the child and parent or caregiver must be based on the safety and risk to the child). Face-to-face contact with the child victim and parent or caregiver must occur at a minimum of twice a month and at least 7 calendar days apart with additional visits as needed to ensure the child's safety. The interview with the child must address safety and be separate from the parent or caregiver for part of the contact.

The county child welfare services agency must meet with the parents and the child throughout the assessment for the following purposes:

  • To ensure the safety of the child
  • To assess ongoing risk
  • To monitor the effectiveness of the safety intervention
  • To assess progress toward addressing the safety threat or risk
  • To monitor child and family well-being
  • To ascertain family strengths

Every contact with a family member must do the following:

  • Include visual observations of each person, their behavior, and the environment, especially related to safety or risk
  • Describe specific interactions with and between each family member

From Form DSS-5226: The Family Risk Reassessment is a tool used to assist the caseworker in determining risk of future abuse and/or neglect. Together with the FASN and the progress made in the service agreement, it assists the social worker in determining the required service level intensity.

Reassessments are performed at established intervals while the case is open. Case reassessment ensures that both risk of maltreatment and family service needs will be considered in later stages of the service delivery process and that case decisions will be made accordingly. At each reassessment, the caseworker reevaluates the family using instruments that help systematically assess changes in risk levels. Case progress will determine if a case should remain open or if the case can be closed.

While the initial risk assessment has separate scales for abuse and neglect, there is only one risk scale for reassessment. The focus at reassessment is the impact of services provided to the family during the period assessed or on whether certain events in the family have occurred since the last assessment.

Risk reassessments shall be completed as follows:

  • At the time of the service agreement updates
  • Whenever a significant change occurs in the family
  • Within 30 days prior to case closure

Assessment for Reunification and/or Case Closure

Citation: Form DSS-5227

From Form DSS-5227: The family reunification assessment consists of four parts that are used to evaluate risk, visitation compliance, safety issues, and the recommendation summary. Results are used to reach a permanency placement recommendation and to guide decisions about whether to return a child home.

The family reunification assessment shall be completed when the agency holds legal custody and at least one child is in placement with a goal of return home (reunification). The assessment shall be completed at the following times:

  • To track with the required scheduled permanency planning action team meetings
  • Prior to any trial visit home
  • Prior to any time the child is being considered for a return home
  • Within 30 days prior to any court hearing or review

If families have effectively reduced risk to low or moderate and have achieved at least moderate compliance with visitation, a reunification safety assessment is conducted and the results used to determine if the home environment is safe.

The assessment is composed of the following sections:

  • The family reunification risk reassessment determines the family's progress in meeting service agreement objectives and the current level of risk.
  • The visitation plan evaluation determines the level at which the parent has participated in the visitation plan.
  • The reunification safety assessment is completed only if the risk level is low or moderate and parents have attained at least a moderate level of compliance with the visitation plan. Based on the assessment of all safety factors, protecting interventions, and any other information known about this case, one of the following safety decisions is selected:
    • Safe to return home: No further interventions.
    • Safe with services/intervention: Protecting safety interventions allow child to return home for a trial home visit for no more than 6 months before custody is returned.
    • Unsafe: Placement remains the only protecting intervention.
  • The permanency plan recommendation summary guides the case decision, which must be one the following options:
    • Recommend return home
    • Continue with reunification efforts and concurrent planning
    • Proceed with a new recommendation for next court hearing, which must include one of the following:
      • Termination of parental rights and adoption
      • Custody or guardianship with a nonremoval parent or relative
      • Custody or guardianship with a court-approved caregiver