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

Date: March 2021

Safety Assessment

Citation: Ann. Stat. Tit. 33, § 4915a; Family Services Pol. Man., Pol. # 52

An assessment, to the extent that is reasonable under the facts and circumstances presented by the allegation of child abuse or neglect, shall include the following:

  • An interview with the child's parent, guardian, foster parent, or any other adult residing in the child's home who serves in a parental role. The interview shall focus on ensuring the immediate safety of the child and mitigating the future risk of harm to the child in the home environment.
  • An evaluation of the safety of the subject child and any other children living in the same home environment. The evaluation may include an interview with or observation of the child or children. Such interviews shall occur with the permission of the child's parent, guardian, or custodian.

In policy: Assessing safety is the first priority during a child safety intervention. Assessing safety includes focusing on present or impending danger to the child. It is a casework process that involves the worker, the family, and others engaged with the family. While assessing safety, the worker identifies the following:

  • Present danger: An immediate, significant, and clearly observable family condition that is currently endangering or threatening to endanger a child and therefore requires prompt response.
  • Impending danger: Family behaviors, attitudes, motives, emotions, and/or situations that pose a danger that may not be currently or always active but can be anticipated to become active and have severe effects on a child at any time.
  • Child vulnerabilities: Characteristics that make the child more likely to be maltreated and less likely to be able to participate in a plan for safety. Children in the home must be assessed for vulnerability separately.
  • Protective capacities: Attributes that can mitigate the presence of or threat of serious harm to a child when activated on the child's behalf. Not all family strengths are protective capacities.

Safety Decisions and Safety Planning

Citation: Family Services Pol. Man., Pol. # 52

The following factors inform a determination about whether the child is safe:

  • Safe: No danger indicators; the child appears to be safe.
  • Safe with a safety plan:
    • At least one danger indicator is present, and there may be protective capacities that can mitigate the danger.
    • A safety plan is in place that addresses the identified dangers, and if successfully carried out, will allow the children to remain with the parent or caregiver. The person alleged to have caused the abuse or neglect should not be responsible for implementing or monitoring the safety plan. Instead, there should be a safety network made up of people who are aware of the dangers and agree to take specific action as part of the safety plan.
    • The plan may include informal placement with a safe friend, relative, or nonresident parent as a temporary measure.
  • Unsafe:
    • At least one danger indicator is present, and protective capacities are not sufficient to mitigate the danger at this time.
    • A court order or voluntary care agreement with placement outside the home for one or more children is the only way possible to protect the child from immediate or serious harm.

When the Family Services Division is involved with a family through a child safety intervention, it may be appropriate to work with the family to put a safety plan in place that includes the support of an alternative caregiver on a temporary basis. A safety plan with an alternative caregiver shall not last longer than 1 month.

Risk Assessment

Citation: Family Services Pol. Man., Pol. # 52

The family services worker will complete the SDM risk assessment to understand the issues that create risk in the family and to inform the decision about opening a family support case. The SDM risk assessment does not predict occurrence or recurrence of child maltreatment; it assesses whether a family is more or less likely to have future abuse or neglect incidents without intervention.

An SDM risk assessment for each accepted report (only one per accepted report) should be completed as soon as the worker has enough thorough information to accurately assess the risk in the family.

SDM risk assessments are completed on households. When a child's parents do not live together, the child may be a member of two households. The SDM risk assessment is always completed on the household of a caregiver who is an alleged perpetrator, regardless of whether the household is the child's primary residence.

Family Strengths and Needs Assessment to Determine Service Needs

Citation: Ann. Stat. Tit. 33, § 4915a; Family Services Pol. Man., Pol. # 52

In collaboration with the family, the assessment shall include identification of family strengths, resources, and service needs and the development of a plan of services that reduces the risk of harm and improves or restores family well-being. In policy: Low and moderate risk cases should not be opened for family support services unless there is an unresolved danger. When the final risk level is low or moderate and there are no identified dangers, the worker should do the following:

  • Reinforce the strengths and positives with the family
  • Provide referrals to community services as needed
  • Verify that the decision to close the case is consistent with the family's expectations

The higher the risk in the household, the more important it is to engage the family in targeted services related to the risk to prevent future harm. A family support case will be opened when any of the following apply:

  • The risk level on the SDM risk assessment is high or very high.
  • The family has a danger issue that could not be resolved during the child safety intervention, regardless of risk level.
  • The family requires division involvement beyond 60 days of acceptance of the child safety intervention to ensure engagement with services or other support or monitoring.

Ongoing Assessment to Evaluate Progress on the Service Plan

Citation: Family Services Pol. Man., Pol. # 52

After the initial SDM safety assessment, changes in family or household circumstances will prompt a review/update of the SDM safety assessment. Examples of a change in family or household circumstances include, but are not limited to, any of the following:

  • The birth of a baby occurs.
  • There is a change in household composition (such as the addition of new household members or a person leaves the household).
  • The family moves.
  • There is a new criminal charge.
  • There is a significant change in health.
  • There is a new report during the open child safety intervention.
  • There is a change in the capability of safety interventions to mitigate dangers.

During child safety interventions, continued visits to the home should occur as necessary to assess and address safety, risks, and the family's needs. If (per the SDM safety assessment) there are one or more dangers present and the safety decision is 'safe with a plan' or (per the SDM risk assessment) the risk is high or very high, workers shall visit the home monthly until the case is closed or transferred.

Assessment for Reunification and/or Case Closure

Citation: Family Services Pol. Man., Pol. # 98

In policy: The SDM reunification assessment tool is used by division staff to structure critical case decisions for children with a case plan goal of reunification. The SDM reunification assessment guides the decision of whether to do any of the following:

  • Return a child to the removal household when there are historical or current concerns about the household regarding safety and risk
  • Maintain out-of-home placement and continue supporting the parent(s) in meeting the recommendations of their case plan
  • Change the case plan goal and implement a permanency alternative

The SDM reunification assessment should be completed within 30 calendar days prior to completing each case plan or when recommending reunification or a change in the permanency planning goal. The SDM reunification assessment may be completed sooner if there are new circumstances or new information that would affect safety status and/or risk level. The SDM reunification assessment shall be completed prior to case plan reviews to inform the division's recommendations.

In the same way that case plans are shared with families so they know and understand the expectations of their case plan, the SDM reunification assessment also should be shared and explained to families so that they understand exactly what will be used to evaluate reunification potential and the threshold they must reach.