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

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Safety Assessment

Citation: Admin. Code Tit. 22, § 40-705-110; Child & Fam. Serv. Man., § 4

In both family assessments and investigations, the child protective services worker shall conduct an initial safety assessment of the child's circumstances and threat of danger or harm and, when appropriate, shall make a safety plan to provide for the protection of the child.

In policy: An initial safety assessment is conducted at the beginning of a family assessment. The purpose of the initial safety assessment and safety plan is to do the following:

  • Assess whether any children are currently in immediate danger of serious physical harm that may require a protecting intervention
  • Determine what interventions should be maintained or initiated to provide appropriate protection

Safety assessments differ from risk assessments in that the purpose is to assess a child's present or immediate danger and the interventions currently needed to protect the child. In contrast, risk assessment evaluates the likelihood of future maltreatment.

Safety assessment is both a process and a document. Safety information is gathered and assessed from the very first contact at intake and until the case is closed. Safety must be determined for each child and the safety conclusion based on the least safe child if there is more than one child in the family. To ensure that the safety of the child is appropriately assessed in each family assessment, the local department of social services (LDSS) must complete the process of an initial safety assessment, using the safety assessment tool, at the first meaningful contact with the family and any time safety changes.

The initial safety assessment focuses on the child and the child's immediate needs. Factors to consider when assessing the immediate situation of the child include the following:

  • Whether the child has sustained a mental or physical injury warranting immediate attention or care
  • Whether an emergency or crisis situation exists meriting immediate action to protect the child
  • Whether the child is at risk of serious abuse or neglect in the near future

After assessing the immediate safety needs of the child, the worker must evaluate the immediate needs of the family. Factors to consider include the following:

  • If the child has been injured or harmed, whether the family has the capacity to protect the child from further harm
  • Whether an emergency or crisis situation exists and the family's ability to cope
  • Whether any other family members are at risk of harm or danger
  • The family's capabilities to ensure the safety of the child in the near future

Safety Decisions and Safety Planning

Citation: Child & Fam. Serv. Man., § 4

After safety and protective factors have been assessed using the safety assessment tool, the CPS worker must make a decision about the safety of the child in the home. The safety decision should be made on the basis of the needs of the least safe child in the home, if there is more than one child. One of the following safety decisions must be determined using the safety assessment tool, documented in the child welfare information system, and shared with the family:

  • Safe: There are no children likely to be in immediate danger of serious harm at this time. No safety plan is required.
  • Conditionally safe: Protective safety interventions have been taken and have resolved the unsafe situation for the present time. A safety plan is required to document the interventions.
  • Unsafe:
    • Approved removal and placement were the only possible interventions for the child(ren). Without placement, the child(ren) will likely be in danger of immediate serious harm. A court order is required to document intervention.
    • If the safety decision is unsafe and a removal occurs, the track must be changed immediately from a family assessment to an investigation.

When the child is determined to be conditionally safe or unsafe, the CPS worker must determine what services or actions need to occur by developing a safety plan in partnership with the family.

A safety plan must be made to ensure the immediate protection of the child. When possible, the worker needs to develop the safety plan with the cooperation of the child's mother, father, or guardian(s). The CPS worker must determine what actions are necessary to ensure the child's immediate safety. If the actions needed to ensure the safety of the child cannot be put in place, alternative steps must be taken that can include court intervention.

Safety plans should meet the following criteria:

  • The plan controls or manages immediate threats of danger.
  • The safety plan must have an immediate effect in controlling threats.
  • The CPS worker must assess the parent(s), guardian, or custodian and make a professional judgment as to their willingness and capability to agree to and abide by the terms of the safety plan.
  • People and services identified in the safety plan must be accessible and available when threats are present.
  • The safety plan should employ the least restrictive strategies possible while ensuring child safety.

The following are sample safety plan actions that may be included in a safety plan:

  • Cooperate with the LDSS, including returning phone calls, advising of address changes, and keeping any scheduled appointments
  • Refrain from the use of any illegal drugs or substances while caring for the child(ren)
  • Provide age-appropriate supervision consistent with the child's development
  • Obtain an appropriate child care provider
  • Provide nonabusive and age-appropriate discipline
  • Refrain from the use of physical discipline or corporal punishment
  • Refrain from engaging in physical altercations or acts of domestic violence
  • Ensure no contact and provide protection from and further maltreatment by any specified individual
  • Maintain a home environment that is safe and free of health and safety hazards
  • Ensure safe sleep practices are followed for all children in the home
  • Sign necessary release of information forms with service providers
  • Ensure child(ren) receive all medical and/or therapeutic treatment as recommended

Risk Assessment

Citation: Admin. Code Tit. 22, § 40-705-110; Child & Fam. Serv. Man., § 4

In all completed family assessments and investigations, the child protective services worker shall conduct a risk assessment to determine whether the child is in jeopardy of future abuse or neglect and whether intervention is necessary to protect the child.

In policy: Based on the information gathered during the family assessment, the CPS worker must determine the likelihood of any occurrence or recurrence of abuse or neglect by completing a family risk assessment. The family risk assessment does not predict recurrence, but assesses whether a family is more or less likely to have an incident of abuse or neglect without intervention by the agency. The family risk assessment is completed based on conditions that exist at the time the incident is reported and assessed as well as prior history of the family. Risk is calculated in the family risk assessment tool, which includes assessing the following risk factors:

  • Caregiver-related factors, including the following:
    • History of childhood maltreatment, mental health issues, substance abuse, or criminal activity (adult or juvenile)
    • Domestic violence incidents in past year
    • History of prior child protective services or foster care services
  • Child-related factors, including whether any of the following apply:
    • Developmental or physical disability
    • Medically fragile or failure to thrive
    • Substance-exposed newborn
    • Delinquency
    • Mental health or behavioral problem
    • Prior injury as result of abuse or neglect
  • Caregiver and child relationship, including whether the caregiver does any of the following:
    • Blames the child or justifies the maltreatment
    • Provides insufficient emotional or psychological support and/or is domineering
    • Uses excessive or inappropriate discipline
    • Provides physical care inconsistent with child needs
  • Other factors, including unsafe housing or homelessness

The assessed risk level will be one of the following:

  • Low: The assessment of risk related factors indicates that there is a low likelihood of future abuse or neglect and no further intervention is needed.
  • Moderate: The assessment of risk related factors indicates that there is a moderate likelihood of future abuse or neglect and minimal intervention may be needed.
  • High: The assessment of risk related factors indicates there is a high likelihood of future abuse or neglect without intervention.
  • Very high: The assessment of risk-related factors indicates there is a very high likelihood of future abuse or neglect without intervention.

When risk is clearly defined and objectively quantified, resources are targeted to higher-risk families because of the greater potential to reduce subsequent maltreatment. The risk level helps inform the decision whether to open a case, as follows:

  • Low risk: Close the case
  • Moderate risk: Open to CPS on-going services or close the case
  • High risk: Open to CPS on-going services
  • Very high risk: Open to CPS on-going services

The worker and supervisor should assess the decision to open a case for services and document in the child welfare information system the decision not to open a case. The LDSS may offer prevention services for families involved in a family assessment when risk is assessed as low or moderate.

Family Strengths and Needs Assessment to Determine Service Needs

Citation: Child & Fam. Serv. Man., § 4

Using the family strengths and needs assessment tool, the CPS worker will assess the family's protective capacities if any safety factors are identified. Protective capacity means being protective towards one's children. Protective capacities are cognitive, behavioral, and emotional qualities that support vigilant protectiveness of children. Protective capacities are fundamental strengths that prepare and empower a person to protect. All adults living in the home should be assessed for protective capacities. Capacities must be strong enough to control or manage the specific threats of danger that have been identified. Protective capacities should be used when determining the protective intervention and development of a safety plan.

The protective capacities can be described as follows:

  • Cognitive protective capacities: This refers to the knowledge, understanding, and perceptions contributing to protective vigilance.
  • Behavioral protective capacities: This refers to actions, activities, and performance that result in protective vigilance. Behavioral aspects show it is not enough to know what must be done or recognize what might be dangerous to a child, but rather require the caregiver to act.
  • Emotional protective capacities: This refers to feelings, attitudes, and identification with the child and motivation resulting in protective vigilance.

When a safety factor has been identified, the CPS worker shall consider the resources available to the family and the community that might help to keep the child safe. Protective interventions should directly address identified threats to safety. The interventions should be implemented immediately as they address immediate threats to child safety.

The worker must consider the following protective interventions that can allow children to remain in the caregiver's custody:

  • The caregiver uses family resources, neighbors, or other individuals in the community in developing a safety plan.
  • The caregiver uses community agencies or services.
  • The involved caregiver leaves the home.
  • The nonmaltreating caregiver leaves the home with the children.
  • The caregiver voluntarily places the child outside of the home.
  • Legal action, such as a preliminary protective order, is initiated.

Ongoing Assessment to Evaluate Progress on the Service Plan

Citation: Child & Fam. Serv. Man., § 4

Safety assessment is both a process and a document. The process of assessing child safety is ongoing throughout the life of the CPS referral and ongoing case as information is gathered with each contact. The initial safety decision and safety plan are documented in the child welfare information system. All subsequent changes in safety assessed in referrals or ongoing cases in the following circumstances also should be documented in a new safety assessment tool in the child welfare information system within 24 hours of any of the following:

  • A change in family circumstances such that one or more safety factors previously present are no longer present
  • A change in information known about the family in which one or more safety factors that were not present before are present now
  • A change in ability of safety interventions to mitigate safety factors has occurred and require changes to the safety plan

When safety is reassessed, the safety plan should be reviewed and revised accordingly. Risk also may be reassessed using the family risk reassessment tool.

Assessment for Reunification and/or Case Closure

This issue is not addressed in the statutes and regulations reviewed.