Safety and Risk

Although the terms safety and risk sometimes seem to be used interchangeably, they actually refer to two separate but related aspects of family conditions. Safety refers to a current condition within a home or family and considers whether or not there is an immediate threat of danger to a child. A threat of danger refers to a specific family situation that is out of control, imminent, and likely to have severe effects on a child. A child is assessed to be safe when there is no threat of danger within the family or home, or, if such a threat does exist, the family has sufficient protective capacities to protect the child and manage the threat. 

Risk refers to the likelihood of maltreatment occurring in the future. The word risk is synonymous with words like chance, probability, or potential. An assessment of risk includes the identification of risk factors, which are family behaviors and conditions that create an environment or circumstances that increase the chance that parents or caregivers will maltreat their children. Risk factors of various degrees and seriousness may exist within a single family, and some risk factors are better than others for indicating the likelihood of child maltreatment.

Examples of factors that have been associated with increased risk of child maltreatment include parental substance abuse, domestic violence, and parental childhood history of abuse. Young children and children with disabilities have also been found to be at greater risk for maltreatment because of their greater dependency on others for care.

The child's safety is always the paramount concern for the child protective services (CPS) caseworker. There are at least two key decision points during which the child’s safety is evaluated.

  • At the first contact with the child and family, when the caseworker must decide whether the child will be safe during the investigation or the differential response. This involves addressing the question, is the child in danger right now?
  • At the conclusion of the differential response assessment or the investigation, when the caseworker determines the validity of the report and the level of risk for further maltreatment

Accurate and ongoing assessment of safety and risk are critical in CPS cases. The results of these assessments drive agency decision making. During the investigation or in a differential response, the caseworker looks at those risk and protective factors present in the child, the parents, the family, and the environment that may increase or decrease the likelihood that a child will be maltreated. The assessment looks at the alleged victim and perpetrator, but also encompasses the family as a whole, including siblings who may or may not have been maltreated, any non-offending parent, and other adults in the home. It identifies and weighs the risk and protective factors that are present, as well as the agency and community services that will be needed.

Note that these safety and risk assessments may be formal, conducted at prescribed times using specific instruments or tools, or they may be conducted informally during regular contact and visitation with the child and family. Often, States will include both formal and informal approaches. The specific instruments used to conduct safety and risk assessments varies among and sometimes even within States. The assessments continue throughout the life of the case.

The CPS agency will work with families to develop and implement a safety plan when children are assessed to be unsafe. If a safety plan can reasonably ensure the child’s safety, then the child may be allowed to remain in the home while the safety plan is implemented. However, if a child is unsafe and an appropriate safety plan cannot be implemented, the child will be removed from the home to ensure his or her safety. 

Safety Plan

A safety plan is a written agreement that the child protective services (CPS) caseworker develops with the family that clearly describes the safety services that will be used to manage threats to a child’s safety. Safety services assist families to engage in actions or activities that may logically eliminate or mitigate threats to the child’s safety. These activities must be planned realistically so that they are feasible and sustainable for the family over time. The safety plan will clearly outline what these actions and activities are, who is responsible for undertaking them, and under what conditions they will take place. It is designed to control threats to the child’s safety using the least intrusive means possible.

In all cases, the safety services outlined in the safety plan must have an immediate effect and be immediately available and accessible. They may be formal or informal: the services can be provided by professionals, such as child care providers, parent/homemaker aides, or public health nurses, or by non-professionals such as neighbors or relatives. The important thing is that everyone who is part of the safety plan understands his or her role and is able and willing to carry out their responsibilities.

A safety plan differs from a case plan in that a safety plan is designed to control safety threats and have an immediate effect, while a case plan seeks to create change over time to reduce risk and increase the family’s capacity to protect the child. The safety plan must stay in effect as long as the threats to child safety exist and the family remains unable to provide for the child’s safety.

Remain in the Home

A child protective services (CPS) worker who determines that a child can remain safely in the home with his or her family or caregiver then conducts a comprehensive family assessment with the family to determine the services needed to minimize both the risk of child maltreatment and the factors that contributed to this risk. The caseworker will engage the family, develop the case plan, and refer for appropriate services.

Once the case plan has been developed, the caseworker provides or arranges for services identified in the plan to help family members achieve or accomplish the plan's outcomes, goals, and tasks. Selecting and matching interventions and services is important in the casework process. Child maltreatment is caused by multiple and interacting factors, so interventions need to address as many of these contributing issues as possible. These include mental health and/or substance abuse treatment, parent education, and services to all family members that address trauma and concrete needs such as housing and child care. The ultimate goals are to keep the child safe, ensure the child’s overall well-being, strengthen the family, reduce the need for agency involvement, minimize the risk of a recurrence of maltreatment, and close the case when appropriate and safe.

Services to families with children that remain in their homes, sometimes referred to as family support or family preservation services, are provided at three levels, namely: 

  • Minimal services, such as education and support that address basic parenting skills, including the use of age appropriate discipline techniques and establishment of realistic expectations for a child or that address home maintenance skills, including effective home cleaning, grocery shopping, and budgeting
  • Intermediate services, such as family therapy, outpatient substance abuse, or mental health treatment for the parent and/or the child or the provision of respite care for caregivers to relieve the stress that contributed to the maltreatment
  • Intensive services, such as a family preservation effort that requires an intensive family intervention by a caseworker for a short period of time to resolve issues contributing to maltreatment

Groups other than the child welfare agency can provide many of these services, particularly at the minimal or intermediate level, and are often community-based or come from informal support systems. At the intensive level, private providers with whom the agency contracts can render specialized or intensive services as needed.

When the risk of further maltreatment is minimized and the goals of the case plan are met, then the case is closed and no further contact with the child welfare agency is required. If, however, sufficient progress is not made, maltreatment recurs, or anything else happens that endangers the child’s safety, then the CPS agency will reconsider whether the child should be removed from the home.

If the case is closed and another allegation of maltreatment is reported, then the case could be reopened and the CPS process begun again.

Removed from the Home

When there are safety concerns for the child that cannot be addressed by implementing a safety plan and there is significant risk of child maltreatment, then the child is removed from the home and placed in out-of-home or substitute care. Substitute care, also known as foster care, can range from placement with a relative (sometimes also known as kinship care), to placement with a foster family, to placement in a group setting or in residential treatment. Residential treatment usually occurs when the needs of a child with severe behavioral or mental health issues cannot be addressed in the other settings. The aim, however, is always to place the child in the least restrictive and most family-like setting.

The caseworker must consider numerous factors as well, including the proximity of the placement to the family. Close proximity helps maintain the continuity of family relationships and connections to the community, facilitates visitation between the child and family, and enables the child to remain in his or her school. If the child is removed with his or her siblings, then the goal is to place the siblings together. If siblings cannot be placed together, then the caseworker must arrange for regular sibling visits unless it is contrary to the safety or well-being of any of the siblings to do so.

In many cases where the child has been removed, there are a variety of issues contributing to the maltreatment, such as serious substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness, which require that multiple and intensive services be provided. In addition to the services provided to the parents, the child may also need services, including services to help him or her address the trauma arising from the maltreatment and separation from the family.

The caseworker conducts a comprehensive family assessment with the family to determine the services needed to minimize the risk of maltreatment, address the factors that contributed to this risk, and ensure the child’s safety upon return. The caseworker and family then develop the case plan together.

Once the case plan has been developed, the caseworker provides or arranges for services identified in the plan to help family members achieve the case plan's outcomes, goals, and tasks. Selecting and matching interventions and services is a critical step in the casework process. Child maltreatment is caused by multiple contributing factors, so interventions need to address as many of these factors as possible, including the interpersonal needs (such as mental health and/or substance abuse treatment and parent aide and/or other parent support services), and concrete needs (such as housing and child care) of all family members.

While the agency is working with the family, the caseworker will develop a plan for family visitation. The family visitation plan outlines when and how often visitation occurs and under what set of circumstances. The visitation plan addresses the need to develop or improve the parent-child relationship and any child safety or well-being considerations. Initially, visitation may be very structured and occur in a supervised setting. As the family progresses, visits may occur more often, be of longer duration, and become unsupervised.