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.