CHILD WELFARE MANUAL

Section 1, Chapter 5 (Understanding and Assessing Child Safety)

(Effective 04/02/19)

Table of Contents

5.1 Principles of Safety Assessment and Intervention

5.2 Safety versus Risk

5.3 Safety Assessment

5.3.1 Threats to Child Safety

5.3.2 Child Vulnerability

5.3.3 Caregiver’s Protective Capacities

5.1 Principles of Safety Assessment and Intervention

  • Safety is paramount: As the Children’s Division continues to work with the family, child safety remains the primary focus.
  • Safety is ongoing: Safety assessment and intervention begins with initial family contact and continues throughout the life of the case.
  • Seeks to be least intrusive: The Children’s Division strives to intervene to protect children in ways that produce the least interference with family unity, while assuring the child is safe.  The most intrusive intervention would be to remove a child from the household.  The least intrusive safety interventions are actions to keep the child in the home and would consist of the family’s own resources within the family’s own network.  Staff should utilize the least intrusive interventions that will manage the safety threat.
  • A decision that a child is at risk of harm does not necessitate removal: A decision that a child is at risk of harm simply informs that an Immediate Safety Intervention Plan (CD-263) is needed to control the threat to the child’s safety.

5.2 Safety versus Risk

The primary concern of the Children’s Division is always child safety.  Whether the Division is responding to threats to child safety that are actively occurring or likely to become active, or whether resources are focused on families with a high probability the child will be maltreated in the future (risk), the focus is on keeping children safe.

Safe:  A child can be considered safe when there are no threats to child safety within their caregiver’s household or when the caregiver’s protective capacities and safety network are sufficient to manage or control the threats.

Unsafe:  A child is unsafe when a child is vulnerable to an identified threat to their safety within their caregiver’s household and when the caregiver’s protective capacities and safety network are insufficient to manage the threat to child safety.  An Immediate Safety Intervention Plan (CD-263) is required to control the threat to child safety.

Risk:  Risk is the likelihood or probability child abuse or neglect will occur or reoccur in the future.

5.3 Safety Assessment

Safety assessment refers to all the actions and decisions required throughout the life of a case to:

  • Assure that a child is protected;
  • Make efforts to support and facilitate the child’s caregiver and safety network in taking responsibility for the child’s protection; and,
  • Establish a safe, permanent home for the child.

Safety assessment consists of identifying and assessing threats to child safety, building safety networks, and creating and monitoring safety plans that enhance the capacity of caregivers and safety network to provide protection for their children.

When assessing whether a child is safe or unsafe, the practitioner must assess the following:

  1. Is there a threat to the child’s safety?
  2. Is the child(ren) vulnerable to the threat?
  3. Does the caregiver have sufficient protective capacities to protect the child(ren) from the threat?

5.3.1 Threats to Child Safety

Threats to child safety refers to specific situations or behaviors, emotions, motives, perceptions, or capacities of a family member that is out of control, imminent, and likely to have a negative impact on a vulnerable child.  Practitioners should always be alert to threats to child safety at the time of initial contact and at the time of any contact with the family.

A threat to child safety is an immediate, significant, and clearly observable threat to a child that is presently occurring or likely to occur, which could result in severe harm without intervention.

  • An immediate response is needed to control the threat.
  • The caregiver may be a direct danger to the child or may be unable to protect the child from the threat.
  • May involve physical aggression; failure to protect the child from aggression or a dangerous situation; neglectful behavior which deprives a child of essential, immediate safeguards, and/or basic necessities.

Examples of threats, taken from Structured Decision Making (SDM), to child safety include:

    • Child(ren) is in danger because parent/caregiver’s behavior is violent or out of control.
      • Extreme physical or verbal, angry or hostile outbursts at the child(ren) or between household members;
      • Use or threatened use of brutal or bizarre punishment (e.g., scalding with hot water, burning with cigarettes, forced feeding);
      • Use of guns, knives, or other instruments in a violent or threatening way;
      • Violently shakes or chokes baby or child(ren);
      • Behavior that seems out of touch with reality, fanatical, or bizarre;
      • Behavior that seems to indicate a serious lack of self-control (e.g., reckless, unstable, raving, explosive).
    • Parent/caregiver describes or acts toward child(ren) in predominantly negative terms or has extremely unrealistic expectations.
      • Describes child(ren) as evil, stupid, ugly, or in some other demeaning or degrading manner, or objectifies child(ren) (e.g. calling child(ren) “it” or “them”);
      • Repeatedly curses and/or belittles child(ren);
      • Parent/caregiver targets a particular child(ren) in the family by extreme placement of blame for family or community problems (e.g., truancy, delinquency, etc.);
      • Expects a child(ren) to perform or act in a way that is impossible or improbable for the child(ren)’s age (e.g., babies and young child(ren) expected not to cry, expected to be still for extended periods, be toilet trained or eat neatly, expected to care for younger siblings, expected to stay alone);
      • Child(ren) is seen by either parent as responsible for the parents’ problems;
      • Uses sexualized language to describe child(ren) or name calling (e.g., whore, slut, etc.).
    • Parent/caregiver caused serious physical harm to the child(ren) or has made a plausible threat to cause serious physical harm.
      • Intentionally or by other than accidental means caused serious abuse or injury (e.g., fractures, poisoning, suffocating, shooting, burns, significant bruises or welts, bite marks, choke marks, etc.);
      • An action, inaction, or threat that would result in serious harm (e.g., kill, starve, lock out of home, etc.);
      • Plans to retaliate against child(ren) for agency involvement;
      • Use of torture or physical force that bears no resemblance to reasonable discipline, or punished child(ren) beyond the duration of the child(ren)’s endurance;
      • One or both parent/caregiver fear they will maltreat child(ren) and request placement.
    • The parent/caregiver’s explanation of an injury to a child(ren) is inconsistent with the nature of the injury and/or there are significant discrepancies between explanations given by parent/caregiver, other household members, or collateral contacts.
      • Parent/caregiver’s explanation for the observed injuries is inconsistent with the type of injury;
      • Parent/caregiver’s description of the causes of the injury minimizes the extent of harm to the child(ren);
      • Medical evaluation indicates injury is a result of abuse and parent denies or attributes injury to accidental causes.
    • Parent/caregiver is currently refusing access to child(ren) or has refused access to children on prior interventions.   
      • Parent/caregiver has previously fled or made threats to flee in response to a present or past intervention;
      • Parent/caregiver has history of keeping child(ren) at home, away from peers, school, and other outsiders for extended periods;
      • Parent/caregiver refuses to cooperate or is evasive;
      • Child(ren)’s whereabouts are unknown.
    • Parent/caregiver has not, will not, or is unable to provide supervision necessary to protect child(ren) from potentially serious harm.
      • Parent/caregiver does not attend to child(ren) to the extent that the need for supervision is unmet (e.g., although parent/caregiver or household member is present, child(ren) can wander outdoors alone, play with dangerous objects, play on unprotected window ledge, or be exposed to other serious hazards);
      • Parent/caregiver leaves child(ren) alone (time period varies with age and developmental stage);
      • Parent/caregiver makes inadequate and/or inappropriate baby-sitting or child(ren) care arrangements or demonstrates very poor planning for child(ren)’s care;
      • Parent/caregiver’s whereabouts are unknown;
      • Criminal behavior occurring in the presence of the child(ren) or the child(ren) is forced to commit a crime(s) or engage in criminal behavior;
      • Parent/caregiver has not, will not, or is unable to protect child(ren) from violence against other family members.
    • Parent/caregiver is unwilling or unable to meet the child(ren)’s imminent needs for food, clothing, shelter, and/or medical or mental health care.
      • No food provided or available to child(ren), or child(ren) starved or deprived of food or drink for prolonged periods;
      • Child(ren) without minimally warm clothing in cold months;
      • No housing or emergency shelter; child(ren) must or is forced to sleep in the street, car, etc.;
      • Parent/caregiver does not seek treatment for child(ren)’s imminent and dangerous medical condition(s) or does not follow prescribed treatment for such condition(s);
      • Child(ren) appears malnourished;
      • Child(ren) has physical or behavioral needs which parent/caregiver cannot or will not meet;
      • Child(ren) is suicidal and/or violent to self or others and the parent/caregiver will not or is unable to take protective action;
      • Child(ren) displays serious emotional symptoms, serious physical symptoms, and/or a lack of behavior control which is believed to be a result of the child(ren)’s maltreatment.
      • Parent/caregiver has removed child(ren) from a hospital against medical advice.
    • Child(ren) is fearful of parent/caregiver, other family members, or other people living in or having access to the home.
      • Child(ren) cries, cowers, cringes, trembles, or otherwise exhibits fear in the presence of certain individuals or verbalizes fear;
      • Child(ren) exhibits severe emotional, physical or behavioral symptoms (e.g., nightmares, insomnia) related to situation(s) associated with a person(s) in the home;
      • Child(ren) has fears of retribution or retaliation from parent/caregiver or household members.
    • The child(ren)’s physical living conditions are hazardous and immediately threatening. Based on child(ren)’s age and developmental status, the child(ren)’s physical living conditions are hazardous and immediately dangerous.  For example:
      • Leaking gas from stove or heating unit;
      • Dangerous substances or objects stored in unlocked lower shelves or cabinets, under sink or easily accessible;
      • Lack of water or utilities (heat, plumbing, electricity) and no alternate provisions made, or alternate provisions are inappropriate (e.g., stove, unsafe space heaters);
      • Open windows or broken or missing windows;
      • Exposed electrical wires;
      • Excessive garbage, or rotted or spoiled food which threatens health;
      • Serious illness or significant injury has occurred due to living conditions and these conditions still exist (e.g., lead poisoning, rat bites);
      • Evidence of excessive human or animal waste in living quarters;
      • Guns and other weapons are accessible;
      • Active meth labs;
      • Vermin infestation (e.g., rats, roaches, etc.);
      • Vicious animal(s) or excessive number of animals in the home pose a safety concern to the child(ren).
    • Child(ren) sexual abuse is suspected and circumstances suggest that child(ren) safety may be an imminent concern.
      • Access by possible or confirmed offender to child(ren) continues to exist;
      • Circumstances suggest that parent/caregiver or household member has committed rape or has had other sexual contact with child(ren);
      • Circumstances suggest parent/caregiver or household member has forced or encouraged child(ren) to engage in sexual performances or activities;
      • Non-offending parent/caregiver is unable/unwilling to protect the child(ren).
    • The parent/caregiver’s maltreatment history is significant to the current circumstances, and suggest that the child(ren)’s safety is an immediate concern. (Note: Prior incidents, in and of themselves, do not constitute a current safety factor.)
      • Prior death of a child(ren) as a result of maltreatment;
      • Prior serious harm to child(ren)- previous maltreatment by parent/caregiver that was serious enough to cause severe injury (e.g., fractures, poisoning, suffocating, shooting, burns, bruises/welts, bite marks, choke marks, and/or physical findings consistent with sexual abuse based on medical exam);
      • Termination of parental rights- parent/caregiver(s) had parental rights terminated as a result of a prior Children’s Division investigation;
      • Prior removal of child(ren)- removal/placement of child(ren) by Children’s Division or other responsible agency or concerned party was necessary for the safety of the child(ren);
      • Prior Children’s Division investigation with a probable cause finding or preponderance of the evidence finding;
      • Prior Children’s Division investigation with an unsubstantiated finding – factors to be considered include seriousness, chronicity, and/or patterns of abuse/neglect allegations;
      • Prior threat of serious harm to child(ren)- previous maltreatment that could have caused severe injury; retaliation or threatened retaliation against child(ren) for previous incidents’ prior domestic violence which resulted in serious harm or threatened harm to a child(ren).

Potential threats to child safety exist in virtually every household, but generally caregivers have the protective capacity and safety network to control or manage them.  A child becomes unsafe when they are vulnerable to that threat and their caregiver’s protective capacity is insufficient to protect them from the threat.

5.3.2 Child Vulnerability

Child vulnerability refers to a child’s capacity for self-protection.  For each child in the household, the practitioner must assess their vulnerability to the threat to their safety.  Typically age, developmental disabilities, mental and/or physical disabilities are identified as significant factors for child vulnerability, but less obvious factors such as the visibility of the child, children targeted as the scapegoat, or children exhibiting behaviors that are provocative or irritating can also affect a child’s vulnerability. 

Age – Children age 0 to 6 are typically more vulnerable to threats of danger because they are totally or primarily dependent on others to meet their nutritional, physical and emotional needs.  Young children lack the ability to protect themselves from abuse or neglect.  They lack speech capacity and important social, cognitive and physical skills which are developed in early childhood.  Older children may, however, be more vulnerable because they are more mobile and can get into threats of dangers an infant could not (hazardous chemicals, drugs or weapons accessible to older children).  Certain stages of development associated with age, such as potty training or acting out teenagers, may also make them more susceptible to threats of danger.

Developmental level and mental disabilities – A child who is cognitively limited may be vulnerable due to a limited ability to recognize danger, to know who can be trusted, to meet his or her basic needs, to communicate concerns, and to seek protection.

Physical disability and illness – Children who have physical limitations due to physical disabilities or continuing or acute medical problems may be vulnerable because of an inability to remove themselves from danger and may be highly dependent on others to meet their basic needs.

Provocative, irritating or non-assertive behaviors – Children’s emotional or mental health or behavioral problems can be such that they irritate and provoke others to act out toward these children or to avoid them.  Children are vulnerable who are passive or withdrawn and not able to make basic needs known, or who cannot or will not seek help and protection from others.  Children who exhibit significant behavioral challenges may be more vulnerable because of increased stress levels associated with supervising and managing negative behavior.  Children exhibiting problems with toilet training, inconsolable crying, and delinquent or defiant behavior may be vulnerable because these conditions can be highly distressing to many caregivers.

Powerless and defenseless – Children who are highly dependent and susceptible to others are vulnerable. Such children are typically so influenced by emotional and psychological attachment that they are subject to the whims of those who have power over them.  Children who are unable to defend themselves against aggression are vulnerable.  This can include those children who are unaware of danger.  (The reference here is to dysfunctional attachments and the misuse of power.  It is noted that all children need to have relationships on which they can rely and have psychological attachment.)

Visibility – Children that no one sees (who are hidden or hide) are vulnerable. Children who do not attend day care, school, community or social activities may have increased vulnerability when compared to children with contacts outside of the family.  If children are very isolated, abuse may go undetected or unreported, which may increase the likelihood of future abuse.

Ability to communicate – Children’s inability to transmit information, thoughts, needs, and feelings so that they are clearly understood may make them vulnerable.  While communication ability is influenced by age and developmental level, it is also related to physical and mental disabilities and other individual characteristics.

Ability to meet basic needs – Children vary in their ability to meet their own basic needs for nutrition and physical care and this affects vulnerability.

Scapegoat – One or more children in a family may be a scapegoat — i.e., consistently the target of maltreatment while other children are not.  For instance, one child may resemble a birth parent, which leads to that child being targeted for abuse by the other birth parent or a partner.  Increased vulnerability may be a consequence of animosity toward the individual whom the child resembles.  Depending on the particular threat of danger, the gender of the child may also play a role in whether the child is targeted for abuse.

Accessibility by perpetrator – Unsupervised access to a child by a perpetrator or alleged perpetrator may present an obvious vulnerability for that child.  This may be lessened by the presence of another adult who is capable and takes responsibility for their protection.  The key component involves providing safeguards to ensure that a perpetrator does not have access to a child or the opportunity to compromise the safety of a child.

Perpetrator’s relationship to the child – The ability of the perpetrator to exert power and control in the relationship can create situations of compliance and/or fear.

5.3.3 Caregiver’s Protective Capacities

Caregiver’s protective capacities refer to knowledge, ability, and/or willingness of individuals in the household responsible for the child’s care, to protect the child from the threat of danger.  Caregiver protective capacities refer generally to primary caregivers who have primary, major, significant responsibility for caring for a child.  Primary caregivers and extended safety network are responsible for a child’s protection; therefore, the focus of safety assessment is on them.  Other household members or safety network members are often protective resources that are available and accessible for use in safety planning.  Once the practitioner identifies a threat to child safety and identifies the vulnerabilities of each child in the household, they must assess whether the caregiver has sufficient or diminished protective capacity to keep the child safe.

Caregiver protective capacities are generally understood in terms of the caregiver’s behavioral, cognitive, and emotional functioning.

Behavioral – A behavioral protective capacity is a specific action, activity or performance that is consistent with and results in appropriate parenting and protective vigilance.  Behavioral aspects show it is not enough to know what must be done, or recognize what might be dangerous to a child; the parent must act.  Behavioral protective capacity can be demonstrated when the parent:

  • Is physically able;
  • Has a history of protecting others;
  • Acts to correct problems or challenges;
  • Demonstrates impulse control;
  • Uses resources necessary to meet the child’s basic needs;
  • Demonstrates adequate skill to fulfill care giving responsibilities;
  • Possesses adequate energy;
  • Sets aside her/his needs in favor of a child;
  • Is adaptive and assertive.

Cognitive – Cognitive protective capacity is specific intellect, knowledge, understanding, and perception that results in appropriate parenting and protective vigilance.  Although this aspect of protective capacities has some relationship to intellectual or cognitive functioning, parents with low intellectual functioning can still protect their children.  This has to do with the parent recognizing he or she is responsible for his or her child, and recognizing clues or alerts that danger is pending.  Cognitive protective capacity can be demonstrated when the parent:

  • Articulates a plan to protect the child;
  • Is aligned with the child;
  • Has adequate knowledge to fulfill care-giving responsibilities and tasks;
  • Has accurate perceptions of the child;
  • Is reality oriented;
  • Perceives reality accurately;
  • Understands his/her protective role;
  • Is self-aware as a parent.

Emotional – An emotional protective capacity is a specific feeling, attitude, or identification with a child that motivates the parent/caregiver to exhibit appropriate parenting and protective vigilance.  The two primary issues that influence the strength of emotional protective capacity are the attachment between parent and child, and the parent’s own emotional strength.  Emotional protective capacity can be demonstrated when the parent:

  • Is able to meet own emotional needs;
  • Is emotionally able to intervene to protect the child;
  • Realizes the child cannot produce gratification and self-esteem for the parent;
  • Is tolerant as a parent;
  • Experiences specific empathy with the child’s perspective and feelings;
  • Displays concern for the child and the child’s experience and is intent on emotionally protecting the child;
  • Has a strong bond with the child;
  • Knows a parent’s first priority is wellbeing of the child;
  • Expresses love, empathy, and sensitivity toward the child