The Importance of Assessment in Child Welfare

By Schene, Patricia; Caffaro, John et al. | Policy & Practice, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Importance of Assessment in Child Welfare

Schene, Patricia, Caffaro, John, Fluke, John, Policy & Practice

For the past three years, California has been working with a broad base of stakeholders committed to redesigning child welfare services. The goal was to create a flexible system made up of public and private partnerships. This system should provide a framework of support for families and communities to ensure the well-being of every child. The plan was aligned with the new state accountability framework and the Program Improvement Plan arising out of the federal Child and Family Services Review (CFSR). Every state in the country has been challenged by its federal CFSR and several are looking to California as the standardized safety approach. As a result, the California effort may be an indication of what's to come for the rest of the country in the area of child welfare service (CWS) assessment.


An important part of the new plan is the commitment to increased flexibility in responding to families with different needs. This commitment is called differential response. In California, differential response involves three paths to maltreatment reports--community response, CWS-partners' response, and a CWS--high-priority response. Service delivery is improved by more involvement with families and by collecting more information regarding family strengths and needs in order to provide customized services.

Commitment to differential response required greater attention to the process of assessment and decision-making. The mission was to develop an approach to the assessment of safety, risk, and protective capacity that would enhance decision-making in a fair and equitable manner.

Because child welfare operates locally in California, varied assessment environments exist in individual counties. As a result, the workgroup in charge of redesigning assessment chose to develop an assessment approach rather than mandate a specific model. Staff confidence would be enhanced by providing a clear framework for the standardized approach. This involved: (1) uniform criteria for each type of assessment, (2) clear linkages between assessment tasks and case decisions, and (3) guidelines for structuring decisions and making judgments based on applying elements of safety, risk, and protective capacity.


Child protection requires partnerships at the state, local, and neighborhood levels to ensure success. A comprehensive system of services and supports in partnership with community resources is needed to successfully implement the standardized safety approach. Implementation also depends on administrators who support careful decision-making, well-trained staff who have the necessary time for each case, and supervisors who are able to guide the application of assessment to decisions.

Fairness and Equity

A basic principle of the assessment approach is fairness and equity in making decisions on child welfare cases. Standardization is necessary, but not sufficient to reach that goal. Having a clear framework and a set of guidelines for separate decisions contributes to more equitable judgments.

Meanwhile, a standardized approach must allow for cultural differences in child care beliefs and practices while not leading to different standards of care because of race, ethnicity, or economic status. Lack of cultural knowledge or workers' inability to recognize how their personal culture, values, and beliefs can obscure their interpretations and conclusions about families can render safety assessments inaccurate.

The Approach

An approach to assessment is a way to organize and identify the necessary components.

Assessments are tied to the domains of safety, risk, and protective capacity. Elements refer to the specific characteristics of children and families observed and assessed within each domain. The decisions are the range of questions and responses related to children and families that fall within the mandate of the agency.

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