Risk Assessment as a Practice Method in Child Protective Services

By English, Diana J.; Pecora, Peter J. | Child Welfare, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Risk Assessment as a Practice Method in Child Protective Services


English, Diana J., Pecora, Peter J., Child Welfare


Child welfare agencies have been overwhelmed in recent years by a significant increase in child abuse and neglect referrals. In 1987, the American Humane Association estimated an increase in referrals of 180% during the ten-year period from 1976 to 1986 [American Humane Association 1987]. In 1991, after an extensive national review of child abuse and neglect, Congress found that the number of children who experience child abuse and neglect had increased dramatically and "that many of these children and families fail to receive adequate protection or treatment" [National Commission Report 1990]. In 1990 it was estimated that two and one-half million children in the United States were alleged victims of maltreatment [Daro and McCurdy 1991].

Child protective services (CPS) agencies have been under siege for several years. To cope with increasing and increasingly severe caseloads, child welfare agency administrators are looking for methods to improve service delivery as well as ways to make service delivery more effective. In an era of increasing referrals and shrinking resources, decisions regarding who is going to be served, and when, become critical.

The past nine years have seen a nationwide response to the problem of increased workloads in public welfare agency settings. Many CPS agencies have adopted formal risk assessment models. As of 1987, it was estimated that over 40 states had implemented risk assessment systems in one or more of their regions or counties [Tatara 1987]. In general, these models seek to improve the effectiveness of CPS investigations and procedures related to service provision by increasing the thoroughness and consistency of assessment.

Most risk assessment models categorize cases according to an overall risk level and specify the most critical risk factors that require intervention or contribute to overall risk. It is assumed that intervention related to these risk factors will ensure the protection of a child who has allegedly been abused or who is assessed as likely to be abused in the future. A thorough risk assessment should also help a caseworker to target services to the most important risk factors identified in each case.

Summary of Definitions, Goals, and Current Systems

Risk Assessment Defined

The term risk assessment is being used to define a number of different assessment and decision-making processes. Essentially, risk models are concerned with predicting whether or not a child will be maltreated in the near future, absent intervention. Risk assessment can be defined as the systematic collection of information to determine the degree to which a child is likely to be abused or neglected in the future. Risk assessment may also be said to refer to an estimation of the likelihood that there will be an occurrence of child maltreatment in a case where maltreatment has not occurred, though under most state statutes, an occurrence of maltreatment must already have been substantiated. Most states are using risk assessment after substantiation of abuse/neglect to determine appropriate levels of service. Once a prediction of the likelihood of the recurrence of maltreatment is established, a second prediction concerning the likely severity of the maltreatment is assessed [see for example, Holder and Corey 1986; Miller et al. 1987; Starr 1982; Wells 1985].

The process of risk assessment encompasses examining the child and family situation in order to identify and analyze various risk factors, family strengths, family resources, and available agency services. This assessment information can then be used to determine whether a child is safe, what agency resources are necessary to keep a child safe, and under what circumstances a child should be removed from or returned to his or her family. In some cases, risk assessment models can help workers judge whether a child who has been in out-of-home care as a result of child abuse and neglect can safely return home. Once risk has been assessed, and a child is determined to be at risk, the process becomes one of case planning. …

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