Day One in Child Welfare

Day One in Child Welfare

April 9, 2015 | Dr. Raelene Freitag, Director of Children's Research Center (CRC) & International Projects

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Every relationship between a child protection worker and a family has it: day one. On day one, the worker was assigned to respond to a report. That report contained bits of information about a family. Sometimes these bits tell of horrific harm, but more often, they tell of worries that children are in harm’s way in their homes. Sometimes, the worker has information about the family from prior contact with child protection. More often, this is the first time the child protection agency and the family have met.

Every relationship between a child protection worker and a family has it: day one. On day one, the worker was assigned to respond to a report. That report contained bits of information about a family. Sometimes these bits tell of horrific harm, but more often, they tell of worries that children are in harm’s way in their homes. Sometimes, the worker has information about the family from prior contact with child protection. More often, this is the first time the child protection agency and the family have met. One thing common to all day-one contacts is this: at the end of the day, the worker will make one key decision that will impact everyone for years to come. That night, the child will either fall asleep at home or in a bed in someone else’s house.

The family also knows that this is day one. Even families meeting child protection for the first time know that this worker has the power to decide where the child will sleep tonight.

In some of these day-one meetings, the child is in serious danger.

In some of these day-one meetings, the child is completely safe.

In just a few hours, the worker must decide whether this child in this family is in serious danger.

This moment—where clear, rational thinking is needed—is also the moment in which everyone involved is flooded with emotion: fear, anger, hurt, remorse, pride. This moment where equity is essential is also a moment in which two parties come together and differences (power, privilege, race, gender, language, class, and more) have not yet been bridged, making communication and trust difficult at best. This moment, which needs laser-like focus on only the most essential information, is packed with a torrent of information, much of which acts like noise that can distract everyone from the most essential question: Is this child safe today?

There are a few key things the worker needs to do and some key skills the worker needs to have in order to make the best possible decision on day one.

1. The worker needs to learn as much as possible about what may make this home dangerous for this child and what may make this home safe for this child. This is quite different from the task of a detective, who must find out whether a law was broken and who broke it.

2. The worker needs to build a working relationship. This is quite different from what either a therapist or a detective must do. The worker must be able to build this relationship quickly, with everyone from a child to an angry parent.

3. The worker needs the ability to take in massive amounts of information, sort the essential information from the noise, and make sense of the important information—bringing to bear knowledge from a variety of fields such as mental health, child development, substance use, medicine, and more.

4. The worker needs to balance the level of danger in this home against the long-term consequences of disrupting the family through separation.

5. The worker needs to have the personal awareness to notice when bias is influencing the decision he or she is about to make.

The structure of a Structured Decision Making® safety assessment in this moment can help navigate this complex moment in time. A safety assessment helps keep the focus on the most critical information. A safety assessment can be a check and balance on workers’ thinking by helping us notice if we are pulled toward removal more from fear than facts, or if we are being lulled into complacency due to overlooking a critical aspect of the situation. A safety assessment can begin to bridge differences by being transparent and by providing a universal way to talk about safety and danger.

At the end of day one, if all has gone well, the child is safe. Safety may be found or built in the home, or created by removing the child from a home that cannot be made safe. One decision is made.

But the safety decision is not complete. Every day until the child protection agency and the family part ways involves decisions about safety. Over time there is more information. Hopefully, the working relationship strengthens. Hopefully the family’s safety network grows. For a child protection worker, safety decisions are made every day.