How Do You Know When It’s Time to Close the Case?

How Do You Know When It’s Time to Close the Case?

April 29, 2015 | Rod Caskey, Senior Program Specialist

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Every day a child welfare social worker has a number of decisions to make for every case that he or she carries. Some are small decisions about tasks: scheduling home visits, responding to questions from children and parents, or making referrals. Some are bigger problems that need solving: a lack of transportation to appointments, missed appointments, concerns raised by the family and others). At all times, there is always the larger decision of when the case can be closed or whether it should continue.

Every day a child welfare social worker has a number of decisions to make for every case that he or she carries. Some are small decisions about tasks: scheduling home visits, responding to questions from children and parents, or making referrals. Some are bigger problems that need solving: a lack of transportation to appointments, missed appointments, concerns raised by the family and others). At all times, there is always the larger decision of when the case can be closed or whether it should continue.

All of this decision making occurs for every open case even as new cases are being assigned to already-high caseloads. For all of these cases, workers must meet agency requirements on how long each case should be open for in-home services.

Take, for example, the worker who has 17 cases assigned. Let’s say that four cases have an upcoming case plan review and all are past the agency length-of-stay requirements for closing in-home cases, two by several months. The worker is over the number of cases that should be carried according to agency standards, and has just learned that several new cases are going to be assigned to the unit and she will receive one or two. The worker has been thinking about closing the four cases, but just isn’t sure that the families are ready and worries that the time to close has not yet been reached. The worker’s supervisor suggests completing the risk reassessment to help think through whether any of these families’ cases can be closed safely.

The SDM risk reassessment is, on the face of it, pretty simple and straightforward. It is a research-based tool that is designed to aid caseworkers in reassessing the risk of subsequent harm to a child after a case has been opened for in-home services. The risk reassessment has nine items for a caseworker to evaluate: four items help set a baseline for risk based on conditions that existed at the time of the investigation that led to case opening, while the remaining five items focus on behaviors and conditions in the family during the current review period.

The end result, following consideration of overrides, is a risk level that leads to a recommendation to continue or close the case. If the family’s risk level is low or moderate and there are no outstanding safety threats, the recommendation is to close the case. If risk is high or very high or if there are outstanding safety threats, the recommendation is to continue the open case, revise the family’s case plan as needed, and review again when required by the child protection agency’s policy. At this point, caseworkers use their professional judgment to make a decision about whether to implement the recommendation or to provide reasons for following another course of action. As I said earlier, this process is pretty simple and straightforward in most ways, and if that were all there was to it, we would be done with this discussion.

However, the process of reassessing risk is not that simple, nor should it be. The simple explanation above masks the complexity of working with a family; of creating a case plan with families to resolve the conditions leading to the case being opened and of determining whether the plan has led to behavioral change and safety for the children.

Reassessing risk is much more than a checklist to look at when a review period is up. It is part of an ongoing assessment process that begins with the case plan developed with the family at case opening. The process of reassessment does not focus on simple compliance with services offered (i.e., drug treatment services were offered to the caregiver, she accepted, and she showed up at her appointments—end of story). To create safety for children at the time of review, a child welfare worker must focus on whether the behaviors and conditions leading to risk of subsequent harm have changed. That is, the worker must ask not just, did Mom go to her appointments, but has the problematic behavior changed? Is Mom applying what she has learned at the appointments? Is Mom calling her support network if she feels tempted to use?

When the worker and the family sat down together near the beginning of the case to write a case plan, in the best scenario they will have made a plan that is behaviorally specific about the steps to be taken, including activities and services that the family will utilize. Finally, the case plan should include a description of what caregiver behavior will look like when changed, and how everyone will know that changes have occurred and the children will be safe from subsequent harm.

Remember, the overall goal of the plan is to work with the family to build repeatable behaviors that reduce risk and create safety for children in the family. The risk reassessment is an objective evaluation of whether that has occurred, and so it should not be a mystery or a surprise to the family when the worker sets down with them to discuss next steps. The steps will be based on the case plan that the family and worker have written together.

Another piece of reassessing risk also really begins earlier in the case, at the initial risk assessment. At that time, the worker needs to talk with the family about their risk level, how it is determined with, how risk will be reassessed at the case plan review (including each item), and how risk helps determine whether continued case services are necessary or the case may be closed.

Throughout the review period, for as long as a case is open, the worker will meet with the family to discuss the plan, review progress, and gather and evaluate information from service providers and other people close to the family. All of this is done with the risk reassessment in mind. Documentation should focus on progress with the goals and objectives in the case plan and the items on the risk reassessment. That way, when it is time to do the risk reassessment, the worker will be in a better position to formally evaluate progress, discuss next steps with the family, and use the results to make a good decision about child safety and well-being and communicate with the family about it.