Should This Family Be in the Child Welfare System?

Should This Family Be in the Child Welfare System?

April 7, 2015 | Mollie Warren, Program Associate

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The decision of whether or not to accept a child welfare referral for assessment—to screen it “in” or “out”—is one of the most difficult judgments a child welfare professional is asked to make. At the moment concerns about a family come to the attention of child protective services, countless details are unclear, ambiguous, or unknown altogether. Additionally, our previous experiences can greatly affect the lens that we use to view a referral, making objectivity nearly impossible.

The decision of whether or not to accept a child welfare referral for assessment—to screen it “in” or “out”—is one of the most difficult judgments a child welfare professional is asked to make. At the moment concerns about a family come to the attention of child protective services, countless details are unclear, ambiguous, or unknown altogether. Additionally, our previous experiences can greatly affect the lens that we use to view a referral, making objectivity nearly impossible. It is common to get caught up in speculation and reactivity, to live in the “what if” and operate from a place of fear. When this happens, we may begin to make decisions based on our “gut feelings” and intuition, instead of the laws and guidelines that regulate child welfare practice. We begin to tell one another and ourselves that the correct response is a larger intervention, an earlier response time, or an investigation “just in case.” We want to err on the side of conservatism, and we begin to believe the best choice is the one that places a child welfare worker in the living room of the family we are worried about.

As a child welfare caseworker, my team and I made intake screening decisions regularly. We once had to determine if we should “screen in” a referral about a teenage girl who was expressing suicidal ideation and presenting as severely depressed. The girl’s parents were highly involved in her mental health care and were taking all of the necessary actions possible to ensure that she was safe. The decision to screen out was made, and we did not intervene in the family’s life. A few weeks later, we were informed that the child had committed suicide. My team and I were shocked and saddened; we immediately turned to our decision not to investigate the family and began to question our reasoning and rationale. Over the following weeks and months, I noticed that we began to accept more and more similar referrals, even when they did not warrant our intervention.

When tragedy occurs, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that child welfare interventions, even when well intentioned, create stress and trauma for a family. No matter how respectful, engaging, and collaborative the responding caseworker is, the family is still involuntarily involved in a child welfare investigation. As a result, we must use our authority responsibly: the laws and rules that regulate our interventions must justify our involvement in a family’s life.

Today, I wonder whether my team and I might have had a different experience if we had used an instrument like the Structured Decision Making® (SDM) intake assessment. The SDM® intake assessment can help operationalize and organize the laws and rules that guide intake screening decisions. By providing a structured framework that allows us to make a decision based on specific, observable factors rather than hunches and gut feelings, the intake assessment safeguards objectivity in caseworker decision making.

I believe this assessment could have saved myself and my colleagues a great deal of stress, anxiety, and heartache. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the families referred to our agency during that difficult time would likely have been better served, as we would have made better, more objective decisions about our interventions despite the pain and emotions we were working through.