20, No. 1
Safety Resources: Definition, Benefits, and Challenges
Use of safety resources is a strategy that can help North Carolina's child welfare system achieve safety, permanence, and well-being for children and their families. However, some in the field have questions about this practice: What exactly are safety resources? When should we use them? For how long should we use them?
Safety resources are discussed in North Carolina's child welfare policy (see Chapter 8, Section 1408, item F), but the questions above aren't answered there. During 2015 the NC Division of Social Services will begin working with county DSS agencies through the In-Home Services Workgroup to make policy on safety resources more comprehensive.
In the meantime, this article seeks to answer common questions about safety resources, based on conversations with representatives from the Division and county DSS agencies.
Safety resources can take many forms. Examples include providing priority day care to enable a parent to get an assessment, or having a neighbor stop in daily to help a parent or child take a needed medication.
Temporary Safety Placements
Some people use "safety resource" and "kinship care" interchangeably. This is incorrect, though it's easy to see why this mistake occurs. Both involve placement with relatives, and in both the agency checks criminal history and uses the "Kinship Care Initial Assessment" (DSS-5203) and the "Kinship Care Comprehensive Assessment" (DSS-5204) to assess the prospective caregiver.
There are important differences between safety resources and kinship care, however. Chief among them is court involvement. Strictly speaking, in our state the term kinship care is properly applied only to a court-ordered placement of children with their relatives. Courts do not oversee county DSS agencies' use of safety resources.
Other differences between safety resource placements and kinship placements include the following:
Custody. With kinship placements, the court has typically given custody of the children to the county DSS agency. With safety resource placements, parents retain custody and full access to their children. For example, with a temporary safety placement, DSS cannot require supervised visitation.
Duration. Kinship placements last months and sometimes years. Safety resource placements, on the other hand, should be very short, lasting only as long as it takes to gather the information needed to reach a decision about whether the immediate safety concern can be adequately addressed and the children returned home. Policy is not specific on this point, but the NC Division of Social Services suggests this might reasonably range from several days to as long as 60 days.
If the agency is uncomfortable returning the children home after a reasonably brief period, it should consider petitioning the court for custody.
The professionals we spoke with were clear, however, that in their experience there are both benefits and challenges connected with the use of temporary safety resource placements.
Keeps children with family. Safety resource placement providers are family or family-like individuals. This is consistent with law and policy, which are clear: relatives should be the first ones considered as alternative caregivers.
Gives CPS "space" to work. CPS assessments can be complex and time consuming. Safety resource placements can give CPS the extra time it sometimes needs to adequately assess safety. This can help avoid unnecessary foster care placements. As Robby Hall, director of Richmond County DSS put it, temporary safety placements can "give you time to evaluate the needs of the family without taking drastic steps."
The box below provides an example of the appropriate, effective use of a safety resource placement.
May deprive parents of their rights. Although it's good to avoid unnecessary foster care placements, using safety resources longer than is appropriate may deprive parents of the right to due process guaranteed in the fifth amendment to the U.S. constitution, which states that no person shall be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."
Can prevent birth parents from getting needed resources. For example, with the children out of the house, parents may become ineligible for Food Stamps or other assistance. This can exacerbate the difficulties that caused them to come to the attention of CPS in the first place.
It is harder to serve the family once they're in separate places. As Jon Cloud of Granville County DSS put it, "We feel it's much more effective to work with the family as a unit.... It's difficult to provide treatment to children when they are somewhere else."
DSS can find it hard to stay within time limits. It is not uncommon for safety resource placements to continue well beyond what a reasonable person would consider short or temporary, extending to many months or even longer.
Sometimes this occurs because agencies begin focusing on risk instead of safety. As a reminder, safety concerns involve threatening family conditions and current, significant, and clearly observable threats to the immediate safety of the child or youth. Risk concerns revolve around the likelihood of future maltreatment (CWIG, 2014).
Case progress/permanency may be delayed. Those we interviewed suggested agencies often feel less urgency once they know kids are "in a safe place." This, in turn, may contribute to a tendency to use safety resource placements for longer periods than is appropriate.
May create a false sense of security. Because safety resource placements aren't court-ordered, providers may not share the agency's concern about the child's safety. For example, CPS may stop by the safety resource provider's home only to learn the children have been at their parents' house "for a few hours so I can do some errands." One county DSS director stated that this type of thing happens "all the time."
And, because they retain custody and the court is not involved, parents can see the children or end the arrangement whenever they wish.
Safety resource providers may feel confused, coerced, or excluded. They may feel pressured to help a family member without a clear sense of what the financial and emotional toll (especially if it is a sibling group) will be on them or of how long the arrangement may last. Despite the best intentions, DSS agencies do not always paint a complete picture of what providers are taking on and what is expected of them. In some instances, safety resource providers even mistakenly think the children are in foster care and therefore should have access to foster care-related benefits (e.g., NC REACH). Finally, another challenge that occurs is that safety resource providers sometimes feel excluded from the team serving the child and family.