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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 19, No. 1
December 2013

Catawba County DSS Turns to "Signs of Safety" to Strengthen Assessments

In addition to the statewide efforts described above, individual North Carolina DSS agencies are also working to strengthen assessments. For example, Catawba County DSS is one of three agencies in the state using the model Signs of Safety (SOS). (Buncombe and Wilson DSS are the other two.) We talked with Catawba's Amber Detter and Beth Clore to learn more about their agency's experience with this approach.

The Model
SOS is a child protection practice model developed in Australia by investigations worker Steven Edwards and therapist Andrew Turnell. Since describing the model in their successful Signs of Safety: A Solution and Safety Oriented Approach to Child Protection Casework (1999, Norton), Turnell has been working to introduce SOS to other locations around the world--including North Carolina.

As the name implies, SOS focuses first on child safety. It is a model that emphasizes the importance of setting clear, behavior-driven goals and building true collaboration with family members. SOS is a framework for describing behavior, engaging families, and building safety for children that front-line workers can use on a daily basis--with every case at every stage, from CPS intake to case closure.

Overcoming Her Skepticism
Amber Detter was skeptical about SOS at first. She thought it might "sugar-coat" the seriousness of child abuse in an attempt to gain family cooperation. Her hesitation evaporated, however, when she saw the difference the model made.

One of things that won Amber and her co-worker Beth Clore over was its focus on describing specific, observable behaviors that create either safety or risk (danger). For example, when violence has taken place between the adults in a home, rather than writing "Dad assaulted Mom during a domestic violence incident," a worker using SOS would instead describe the specific behaviors that occurred: Dad and mom were yelling at each other, Dad shoved Mom, Dad punched a hole in the wall, child A hid in the closet crying, etc.

SOS uses this focus on specific, observable behaviors to support thoughtful assessment. It asks workers to consider whether the behaviors they see create safety or risk. Employment is something that illustrates this for Amber and Beth. Employment is commonly listed as a family strength. SOS asks workers to look deeper, to consider whether behaviors related to employment create safety or risk. Does the parent buy groceries on payday (safety)? Or drugs (risk)?

In Catwaba's experience, this focus on describing behavior yields big benefits: it helps workers articulate clearly for families--and themselves--what behaviors would demonstrate sufficient safety to close the case, and how to get there. It helps workers form quality assessments, justify their case decisions, and create clear documentation to ease transitions as the case moves between workers.

Implementation in Catawba County
Catawba DSS got started with SOS when its managers read the book Signs of Safety and became interested. After they decided to go deeper into SOS, Amber and Beth travelled to Minnesota for training. Later the agency brought SOS trainers in to train all its child protection workers, at all levels.

Today in Catawba all new child welfare workers go through SOS training. Existing workers are encouraged to attend well-received "lunch-and-learns," the topics of which workers get to choose. Catawba's supervisors also meet to discuss cases and support each other in using SOS with their workers. Soon the agency will train lead workers to act as peer counselors for informal SOS-informed case consultations.

In Catawba's experience, implementing SOS requires a lot of daily practice and significant organization-wide buy-in.

Worth the Effort
Amber and Beth say the results are worth it. They report that since implementing SOS more of the families they serve understand what's required from them, such as what behaviors need to be demonstrated to have unsupervised visitation or to close the case. The in-home and foster-care units have seen more behavior change as well. For example, they have seen more parents implementing new disciplinary techniques, whereas before they might have seen compliance (e.g., attending all the parenting classes) without real improvement.

These representatives from Catawba DSS say that thanks to SOS, their agency now has a "common language" that makes transferring cases smoother. When staff and supervisors focus on describing behaviors, it creates a clear understanding of the situation and the expectations for the case, reducing the chance for miscommunication.

For more information about SOS and to view efficacy/outcome research on SOS, visit

References for this and other articles in this issue