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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 19, No. 1
December 2013

A Framework for Thinking about Assessment in Child Welfare

The CPS assessment process is the first thing that comes to mind for many people when they think of assessments in the field of child welfare. But the truth is that assessment plays an important role in every phase of our work, from intake through adoption. Plus, there are quite a few specialized assessments that also figure prominently--NC's Family Reunification Assessment (DSS-5227) and the Ansell-Casey Life Skills Assessment are just two of dozens that could be mentioned.

This can make thinking about child welfare assessments a bit confusing. Unless, of course, you have a broader framework to help you understand how the various types and subvarieties of assessment fit into the work we do.

Comprehensive Family Assessments
The comprehensive family assessment is a useful framework for understanding assessment in child welfare. An "umbrella" assessment, comprehensive family assessment builds on and incorporates information collected through safety and risk assessments as well as other specialized assessments. This information is then used to help us understand the nature of the family's strengths, needs, resources, and circumstances, and to act as the basis for the type and frequency of interventions and services that will be needed.

Because comprehensive family assessments are so useful, in 2005 the US Children's Bureau published guidelines about them. These guidelines emphasize that the comprehensive family assessment is:

A process, not a tool. No single form can capture all that is needed for comprehensive assessment.

Ongoing. Many factors, including the child's safety, the risk of future maltreatment, parents' protective capacity, and child well-being must be accurately assessed on an ongoing basis. For this reason, comprehensive assessment must occur from intake to case closure.

Updated regularly. Updates should be made whenever major changes in family circumstances occur and at key decision-making points, including:

  • Decisions related to in-home services
  • Placement decisions
  • Decisions related to changing the objectives and activities on the services agreement
  • Formal reviews of progress, including court reviews
  • Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) decisions
  • Decisions related to reunification or other permanency options
  • Case closure

Closely tied to service provision. Decisions about service provision, placement, reunification, concurrent planning, and case closure, among others, must relate directly to the initial and ongoing comprehensive assessment of the family's needs, progress, and current resources.

Even if "comprehensive family assessment" isn't a term used in your agency, it can be a useful framework for integrating the many different kinds of assessment that occur in child welfare.

To learn more about this assessment framework, consult Comprehensive Family Assessment Guidelines for Child Welfare (USDHHS, 2005):

Commonly Used Terms Related to Assessment in Child Welfare

Assessment. Collecting information to inform decision-making about a child, youth, or family. Always conducted as a means to an end--to identify the family's strengths and needs and to design a mutually agreed upon plan with services that will encourage the family to address and resolve the identified needs.

Comprehensive Clinical Assessment. Conducted by specially trained mental health professionals, this Medicaid billable service can be used to drive mental health treatment plans and child welfare service plans. CCAs often include interviews with families and assess the family's functioning as well as the child's.

Evaluation. An extensive and formal process of appraisal often used in other fields (education, psychology, or psychiatry) to assess client functioning using standardized instruments and methods.

"Evaluation" also refers to measuring and judging the effectiveness, outcomes, or quality of an activity or program. This definition is not directly relevant to assessing children and families.

Family Assessment. North Carolina's term for differential or alternative response in CPS. Although concerned with child safety, family assessments are holistic and not focused on a specific alleged incident of maltreatment.

Investigative Assessment. Examining and searching for facts after an alleged incident of abuse or neglect is reported.

Risk Assessment. Collecting and analyzing information to determine the degree to which key factors are present in a family situation that increase the likelihood of future maltreatment.

Safety Assessment. Systematically collecting information on threatening family conditions and current, significant, and clearly observable threats to the safety of the child, to determine the degree to which the child is likely to suffer maltreatment in the immediate future.

Screening. In CPS intake, the process used to determine whether a referral meets statutory definitons required for a CPS assessment.

In other phases of child welfare work, screening is a preliminary appraisal of needs and strengths. Usually a screening instrument or tool is used to determine if the child or family needs further assessment, treatment, or intervention services. The UNCOPE screening instrument for substance abuse is one example.

Adapted from the Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013


References for this and other articles in this issue