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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 20, No. 1
December 2014

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.

In the broadest sense, a safety resource is any intervention to address specific, immediate child safety concerns during the delivery of child protective services. Typically they are needed when a child is found unsafe during a CPS assessment or during in-home services. Their use is intended to address immediate safety issues--significant, clearly observable threats to the child.

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
One of the most common forms of safety resource in North Carolina is the temporary safety placement provider. This is someone, usually a relative, that parents ask to temporarily care for their children to ensure their safety during a CPS assessment or during the delivery of CPS in-home services.

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.

Conversations with staff from county DSS agencies suggest the use of safety resource providers is common. Unfortunately, specific information about this practice is seldom--if ever--systematically tracked at the county level. There is no state-level data about the use of this practice. This makes it difficult to talk about patterns or link the use of safety resources to child and family outcomes.

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.

May increase child safety. Temporary safety placements are likely to reduce the child's exposure to the safety concern.

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.

Example: Successful Use of a Temporary Safety Placement

A mother of three children under age 6 has been involved with DSS on multiple occasions due to domestic violence. There have been three prior reports and the environment has deteriorated--the mother now says she has begun to use drugs frequently in the presence of the children.

Recently the Sheriff arrested the mother's boyfriend for using her home to make and sell methamphetamine. The mother was also arrested.

DSS was contacted and responded to the scene. The mother identified her parents as possible safety resource caretakers for the children. DSS completed the appropriate Kinship Care Assessment tools and background checks and approved the grandparents as a temporary safety placement.

After several weeks the mother was released on bond and complied with efforts to identify and resolve the risk related to the injurious environment (domestic violence, substance use, criminal activity).

The grandparents provided alternative housing for the mother and the children to ensure the boyfriend no longer had access to the family.

Placement with the grandparents was needed for only a few weeks to allow the mother the opportunity to set up treatment services, re-establish a safe home for her and the children, and demonstrate effective use of the safety plans.

The grandparents and other family members assisted with finances and care of the children while the mother completed treatment. There was no need for child welfare-related court intervention or further intervention from the DSS.

Parents can feel coerced. Although technically the use of a safety resource provider is up to the birth family, in reality the presence and power of CPS make it possible (some would say likely) parents feel they are making this decision under duress. This can make partnering with and supporting the family more difficult.

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.

This article has defined what safety resources are, described the pros and cons of this practice, and explained why it is different from kinship care. For practical tips about the use of safety resources from people in the field, see the article "Using Temporary Safety Resource Placements: Best Practices."

References for this and other articles in this issue