This November we are exploring the worker competencies associated with Assessment, which involves gathering information about reported concerns and family needs, practicing basic principles and techniques of interviewing children and families, evaluating the relevance of information, as well as identifying family strengths and community and tribal resources, with special attention to problems and concerns related to child protection and family preservation. Renee Armstrong, policy and training planning liaison with the Training Academy, interviews Cheryl Stevens, MNCWTA Trainer and former child protection professional, about her experience and understanding of Family Assessment in the Minnesota child welfare system.
What does competent assessment look like in practice to you?
The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) Best Practice Guide to Family Assessment includes a checklist for completing a family assessment (Appendix E and on page 37). This helps us check the boxes and satisfy the requirements for Social Service Information System (SSIS) and closing cases. But a competent family assessment goes beyond that. A good Family Assessment is an opportunity to engage with a family in a process where you as the worker and the family themselves come out with a thorough understanding of how their family navigates life. I tell the learners in the Foundations (new worker) training that each new family they meet, either through assessment or investigation, is like getting a new book. They won’t know the ending until they have really gotten to know the family. I also tell them if they want the full story, they need to approach each family from a place of curiosity and without judgement.
What are a few key critical elements of assessment? What are some tips for balancing engagement and assessment within the role of a worker? Let’s start with monitoring and assessing for immediate safety concerns.
Safety assessment begins with the first contact with the reporter. That worker is called on to make an immediate assessment regarding the safety of the children based on the information that is provided by the reporter. There are times when an intake worker must initiate immediate action regarding safety such as requesting law enforcement complete safety and welfare checks or even a paramedic response. Those types of responses require good collaboration with other team members in order to provide a comprehensive assessment.
How about balancing safety and risk with protective factors?
Safety is always the primary concern. It is also believed that children do best with their families. Often families have many protective factors to draw on to achieve safety thus avoiding the trauma that can be associated with the removal of children. It is the responsibility of CP (child protection) to work with families to identify these protective factors and together through a robust assessment, find a way to achieve safety as much as possible within the home. In foundations we encourage new workers to think outside the box and to recognize that families often know more about what they need to keep their kids safe than any outside person. We also encourage using a trauma-informed approach to assessing safety.
What about assessing for safety across the life of a case?
The safety plan is developed after the completion of the safety assessment (this should occur at first contact with the primary caregiver). Review and ongoing assessment of safety plans should occur at every contact with the family. Best practice is that safety assessment is ongoing beginning with the initial report and continuing until the case is closed. The DHS Best Practice Guide states the following “agencies are encouraged to utilize models that support “safety- organized practice”. Safety organized practice models can create greater family engagement, increase child safety and family stability, and can be modified to assure cultural adaptation to meet the specific cultural experience of families served.” (Reference page 27 of the DHS Best Practice Guide to Family Assessment).
What are opportunities a worker has in their work with families, i.e. utilizing trust to foster relationships and safety network, highlight the inherent strengths of caregivers, bringing a trauma informed lens to assessment and partnering with families?
This question, actually, is an accurate description of a good effective family assessment. The concept of family assessment is centered in cooperation and the belief that the families we serve want their children to be well and safe. A worker’s ability to demonstrate respect and professional communication are elements of successfully engaging a family in a working relationship around child safety and building family stability. There needs to be a basic trust and willingness to work together in order to move forward in a family assessment. Both the worker and the family need to show a willingness and the capacity to build a relationship that permits the worker to, for a short time, enter that family's inner circle.
Child maltreatment is a traumatic experience, and the impact can be profound. We also know that some of the most well intended interventions by child protection can also be trauma inducing. A trauma-informed approach includes an understanding of many aspects of trauma and should be viewed with the use of a cultural lens. All interactions should include cultural considerations that are relevant to an individual child, their family, and their community context.
What are ways to fine tune or improve one’s competency around assessment?
Continuously looking inward to raise awareness of your own worldview and becoming aware of how personal bias and systemic bias can impact the work you do. It is also important to learn to accept feedback or being called out by others who may and will question your viewpoint and then to be able to call out others on their viewpoints. We need to recognize this is a responsibility we all share.
Always be mindful that being part of someone else’s life, even for a short 45 days, can have a profound impact on families moving forward. I often encourage Foundations students to always be aware of the immensity of the job they do, find joy in seeing families do better, and be humbled by their willingness to let you in.
The Minnesota Child Welfare Practice Framework is a set of competencies that have been created to assist child welfare professionals in defining and demonstrating their knowledge, skills, and understanding across a number of different practice areas. Refer to pages 8-9 of the Practice Framework to review all competencies related to Assessment, and consider ways to develop your own knowledge and skills.