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Child welfare agencies respond to a variety of concerns about children and their families. The response by the agency begins when a referral, or request for information or services is made, usually by telephone. The child welfare agency takes information about the concern and makes a decision about whether to refer the caller elsewhere (e.g. to a food bank or a day care provider) and/or to assess the situation further.
“In all cases, the fundamental goal of the child welfare agency is to protect children and adolescents from harm and to ensure that they do not endanger others,” says Bonnie Ruckman, director of the Rio Blanco County Department of Social Services.
Referrals which fall within the child welfare agency’s scope of responsibility generally are in three broad areas of concern:
n There is a concern about child abuse or neglect;
n There is a youth who is in conflict with his parents, caretakers, or others in the home or the community. Typical youth in conflict situations include older children or youth who are beyond the control of their parents, who have or are at risk of harming themselves or others, or who have committed acts that could cause them to be adjudicated delinquent by the court.
n There is a family with special needs children and/or parents with special needs. Typical situations are children with intellectual, physical, or emotional disabilities and/or parents who are unable to care for their children due to substance abuse, mental illness, or developmental or physical disabilities. Sometimes a parent is physically ill or homeless. Sometimes a child is a danger to him or herself or the community. If there is a presenting problem of mental illness and there is no abuse or neglect, the reporter will likely be referred to the local mental health center for services.
In first talking with a caller, the caseworker immediately begins to gather information that will help assess whether the child or children involved are safe and whether there are concerns about the safety of others. This information often proves crucial in making a quick, informed decision about how to proceed. During this stage of the referral, the caseworker will likely ask the caller: what happened; when the incident happened; who is the alleged perpetrator; the name of the alleged victim; whether or not the child(ren) have injuries now and if so, a description of the injuries; when the child(ren) were last seen and by whom; what their condition was at that time; where the child(ren) are located and how long they will be there, and the reason as to why the caller is making the referral.
Some reporters hesitate to report for fear that the family may learn their identity. It is important to know that, by law, the child welfare agency must keep the reporting party’s identity confidential unless the court requires it to be revealed. However, a potentially anonymous reporter may be encouraged to identify him/herself so that the information provided can be verified and expanded upon if needed. Additionally, when the reporter identifies him/herself, he or she is often more able to work in partnership with the agency to protect the child. For the reporter’s own protection, providing his name also serves as a means to document that a report was made in what may be a crucial situation. It is important to note that, even if a referral does not generate an ongoing case, the information obtained during the referral phase is entered into the agency’s database and can be referred to at a future date if needed. All third received reports will be assigned for further assessment.
The assessment phase in child welfare begins with the decision by the caseworker to follow up on a referral or request for services. The purposes of assessments are to assess the family situation including the concerns in the referral (e.g., safety, risk, social history, needs of the child and family, or findings on maltreatment), work with the family on a safety plan when indicated, and begin arranging for services to help remedy the presenting problems, if needed.
Clearly, in some cases, concerns for immediate safety are paramount and the assessment will focus on determining safety factors and initiating (with the family when possible) plans for protecting the child. The decision about whether a child needs immediate protection is based on whether there are safety factors that pose an immediate or short-term risk of moderate to severe harm.
Seventeen factors are associated with immediate harm. These distinctly defined factors are thought by experts to indicate that a child may be in danger of serious harm if an intervention is not made. Based on available information at the time, a safety factor is present when there is clear evidence that an incident or condition has: recently occurred; is occurring now; or is extremely likely to occur in the very near future. The safety factors are:
1. Caregiver(s) in the home are out of control or violent.
2. Caregiver(s) describes or acts toward the child in predominately negative terms and/or has extremely unrealistic expectations.
3. Caregiver(s) has caused harm to the child or has made a credible threat of harm to the child.
4. Primary caregiver has not or is unable to protect the child.
5. Explanations of injuries present are unconvincing.
6. The family refuses access to the child and there is reason to believe the family will flee.
7. Caregiver(s) is unwilling or unable to meet the child’s immediate needs for food, clothing, and shelter.
8. Caregiver(s) is unwilling or unable to meet the child’s moderate to severe medical or mental health care needs.
9. Caregiver(s) has not or is unable to provide sufficient supervision to protect the child from potential harm.
10. The child is fearful of caregiver(s), other family members, or other people living in, or having access to the home.
11. Caregiver(s) previously abused or neglected a child.
12. The child’s physical living conditions endanger the child’s health.
13. Caregiver’s alleged or observed substance use seriously affects his or her ability to supervise, protect, or care for the child.
14. Child sexual abuse is suspected and circumstances suggest that the child’s safety is of immediate concern.
15. Caregiver(s) alleged or observed emotional instability or developmental delay seriously affects his or her ability to supervise, protect or care for the child.
16. Domestic violence exists in the home.
17. The child is unable to self-protect, assertively prevent harm or access protective relationships to assure safety.
When the safety assessment indicates that a child or children in the family are at imminent risk of moderate to severe harm, the caseworker will determine if the current conditions or family actions can be controlled or eliminated to a degree that the child(ren) can be considered “safe.”
“Children are placed out of their homes only when available in-home services for their families will not be sufficient to meet the children’s needs or keep them or others in the family safe,” explains Ruckman. “Placement is made not only for reasons of safety and meeting children’s needs, but also to foster an environment and a set of circumstances in which the family can stabilize, strengthen their own resources, and, in many cases, increase their parenting knowledge and skills so that the child can return home.”
For the great majority of children, permanence will be with their family of origin. For some children, however, permanence will be with kin, a new family, or emancipation with lifelong caring relationships that the youth can rely upon until and through adulthood.
If you have concerns or questions about suspected child abuse and/or neglect, please contact the Rio Blanco County Department of Social Services, 970-878-9640 in Meeker or 970-878-9645 in Rangely.