Signs of Safety is a child protection casework practice model currently being rolled out by Child & Family Services in Alberta. It was developed in the 1990s in Australia by Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards in response to the question: “Is there a better way of doing child protection casework?” For three years, they collaborated with child protection workers to study what was working well and what was not, to come up with a strengths-based, future-focused method of assessing risk of harm to children. Signs of Safety has been shown to reduce the number of children coming into care and the number of children returning into care. In Alberta, Child & Family Services is divided into regions throughout the province and different regions and their respective offices are at different stages of implementing this framework into action here for our families.
The concept is that each family is unique and there is a complex network surrounding the child that includes concerns for safety as well as roles for protection. The Signs of Safety model is a departure from traditional casework. Social workers were the experts under the old model. The social worker would take responsibility for children’s safety while caregivers often felt forced into doing things to have the children returned. This model created a significant amount of anxiety in both the social worker and the family members. Family members would be given a ‘to do’ list of tasks and files were closed when the list was completed. Signs of Safety puts the family at the forefront as experts on their own needs. The responsibility for the safety of children remains with the family and they decide how the social worker’s safety concerns will be addressed. Focus is placed on what is working for the family and expanding on those areas of strength. Lastly, traditional casework can replace the voices of parents and children with social work speak. Signs of Safety encourages the use of common, plain language and concrete examples. For example, in the old model, a social worker’s concern could be: “I am concerned that mom has a mental health diagnosis that might lead to psychological harm to the child”. A Signs of Safety version of the same concern might be: “I am worried that you have some days where you feel so sad that you can’t get out of bed and that means Sally isn’t getting the helps she needs to get to school in the morning”.
One major tool of the Signs of Safety model is mapping. Mapping is a collaborative conversation between the family and the social worker which is used to build an understanding of:
- What are we worried about?
- What is working well?
- What needs to happen?
Once the mapping is complete, everyone involved in the mapping puts the risk on a scale between 0 (there is so much risk in the home that the children need to be removed immediately) and 10 (things are going so well, Child & Family Services does not need to be involved). A further discussion should follow the scaling, including what made the person choose the number they did and what would make it a point higher, or a point lower.
Signs of Safety puts the family at the forefront as experts on their own needs.Finally, a safety plan is developed. This is the ‘what’ of creating safety for children – Child & Family Services’ bottom line of what they need to see happening to feel that the child can safely return to the caregivers. To return to the earlier example, the old way might have been to ask the caregiver to attend a parenting/psychological assessment and follow through with the recommendations given. Using Signs of Safety, the goal might look something like: “Mom will be getting out of bed most mornings to help Sally get ready and to make sure she gets to school. If mom is having a bad day, she will call her cousin Nancy, or her trusted neighbor Carol for help. Carol and Nancy are aware of this and have agreed to come over to help when called”. The benefit of this approach is that the caregiver is given clear direction on what kind of behavior needs to be happening to create safety for her child. It also reassures the social worker when mom has made changes to create safety, compared to the old model where mom might have completed the tasks on the list but is not showing any change in her behaviour. Under the old model, there may be a disconnect where the worker feels uneasy about returning the children, but the parent feels the children should be returned as all the boxes on the to-do list have been checked. Signs of Safety makes the safety goals specific, which brings clarity on both sides of the equation.
Signs of Safety has been shown to reduce the number of children coming into care and the number of children returning into care.What does this look like in practice? Signs of Safety is a dramatic shift from the old model. It not only requires a major time commitment to train in and implement the techniques but it also requires front line workers to make a philosophical shift in their approach to casework. Despite its apparent simplicity, the model incorporates techniques used in solution-focused, planned, short-term therapy, so in its best form, Signs of Safety looks a lot like psychological counselling. The social worker elicits information, amplifies to get to the details, reflects to help the parent process their meaning, and then starts all over with the next question. This process can take hours and it’s not easy. The concept is that each family is unique and there is a complex network surrounding the child that includes concerns for safety as well as roles for protection. To get an idea of that network, the social worker must have an open mind and devote the time to do a full, individualized analysis of each case. It requires a social worker to think deeply about each and every case, a luxury not always afforded to a busy worker with a large caseload. It is easy to imagine that the old social work speak might simply be replaced with new Signs of Safety speak without the required shift in thinking. It will take dedicated people at all levels of Child & Family Services devoting time and resources to families to ensure that the implementation of Signs of Safety is truly a shift in practice.