Structured Decision Making® (SDM) Model
Structured Decision Making® (SDM) Model

SDM Logo

NCCD’s Structured Decision Making® (SDM) model is a suite of assessment instruments that promote safety and well-being for those most at risk—from children in the foster care system to vulnerable adults. The first SDM® system was developed in child welfare, and the approach has been expanded to substitute (foster) care, juvenile justice, adult protection, and welfare-to-work through NCCD’s commitment to making research actionable across the social services. The SDM model combines research with practice strategies, offering workers a framework for consistent decision making and agencies a way to target in-demand resources toward those who can benefit most.

Characteristics of the SDM model include the following:


Reliability: SDM assessments systematically focus on the critical decision points in the life of a case, increasing worker consistency in assessment and case planning. Clients are assessed more objectively, and decision making is guided by facts rather than individual judgment.

Validity: The actuarial research-based risk assessment, which accurately classifies families and clients according to the likelihood of subsequent outcomes, enables agencies to target services to clients at highest risk for negative outcomes, such as maltreatment recurrence or difficulty finding and maintaining employment.

Equity: SDM assessments ensure that critical case characteristics, risk factors, and domains of functioning are assessed for every client, every time, regardless of social differences. Detailed definitions for assessment items increase the likelihood that workers assess all clients using a common framework.

Utility: The SDM model and its assessments are easy to use and understand. Assessments are designed to focus on critical characteristics that are necessary and relevant to a specific decision point in the life of a case. By focusing on critical characteristics, workers are able to organize information gathering and case narratives in a meaningful way. Additionally, the assessments facilitate communication between worker and supervisor, and unit to unit, about the status of each case.

By design, SDM assessment instruments do not make decisions. The result of an SDM assessment should be tested against clients' perspectives and workers' professional judgment. For this reason, NCCD works with each agency implementing SDM assessments to examine their practice of engaging with clients. Integrating research-based assessment instruments into evidence-based practice models provides a cohesive approach to improving the accuracy and consistency of decisions while working constructively and collaboratively with clients.

For more information, please contact us. You can also access SDM-related publications here.


SDM tools promote objectivity and transparency in decision making, while affording workers the opportunity to target resources to families that are most at risk for recurrence of abuse/neglect.

Steve Yager
Deputy Director
Michigan Dept. of Human Services

The introduction, implementation, and widespread use of the Structured Decision Making® (SDM) system over the past several years has transformed our communities’ System of Care from one with frequent disagreement and discord to a more logical and harmonious system. Today, SDM® is the unifying concept relied upon by our Department of Children and Families (DCF) child protective investigators, OurKids intake, DCF children’s legal services, case managers, and our juvenile court judges. We no longer need to rely on hunches—SDM puts science on our side when making critical calls in the life of a child. The return on the SDM investment in South Florida cannot be easily measured. It is priceless.

Frances P. Allegra
Former Chief Executive Officer/President
Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, Inc.