Should This Case Be Closed?
When is it okay for the system to stop working with a family? How do we, as part of this system, decide that we have done all we can to make sure the family is functioning in a way that ensures child safety? This is one of the decision points in the life of a case that can be scary for workers.
When we open a case to work with a family after the assessment or investigation period ends, it’s usually because we believe concerns are significant enough that they need to be addressed by the child protection system. This occurs both when we take a child into custody and when a child remains in the home, but the family needs additional support before we can close the case.
The goal of the child protection system is to effectively intervene so that the family can function without our help in the future. One measurement that the system pays attention to is the rate at which families return to the system after we end our involvement. This, in part, is impacted by how we decide when we have provided the right amount of support and when enough change has taken place that it is okay to walk away.
One family I worked with comes to mind when thinking about this decision. A very young mother and father brought their infant to the doctor because she was difficult to soothe and had been fussy for an extended period, which was out of character for her. The doctor suggested some tests, then asked the couple to take their daughter to the hospital to complete the testing. While in the waiting room there, they were approached by the hospital social worker and told that their daughter had injuries consistent with shaken baby syndrome.
The couple refused to stay in the waiting room, took their child, and returned home. The investigation that followed found the injuries were most likely from the child being shaken. Both the mother and father had each been alone with the child numerous times. However, several relatives also provided care when no other person was present. We were never able to determine who caused the injuries.
During our time working with the family, the parents demonstrated great parenting skills. They had a lot of support. There was no history with the department and no concerns for mental health issues, substance use, or other risk factors. The couple had an apartment, and their child’s basic needs were met.
The question of when to close the case was a difficult one. It wasn’t about numerous risk factors that could contribute to this family’s risk of returning to the system; they didn’t have many risk factors. The question was whether we had done all we could to make sure this child was safe without knowing who had hurt her. It was difficult to feel comfortable about closing the case without a process to assess all the relevant factors.
I would have welcomed a decision-support assessment tool to help me determine this family’s risk of returning to the system. I fear that the decision to close the case could have differed dramatically depending on the jurisdiction and the worker assigned to the case. Having structure around the factors to consider would have been extremely helpful.
To learn more about the author, Julie Davis, click here.
This is the final blog post in a series of six titled “Real-World SDM.” Each blog post uses an example from Julie Davis’ experience as a social worker to demonstrate the usefulness of decision-support assessments when making crucial decisions in the life of a child welfare case. Each blog post’s title is a question that each Structured Decision Making® assessment helps to answer, as illustrated in this handout. To read the full blog series, click here.