The Structured Decision Making® (SDM) model for child protection assists agencies and workers in meeting their goals to promote the ongoing safety and well-being of children. This evidence- and research-based system identifies the key points in the life of a child welfare case and uses structured assessments to improve the consistency and validity of each decision. The SDM model additionally includes clearly defined service standards, mechanisms for timely reassessments, methods for measuring workload, and mechanisms for ensuring accountability and quality controls. The model consists of several assessments that help agencies work to reduce subsequent harm to children and to expedite permanency:
- Intake assessment: The screening section of the intake assessment helps child abuse hotline workers determine if the current report requires a child protective services (CPS) investigation response. The response priority section helps workers determine how swiftly an investigation must be initiated for those reports accepted for investigation.
- Safety assessment: The assessment helps workers at all points in a case determine if a child may safely remain in the home, with or without a safety plan in place. A second safety assessment, customized for use in foster and substitute care, has also been developed.
- Risk assessment: This actuarial assessment estimates the likelihood of future harm to children in the household, and assists investigation workers in determining which cases should be continued for ongoing services and which may be closed at the end of an investigation.
- Family strengths and needs assessment: The FSNA informs case planning by structuring the worker’s assessment of family caregivers and all children across a common set of domains of family functioning. For the case plan, priority areas of need are chosen as the focus of efforts to improve family functioning and child safety.
- Risk reassessment: For families receiving in-home services, the actuarial risk reassessment helps the ongoing service worker determine when risk has been reduced sufficiently that the case may be recommended for closure.
- Reunification assessment: For families with a child in out-of-home care with a goal of reunification, this assessment helps the worker determine when a child may safely be returned to the home, or when a change in permanency goal should be considered. The assessment has three sections that focus on risk, caregiver-child visitation, and safety.
NCCD views the SDM model as a vital component of a child welfare practice model that also includes engagement and solution-focused approaches to working with families, as well as evaluation and quality improvement activities. The SDM model offers an elegant, comprehensive way to incorporate research and consistency into key child welfare decisions. To date, no set of CPS assessments has demonstrated the degree of reliability and validity, nor the improved outcomes, of the SDM model.