In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Risk Assessment in Child Protection Services

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Decision Making in the Context of Uncertainty
  • Controversies in Risk Assessment
  • Resources for Developing and Adopting Risk Assessment Tools
  • Other Forms of Risk Assessment in Child Protection

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Social Work Risk Assessment in Child Protection Services
Aron Shlonsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0167


Child welfare services are designed to promote the safety and well-being of children at risk of harm. In most high-income countries, these services are largely focused on preventing the occurrence or recurrence of child maltreatment. Risk assessment, in this context, amounts to a set of procedures, formal and informal, used by social workers and other human-services professionals to identify children at risk of harm as a result of maltreatment. The definition of child maltreatment can vary with regard to scope, frequency, and severity but generally entails an act of commission or omission toward a child that is, or can result in, damage or harm to the child’s physical or psychological well-being. Most often, risk assessments are conducted by child protection agencies investigating allegations of child maltreatment. In such instances, risk assessment generally involves determining the likelihood of future maltreatment and deciding whether action is needed to reduce the risk of future harm.

Introductory Works

This section provides an overview of current thinking on risk assessments in child welfare. Given that child welfare services are primarily geared toward maintaining the safety of children who are at risk of future maltreatment, the literature mostly focuses on the development and use of various strategies for finding those cases with the highest degree of risk. Beginning in the 1980s, there was widespread discussion about how to go about creating tools to achieve this aim. Wald and Woolverton 1990 expertly captures many of the most important elements of these debates and pushed the field to consider both the statistical properties of the tools as well as their potential use. Gambrill and Shlonsky 2000 extends this work as part of a Children and Youth Services Review issue on risk assessment in child welfare, detailing the many errors that can occur in individual decision making, both with and without reliable and valid statistical tools. These works were followed by Rycus and Hughes 2003, which describes the decision-making process in cases of child maltreatment and further advocates for the increased use of statistically driven tools. The movement toward statistically driven tools is not without its detractors, and perhaps the best arguments against their use are related to the tendency of child welfare workers to either rely too heavily on risk ratings or to be completely dismissive of such ratings. Cash 2001 is about this struggle, with the author aptly titling her paper “Risk Assessment in Child Welfare: The Art and Science.” Finally, Shlonsky and Wagner 2005 takes these arguments to the next level, summarizing the research to date and proposing that risk assessment is only one small part of the child welfare endeavor. That is, unless combined with effective services, risk assessment has little chance of improving the lives of high-risk children and families.

  • Cash, S. J. 2001. Risk assessment in child welfare: The art and science. Children and Youth Services Review 23.11: 811–830.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0190-7409(01)00162-1

    Offers an overview of risk factors, various risk assessment tools, the use of risk assessment tools in child maltreatment cases and, most importantly, introduces the notion that optimal decision making is inevitably a mix of evidence and skill.

  • Gambrill, E., and A. Shlonsky. 2000. Risk assessment in context. Children and Youth Services Review 22.5–6: 813–837.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0190-7409(00)00123-7

    Takes stock of the evidence for the use of clinical-versus-statistical assessments of risk and reviews many of the cognitive biases that might influence decision making. Suggests that reliable and valid statistical tools, while not a panacea for the troubles faced by child welfare workers and their agencies, can be an important component of improved decision making.

  • Rycus, J. S., and R. C. Hughes. 2003. Issues in risk assessment in child protective services: A policy white paper. Columbus, OH: North American Resource Center for Child Welfare Center for Child Welfare Policy.

    Written by two of child welfare’s top trainers, this widely available white paper is a well-written, comprehensive look at the issues facing child welfare researchers and the extent to which valid risk assessment tools can address many of these concerns.

  • Shlonsky, A., and D. Wagner. 2005. The next step: Integrating actuarial risk assessment and clinical judgment into an evidence-based practice framework in CPS case management. Children and Youth Services Review 27.3: 409–427.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2004.11.007

    Integrates risk assessment with evidence-based practice, situating valid risk assessment as a form in which current best evidence is to be combined with client values/preferences and clinical state/circumstances. Predictive risk assessment is of little use unless it is coupled with clinical assessments that point toward problems that can be ameliorated by effective services.

  • Wald, M. S., and M. Woolverton. 1990. Risk assessment: The emperor’s new clothes? Child Welfare 69:483–485.

    This outstanding and seminal journal article details the problems facing decision makers in child welfare, both with and without the aid of risk assessment tools. Many of the arguments contained in this article are still relevant and will likely continue to resonate with the field in the foreseeable future.

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