Comprehensive Assessment Tool (CAT) Safety and Risk Assessment System

When a county agency receives a report of suspected child abuse, child welfare social workers must assess whether the child is in immediate danger, the chance the child will be harmed in the future, and what steps the family, and others, should take so that the child can grow up in a safe home, nurtured by a strong, and stable family.

Social workers must often assess the likelihood that children will be harmed and make difficult decisions rapidly, in high-stress situations. To support consistency, fairness and equity in the process used to assess each child and family referred to a county agency, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), and representatives from counties piloting innovations in child welfare practice, together developed a standardized approach to assessment. The primary objectives of this new standardized approach are to ensure that core safety, risk and protective factors serve as the criteria for assessment decisions, and that assessments are conducted at multiple decision points in the life of a child welfare case.

To support social workers’ ability to exercise sound professional judgment in arriving at assessment conclusions, The SPHERE Institute developed the Comprehensive Assessment Tool (CAT). Since February 2005, the SPHERE Institute has worked in collaboration with participating counties and in cooperation with the CDSS, to develop this evidence-based safety and risk assessment system. The CAT is currently in use in San Bernardino, Santa Clara, Napa, and Contra Costa Counties.

There are two defining and unique features of the CAT: it is designed by social workers, and it integrates an evidence base, built from historical case data, into the tools to provide critical decision making support for social work practice. The components of the system include:

  • Five safety and risk assessment tools for use at seven critical decision points in the life of a child welfare case
  • Data collection strategies that support safety and risk assessment
  • Development and maintenance of the CAT to support social work practices

CAT tools incorporate content set forth in the Recommended Statewide Safety and Risk Assessment System. They organize this content social workers can analyze it easily as they make decisions throughout the life of a child welfare case. The tools capture data that can also be analyzed in the aggregate to support development and implementation of systemic risk management practices.

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