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Structured Decision Making

Every year in California, child welfare services (CWS) agencies receive thousands of reports alleging abuse and/or neglect of children. In each instance, (CWS) workers must make decisions that balance the important values of child safety and family integrity. To do this, CWS workers must answer some difficult questions: Should they respond to a report of abuse and, if so, how quickly should they respond? Is the child in imminent danger? What`s the probability that the family will re-abuse the child? What are the family`s strengths, and what services does the family need to reduce risk?

To assist California's CWS workers in making these critical assessments and decisions, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) initiated the Structured Decision Making (SDM) Project in 1998. The contractor of the SDM Project is the Children’s Research Center (CRC), a division of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD). The NCCD is an Oakland-based non-profit organization dedicated to the improvement of decision-making systems in the fields of corrections and CWS.

The SDM Project was piloted and tested in seven California counties. Los Angeles, Orange, Sacramento, San Bernardino, Santa Clara, Alameda and Humboldt. County representatives worked collaboratively with CDSS and the SDM contractor to develop the SDM Assessment tools and protocols. Other counties later added as project counties and currently 54 out of 58 counties in California are SDM counties.

The purpose of SDM is to provide CWS workers with the best tools possible to help in making critical case assessments and decisions. To accomplish this, the Project included the development and testing of methods for assessing cases, structuring decisions, and managing cases in order to minimize the trauma of child maltreatment, and to prevent its recurrence.

The Project was conducted in two stages. During the first 18 months, efforts focused on the design and development of the major system components and decision-making tools of SDM. The second 18 months was dedicated to fine tuning system processes and decision tools, making revisions when appropriate, and conducting validation and workload studies.

The principle behind SDM is that decisions can be improved by the following: clearly defined and consistently applied decision-making criteria; readily measurable practice standards, with expectations of staff clearly identified and reinforced; assessment results directly affecting case and agency decision making.

The California SDM model includes: a Hotline Tool, to screen referrals received and determine how quickly a response must be made; a Safety Assessment, to determine if it is safe for a child to remain home; a Family Risk Assessment, to determine if the future risk is enough to warrant a case to be open; a Family Strength and Needs Assessment, to determine the needs, strengths and services that the family will need; a Reunification Assessment, to determine if children are able to return home; and an In-Home Family Risk Assessment, to determine if a Family Maintenance case can be closed or if the children will remain home. These assessment tools have now incorporated California’s Differential Response (DR) strategies that allow CWS agency to respond to reports of child abuse or neglect in a more flexible manner. DR involves a choice in the response path (community response, CWS and agency partners response, or CWS response) and also engaging families, both to recognize behaviors that put or keep their children at risk and to change those behaviors through the assistance of supports and services.

To date, the CRC has assisted or is assisting 25 states across the United States and three territories in Australia to implement the SDM model. In addition to 54 out of 58 counties in California, these states are also utilizing the SDM model: New York, Michigan, Nevada, Florida, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Indiana, Washington, Washington, D.C., Minnesota, Missouri, Vermont, Virginia, New Jersey, Tennessee, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Alaska, Georgia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Ohio and Rhode Island. In Michigan, a 12-month follow-up evaluation was done in 1995 to compare the outcomes for cases in SDM counties and non-SDM counties. The study revealed that formerly treated cases in SDM counties had 27 percent fewer new referrals, 54 percent fewer new substantiated allegations, 40 percent fewer children removed to foster care, and 42 percent fewer child injuries that required medical assistance than did formerly treated cases in non-SDM counties. These results indicate that when an agency is able to accurately classify families according to level of risk, they are also able to more selectively focus their resources, resulting in better outcomes for children and families.

The SDM Project is an exciting effort for California; one CDSS believes will reap many of the same positive outcomes for California's children and families that have been realized around the country.


California Department of Social Services
Child Protection and Family Support Branch
Child Welfare Policy and Program Development Bureau
744 P Street, MS 8-11-87
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 651-6160

Children's Research Center
National Council on Crime and Delinquency
426 S. Yellowstone Drive, Suite 250
Madison, WI 53719
(608) 831-1180
Fax (608) 831-6446
Website address: www.nccdglobal.org/what-we-do/major-projects/children-s-research-center

Differential Response Guidelines
All County Letter 09-31 – Safety and Risk Assessments
The Structured Decision Making System in Child Welfare Services in California Combined Counties