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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 in person 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 child will experience future maltreatment? What are the family’s needs and strengths, and what services does the family need to reduce risk? When is it time to reunify a child or close a family’s case?
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 for the SDM Project is the Children’s Research Center, a division of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency is an Oakland-based non-profit organization dedicated to the improvement of decision-making systems in the fields of corrections and child welfare. The Children’s Research Center has assisted or is assisting 40 states across the United States and four states in Australia, four provinces and a territory in Canada, Taiwan, Bermuda and Singapore to implement SDM. In addition to California, the following states are utilizing the SDM model: Alaska, Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Indiana, Georgia, New Mexico, New York, Washington, D.C., Colorado, Minnesota, Ohio, New Hampshire, Missouri, Vermont, Virginia, Florida, New Jersey, Tennessee, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Washington, Louisiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Maryland, Kansas, Nebraska, Utah, Delaware, Arizona, and Texas.

The Children’s Research Center piloted SDM in 1998 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. The SDM 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.
Over the last two decades, California counties have gradually transitioned from other assessment systems to SDM. As of July 2016, all 58 counties in California are using SDM to help assess risk and safety to vulnerable children.

SDM is highly effective in helping CWS workers assess and make decisions when engaging families. In Michigan, a 12-month follow-up evaluation revealed that formerly treated cases in counties utilizing SDM 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. In California, SDM’s 2015 Annual Report showed that recurrence of maltreatment was less likely to occur when caseworkers followed the SDM Risk assessment recommendation. These results indicate that when an agency is able to accurately classify families according to level of risk, they are also able to selectively focus their resources, resulting in better outcomes for children and families.

The California SDM model includes the following tools:

  • Hotline Tools, to screen referrals for in-person response and determine how quickly a response must be made.
  • Safety Assessment, to determine if it is safe for a child to remain home or what actions need to be taken to assure safety.
  • Risk Assessment, to support decisions about opening a case for court-ordered or voluntary supervision based upon the characteristics of the household associated with likelihood of future maltreatment.
  • Family Strength and Needs Assessment, to determine underlying caregiver needs, strengths and services that would benefit the family.
  • Reunification Reassessment, to determine if children are able to return home after time spent in relative care or foster care.
  • In-Home Family Risk Reassessment, to determine if a Family Maintenance case can be closed or if the children will continue to remain at home.


In addition to providing tools to help in assessing at-risk families, the SDM system easily integrates with and complements the practices and processes of Safety Organized Practice (SOP). SOP is a family-centered and strengths-based approach to partnering with children, youth, and families. Safety Organized Practice provides tools and processes for building good relationships with families, enhancing critical thinking and information gathering and enhancing safety when integrated with the research-based SDM assessments, The SDM assessment tools help the child welfare worker to gather and organize information at key decision points (and can be combined with mapping and other Safety Organize Practice strategies and also aids the worker in critically analyzing the case information, allowing the worker to make a decision that is based on facts and research, and increasing accuracy and consistency of responses across diverse populations. 
The SDM Project is an exciting effort for California; one the CDSS believes will reap many of the same positive outcomes for California's children and families that have been realized around the country.