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THE COMPREHENSIVE FAMILY ASSESSMENT PROCESSA comprehensive family assessment is a “process,” not the completionof a “tool.” This does not mean that tools are superfluous; they arehelpful in documenting needs or in stimulating the conversation aboutassessment issues. It does mean, however, that the engagement of familymembers in a discussion that is individualized to their situation is vital.Simply completing a form will not capture all that is needed forcomprehensive assessment.The initial comprehensive assessment can build on the informationobtained in previous assessments of safety and risk. All safety issues,progress on the safety plan, and areas of risk and strengths that havealready been identified are explored as to their current impact on needs.The process includes assessing the family’s understanding of the safetyand risk factors facing their children, examining what they have donealready to address the concerns, what they consider to be the barriers toprogress, and their most pressing needs in relation to the safety and riskfactors. This information is then incorporated into the comprehensivefamily assessment and plans for services.Important information often arises from the first meeting with the child,youth, and family and should be documented in the comprehensivefamily assessment. All information obtained during the assessmentprocess is used to develop the service plan.Key parts of the process involve reviewing existing information, meetingwith the family, interviewing children and youth as appropriate, meetingwith the staff of other agencies, obtaining specialized assessments,identifying the family needs and circumstances contributing to the needfor child welfare intervention, making judgments and decisions aboutservices, documenting information and decision-making with the family,doing ongoing assessments of progress and needs, and disseminatinginformation to the family and other providers to initiate and update theservice plan.I. Review Existing InformationReview all relevant documentation that has emerged through: The initial review of records and summary of any past experience inthe child welfare system or other related service systems;Comprehensive Family Assessment Guidelines22

What was learned from the reporter and collateral contacts;Initial contacts with the family;Safety assessments, including safety plans, and risk assessments;Observations of the home, interactions between adults in the home,parent/child interactions, affect of child or youth (for example,confident, fearful); and Any specialized evaluations done as part of the initial assessment orin the recent past related to factors impacting children, youth, oradults in the home.VIGNETTE 1: The Archuleta FamilyThe vignette illustrates guidelines for a comprehensive familyassessment (CFA) at two points in child welfare services: From the initial contact through the first comprehensive familyassessment (approximately 60 days), and During the following months up to and including the next formalreview.First Comprehensive Family Assessment—Preparation for Conducting the CFAA. Review of existing information: The referral, from an anonymous source, indicated that two childrenwere alone in an apartment at 8:30 p.m. The children, Angela andPablo, ages 4 and 8, were taken into custody when no caregiverscould be found. A neighbor helped locate the children’s mother’sgreat aunt Tiana, who lives several miles away and the children wereplaced with her that evening. As of now they remain in her care and have contact with theirparents nightly by phone and semi-weekly face-to-face in supervisedvisits at the child welfare agency. On the night of the referral, the parents, Carmen, 22, and Arturo, 30,were at a friend’s house and arrived home at midnight, finding a notethat their children had been removed. They explained that they hadleft food for the children and a phone number where they could bereached. They had instructed Pablo to knock on a neighbor’s door ifhe needed help.Comprehensive Family Assessment Guidelines23

Further assessment found that Arturo has a police record involvingone conviction for petty larceny and two for dealing small amountsof cocaine. Having served two sentences, he is now on parole. Both parents were tested for drugs, and their urine screen or urineanalysis (UAs) tested positive for cocaine and marijuana. Carmen hasnever been in drug treatment. Two years ago Arturo spent two weeksin an outpatient drug treatment program before dropping out. Hesays that the program interfered with his job stocking shelves at adepartment store. Arturo likely will be re-incarcerated for a paroleviolation. The children have been left alone at least several times before.Parents say that they always leave a phone number and food for thechildren. Both parents indicated a strong desire to have their children returnedand said that they will cooperate with the child welfare agency. Carmen expressed interest in attending church as she did when shewas younger. She would like to go to her godparents’ church. Interviews with the children, the parents, the godparents, the schooland relatives indicated that Carmen and Arturo often provideadequate care for the children and that they and the children areattached; however sometimes the children are afraid and insecure.There is no evidence of physical or sexual abuse. The childrensometimes fend for themselves when the parents are partying. There is an extended kin network, some of who are involved in drugsand have child welfare involvement and some of who are positiveresources for the family (for example, Carmen’s great aunt Tiana, andCarmen’s godparents).B. Identify and document risks, strengths/protective factors, and possible needs toguide the comprehensive family assessment: Strengths/protective factors: Parents often provide adequate care forchildren, parents and children are bonded, parents want childrenback, some extended family members are good resources to help theparents, parents are having consistent contact with children while inout-of-home care, mother wants to be involved in church, family isfinancially self-sufficient while father is present. Risks: Parents both use cocaine and marijuana, children have beenComprehensive Family Assessment Guidelines24

left alone before, parents believe children can take care of themselvesfor an evening, children are young, children are sometimes afraid andinsecure, father has police record, father has dropped out of drugtreatment once, and some of extended family also has drug and childwelfare involvement. Possible service decisions: drug treatment for both parents, financialsupport for Carmen if Arturo is re-incarcerated, understanding ofage-appropriate needs for children.C. Map out a plan for gathering assessment information: Talk with both parents about strengths/protective factors, resourcesand needs and assess readiness to use help and make change. Thefamily should be encouraged to engage in self-assessment about whatthey believe is happening and why they are now involved with theagency. Ask about cultural context of family issues. Use ecomap andgenogram with parents to record the information. Add to theecomap and genogram after meeting with children, review of records,discussion with providers, and extended support system (the familymeeting). Talk with both children about their concerns and needs. Obtain release of information as needed, review school, Head Start,and medical information on children and records from parole anddrug treatment for Arturo. Talk with providers from these organizations as needed. Conduct a family meeting. With the parents and great aunt who is thecurrent caregiver, identify providers and family/friends who shouldbe invited. Make a plan for inviting and preparing all invitees for themeeting.II. Meet with the FamilyFamily meetings with the parents and/or caretakers if the children arenot living with their parents should occur as soon as possible after thechild welfare agency has decided to open the case. Parents or caretakersshould be invited to bring other supportive people to the meeting if theylike. Siblings who are old enough to participate in such a meeting andhave something useful to contribute should also be included. Theseother people, including former or current service providers, might helpComprehensive Family Assessment Guidelines25

identify needs, protective factors, or be resources for commitment to theensuing service plan. These meetings not only provide a fuller picture ofthe family situation and networks, but also help staff to understand whocan be involved in the change process as they develop the service plan.Judgments should be made with the family as to who can safely beincluded, especially in situations involving domestic violence. Trained,objective facilitators can be very helpful in the family meetings.A general understanding of who is in the family, where they reside, andhow the connections work is useful information. Gathering thisinformation from the family also provides a way to get the parent toengage in the discussion. Exploring their broader connections to faithcommunities, tribal, cultural, or ethnic bonds, or neighbors helps focusfamilies on the resources that not only define them, but also could helpaddress their current needs. Genograms, ecomaps, and ethnographicinterviewing are useful tools to do this.These family meetings should explore not only the current situation, butalso the broader context of issues that affect the safety, permanency, andwell-being of the children. Exploring how parenting issues havegenerally been addressed over time, as well as the family’s level ofunderstanding of the current safety and risk factors are important.Ask about and listen to the parents’ perceptions of why they are nowinvolved with child welfare, what they might fear, and what they canexpect to gain from services. Exploring their commitment to changehelps the caseworker recognize their readiness for change and the needto mobilize additional supports to the parents for their participation inthe service plan.Parents/caretakers should be asked to identify their needs relevant to theprotection of their children. If they are or have been involved in servicesfrom other agencies, that involvement should be explored to identifyservices offered and provided and determine which services have beenhelpful to them in addressing parenting issues or related needs.The caseworker should address any current pressing need that the familyidentifies relevant to the agency’s intervention with the family, such as arent payment to avoid eviction.Comprehensive Family Assessment Guidelines26

III. Interview ChildrenIn most cases, it may be helpful to interview children separately fromtheir parents. If children are living at home, seeking parental permissionfor these meetings and possible participants in the meetings wheneverappropriate is wise. A trusted adult, possibly a teacher or minister, couldbe with the child. Not only would they provide support but also coulduse their ongoing relationship to help the child understand the processand purpose of the assessment. For older children, particularly, it isimportant to get each child’s perspective on the issues. Wheneverappropriate, children should be interviewed separately as well astogether.When children are interviewed, it is necessary to put them at ease byinitially exploring “safe” areas of their lives—possibly school, religious,recreational activities.The main purpose of meeting with the child is to gain an understandingof their perception of what is happening, how the current situationmight or might not fit within their general experience of being parented,and what they need to feel safe. It would be very useful to know if thereare adults in the child’s life that they trust or go to for guidance andsupport.These meetings might also identify some immediate needs that thecaseworker could take care of for the child even as she/he is developingthe service plan. An example might be arranging for the child to meetwith a counselor.IV. Meet with Staff of Other AgenciesMeet with staff of other agencies or service providers with whom theparents or children are currently or recently involved. When workingwith a Native-American family, the tribal child welfare staff should beinformed as soon as possible by the caseworker or identified triballiaison. Family service providers and other possible advocates for thefamily might attend the family meeting while others may just meet withthe caseworker based on schedules as well as their role with the family.The purpose of these meetings is to gain a better understanding of theneeds related to safety, permanency, and child well-being, determineComprehensive Family Assessment Guidelines27

effective ways of engaging the family in changing behaviors, and identifywhat has been the impact of services provided.Given the cross-program focus addressed in the principles, theseconversations have to take place within a context of professionalcommitment to confidentiality as well as a shared understanding of theareas of common concern in working with families.V. Obtain Specialized AssessmentsAs information is being gathered in the process of a comprehensivefamily assessment, it may be useful to go beyond the assessmentcapabilities of the child welfare worker for specialized assessments.These specialized assessments could be for developmental issues thatseem to have an impact on the child, mental health evaluations of thechild, youth, and/or parents, evaluations related to the use of drugs,evaluations of the cognitive abilities of children and youth that areaffecting their education, or possibly specialized evaluations of varioushandicapping conditions that affect parenting that could make parentseligible for support.When the caseworker recognizes the need for specialized assessments,s/he should focus the attention of the specialist on the specific areas ofconcern and have some sense of what effect the specialized assessmentfindings have on child welfare decision-making. The recommendationsarising out of these specialized assessments should be incorporated intothe service plan.VIGNETTE 2: The Archuleta Family—Assess the Needs of the FamilyA. Meet with the parents: Meet individually and jointly with parents. (Although not a knownfactor with this family, domestic violence would be an important areato explore in individual meetings.) Gather information about family history and the current extendedfamily and support system. Use the genogram and the ecomap inaddition to the narrative as a means of recording this information. Engage parents by focusing on their viewpoints.Comprehensive Family Assessment Guidelines28

Address their perspectives and ideas about issues such as:oWhat works well about their family and what contributes toeffective functioningoWhat could work better about their family and what would beneeded to achieve better functioningoWhat needs to change to make their home safe for their childrenand what services and other interventions would help themoIn the past as well as now, what causes the parents the moststress, worry, sadness and also what brings them the mostsatisfaction, joy, and peace of mindoWhat others think. For example, “What makes your godmotherproudest about you? What does she worry about for you?”oWhat they think the impact of changing or not changing will be.oWhat will help them make and maintain changes Plan the family meeting together. Explain court involvement, if any, and what to expect in courthearings.B. Meet with children: Meetings with children are opportunities for observation of the childin terms of overall health, activity levels, development,communication skills, and so forth, as well as gathering information. Talk with children separately and together at great aunt Tiana’shouse; inform parents, but do not include them because childrenhave been afraid and insecure. Build rapport with children; speak with them at their level ofcognitive and emotional development (concrete, no leadingquestions), begin with their views of day-to-day life in the family,note the positives, then ask about what they would like to be betterin their family and what could help things to be better. Ensure that children understand next steps and child welfare’s intentto help family. Understand their comprehension and clarify asneeded. Specify court involvement, if any, and what to expect in courthearings.Comprehensive Family Assessment Guidelines29

C. Review records and talk with providers as needed: Review school and medical records for children and talk to providersto clarify needs. Review law enforcement and drug treatment records and talk toproviders to clarify issues as needed.D. Conduct a family meeting: With parents, identify and invite key people including Tiana (who iscaring for children in her home), Carmen’s godparents, Pablo’sschool counselor, Head Start outreach worker for Angela, Arturo’sparole officer, god-parents’ minister, and the substance abusecounselor who conducted the recent assessments of both parents. Obtain parental consent to contact all key people and invite them tomeetings. Prepare each invitee by explaining how family meetings work and theissues that will be discussed. Clarify what the participants have contributed in terms of assistingwith identified needs and the parents’ views about this. Support family meeting participants in planning how each might helpthe family. Identify and review what participants have committed to do.VI. Make Judgments and Decisions: Link Comprehensive FamilyAssessment to the Development of a Service PlanCollecting and organizing comprehensive assessment information is notan end in itself; it must be used in focused ways to address the family’sidentified needs in the service plan. The worker should ensure that thefamily members have an accurate understanding of why their situationwas reported to child welfare, what has to change, and what outcomesare being pursued. Family members should be intricately involved in theprocess of moving from assessment to the development of the serviceplan. They should help guide the process of determining whatinterventions could best address their situation, within the context of ashared commitment to making necessary changes. This process shouldbe transparent—the worker should share the tools and informationbeing used to build the service plan with the family to help themComprehensive Family Assessment Guidelines30

understand how the information they provided contributed to theprocess.The purpose of comprehensive family assessment is to provide theinformation needed to address the individual needs of all familymembers in the agency’s service plan(s) and through its interventionswith the family. This can only be done when sufficient information isgathered to identify and understand the various problems andcircumstances that have resulted in the need for child welfare serviceplanning. The plan is completed only after analyzing all material theworker has collected with supervisory oversight and guidance and withthe family’s involvement. The service plan identifies interventions andactions to address the family’s needs and to facilitate the changesnecessary to achieve sustainable safety, permanency, and well-being foreach child.The service plan must also use assessment of protective factors as pointsof leverage for the necessary changes, not simply a list of characteristicsof the family. By engaging the family to provide what they see as theirstrengths and by validating their contributions by including the strengthsin the service planning process, the caseworker helps the family view theservice plan as a realistic and achievable. Delineating the family’sstrengths and how they can contribute to the child’s safety and wellbeing can reinforce the family’s motivation to change.This process of g