Standards for public agencies

2020 Edition

Child and Family Services (PA-CFS) 4: Initial Assessment of Safety and Risk

An initial assessment or investigation allows the agency to evaluate safety and risks, and determine whether ongoing efforts are needed to protect children and strengthen families.


The agency should refer to tribal-state agreements, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act to determine investigative roles and responsibilities, and to ensure the investigation or assessment complies with all necessary legal requirements and includes tribal participation if provided for by protocol or agreement. 

Interpretation: While most agencies will complete “investigations,” the standards in this core concept can also apply when an agency employs a differential response system and assigns some cases to an alternative “assessment” track rather than to a traditional “investigation” track.
NA The agency does not provide initial in-person child abuse/neglect investigations or assessments.
2020 Edition




Child and Family Services promote child and family well-being, protect children’s safety, stablilize and strengthen families, and ensure permanency.
Full Implementation, Outstanding Performance
A rating of (1) indicates that the agency's practices fully meet the standard and reflect a high level of capacity.  
  • All elements or requirements outlined in the standard are evident in practice, with rare or no exceptions; exceptions do not impact service quality or agency performance. 
Substantial Implementation, Good Performance
A rating of (2) indicates that an agency's infrastructure and practices are basically sound but there is room for improvement. 
  • The majority of the standards requirements have been met and the basic framework required by the standard has been implemented.  
  • Minor inconsistencies and not yet fully developed practices are noted; however, these do not significantly impact service quality or agency performance.  
Partial Implementation, Concerning Performance
A rating of (3) indicates that the agency's observed infrastructure and/or practices require significant improvement.  
  • The agency has not implemented the basic framework of the standard but instead has in place only part of this framework.   
  • Omissions or exceptions to the practices outlined in the standard occur regularly, or practices are implemented in a cursory or haphazard manner. 
  • Service quality or agency functioning may be compromised.   
  • Capacity is at a basic level.
Unsatisfactory Implementation or Performance
A rating of (4) indicates that implementation of the standard is minimal or there is no evidence of implementation at all.  
  • The agency’s observed service delivery infrastructure and practices are weak or non-existent; or show signs of neglect, stagnation, or deterioration.  
Self-Study EvidenceOn-Site EvidenceOn-Site Activities
  • Procedures for initial assessment/investigation
  • Copy of safety assessment tool(s)
  • Copy of risk assessment tool(s)
  • Copy of decision making tool(s)/criteria
  • Data on the timeliness of initial visits for previous quarter 
  • Information provided to parents
  • Information provided to children
  • Aggregate report of initial assessment/investigation data for the previous 12 months (e.g., PA-CFS Data Sheet)
  • Collaborative agreements or contracts, when applicable
  • Interviews may include:
    1. Program director
    2. Relevant personnel
    3. Parents served
    4. Children served
  • Review case records

Fundamental Practice

PA-CFS 4.01

In an effort to keep children safe:
  1. every child determined during screening to be in imminent danger is seen immediately; and 
  2. in all other cases, children are seen within a timeframe intended to ensure their safety, generally within 72 hours. 


In some cases, authority to make an initial in-person visit may be delegated to other professionals, such as law enforcement officials. When contact is delegated child protection personnel should provide appropriate follow-up. 

Fundamental Practice

PA-CFS 4.02

At the first meeting parents are helped to understand:  
  1. their rights and responsibilities; 
  2. the allegations under investigation; 
  3. the role of agency personnel and any other involved providers; and
  4. the assessment or investigation process, including how safety and risk will be evaluated, and how it is determined whether a case will be opened or closed.

Fundamental Practice

PA-CFS 4.03

At the outset and conclusion of the assessment/investigation the agency conducts a systematic safety assessment to determine whether children are in imminent danger of serious harm, considering:
  1. threats of danger in the family;
  2. children’s vulnerability to those threats; and
  3. caregivers’ capacity to protect the children from threats. 


When children are vulnerable to a threat and caregivers are unable or unwilling to protect the children, the children are considered unsafe.  In contrast, vulnerable children are considered safe when no threats of danger exist, or when caregivers are capable of controlling or managing any threats that do exist.

Fundamental Practice

PA-CFS 4.04

A systematic assessment of family risks and protective factors enables the agency to determine the likelihood that children will be abused or neglected in the future. 


“Risk,” as addressed in this standard, is considered to be distinct from “safety,“ as addressed in PA-CFS 4.03 above. Whereas safety is the danger of serious harm in the short-term, risk represents the likelihood of future harm. Accordingly, while safety concerns require an immediate response to ensure that children are protected, the risk of future harm can be addressed over time with services designed to promote long-term change.
Examples: Since clinical judgments of risk can vary, using actuarial risk assessment tools may help estimate the risk of future maltreatment. For example, the Structured Decision-Making model utilizes a risk assessment tool that classifies families as having a “high,” “medium,” or “low” risk of future maltreatment based on research exploring the relationship between family characteristics and child welfare case outcomes. 

Fundamental Practice

PA-CFS 4.05

The process for initial assessment or investigation includes: 
  1. visiting the family’s home, as well as any other location where the abuse/neglect allegedly occurs;
  2. conducting separate, individual interviews with all family members, including both the alleged victim and perpetrator of the maltreatment, as well as any other children and adults living in, or frequent visitors to, the home;
  3. observing family members and their interactions; and
  4. observing the physical status of the family’s home.


Although extenuating circumstances may occur, interviews should ideally be conducted in the following order:
  1.  the alleged victim of the maltreatment; 
  2. any other children in the home; 
  3. the non-maltreating adults; and
  4. the alleged perpetrator of the maltreatment.
When interviewing young children the agency should utilize age-appropriate tools and techniques in an effort to minimize both potential suggestibility and the trauma of the process. 


PA-CFS 4.06

The agency provides children with information regarding the circumstances and events that led to the involvement of the child welfare system that is:
  1. appropriate to children’s ages and developmental levels;
  2. conveyed verbally, and repeated as needed; and
  3. provided in writing when appropriate to children’s ages and developmental levels.


PA-CFS 4.07

Information is gathered from other sources that may be able to provide insight regarding factors related to risk and safety, as appropriate and in accordance with any applicable legal requirements.
Examples: Other sources may include both sources that are familiar with the family (e.g., extended family, neighbors, teachers, day care providers, medical or mental health care providers, and the person who initially reported the child maltreatment) as well as professionals who may conduct their own evaluations related to the alleged maltreatment (e.g., medical or mental health care practitioners, or domestic violence experts). 


PA-CFS 4.08

In an effort to reduce trauma to children and families, the process for initial assessment or investigation is designed to:
  1. minimize duplication; and
  2. assume the presence of trauma, and foster a trauma-sensitive approach to engagement. 

Examples:  Interacting with the child welfare system can be a trauma reminder that leads to challenging behaviors that are actually a defensive or protective reaction to agency involvement, such as anger, avoidance, apathy, or resistance.  A trauma-sensitive approach to engagement can include addressing these behaviors/reactions in an appropriate manner, and ensuring that interactions with children and families are sensitive and responsive to any history of trauma.  

Fundamental Practice

PA-CFS 4.09

The worker uses standardized decision-making protocols, in conjunction with supervisory/clinical consultation, to consider the results of risk and safety assessments and determine whether to:  
  1. close a case; 
  2. close and refer a case to community providers; or 
  3. open a case for ongoing services. 
Interpretation:  Regarding element (b), when a case involves an American Indian or Alaska Native child services offered by the tribe or local Indian organization should be prioritized.


PA-CFS 4.10

When the agency collaborates with law enforcement or other parties to respond to allegations of child maltreatment: 
  1. roles and responsibilities are clearly defined; and
  2. information is shared between parties, as appropriate and in accordance with applicable law and regulation.


PA-CFS 4.11

When assessment or investigation reveals that an initial maltreatment report was deliberately and maliciously filed by a person who knew the allegation to be false, the agency: 
  1. tracks the incident; and
  2. refers the incident to relevant authorities for further investigation and follow-up, as appropriate.
Examples: False reporting may be especially prevalent in situations involving domestic violence or custody battles between divorcing spouses.


PA-CFS 4.12

Initial assessments and investigations are completed in a timely manner and at least within forty-five days, in accordance with agency procedures, which outline: 
  1. timeframes for conducting and completing assessments/investigations; and
  2. weekly milestones and deliverables in the assessment/investigation process, including which components are to be completed within thirty days.