Tool Helps Texas Caseworkers Know if Child Abuse Would Happen Again

The Texas agency that handles child abuse and neglect cases started using a system this week aimed at identifying the riskiest cases.

By Veronica ZaragoviaAugust 26, 2015 1:44 pm

Called the Structured Decision Making Model, it determines which guardians who’ve harmed their children in the past are likely to repeat it. The tool helps the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services answer one question about any family that’s been the subject of a CPS investigation in the past.

“Is this family likely to come back to the attention of Child Protection with another report, another investigation?” says Jennifer Cotter, the associate director of the Children’s Research Center, the non-profit that makes the risk assessment tool. If the answer is yes, that family would get longer, more intensive services after an investigation.

“When we don’t have that objective structured process, we find that we are all over the board in terms of our decision making, and I think that we owe families that consistency and accuracy in decision making,” Cotter says.

The software analyzes about 20 family characteristics to reach its conclusions on the risk classification, which can be low, moderate, high or very high risk of child maltreatment recurrence. Aside from how many kids live in the house and what their ages are, a caseworker adds information like history of mental illness and substance abuse.

“The risk assessment is definitely a logical next step,” says George Cannata, the deputy assistant commissioner for Child Protective Services. “They can act on the risk that we’re identifying no differently than a doctor who might identify a high risk situation that might lead to health problems later on.”

Some problems later on are permanent, though. Earlier this month in Houston, six children and two adults were found murdered. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services had previously investigated a number of complaints about the children’s care.