What is “Signs of Safety”?

Signs of Safety is an innovative strengths-based, safety-organized approach to child protection casework. The model started in Western Australia by Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards, who worked with over 150 front-line statutory practitioners and explored answers to the question “what works well with difficult cases?” Since then, practitioners around the world have contributed to the model as Andrew has continued to bring good work forward and share it. The Signs of Safety approach has attracted international attention and is being used in Australia and jurisdictions in the USA, Canada, the UK, Sweden, The Netherlands, New Zealand and Japan.

Signs of Safety Assessment – The Map

The heart of the Signs of Safety process is a risk assessment and case planning framework that professionals as well as the parents and children find helpful. (Click here for testimonials). Typically, child protection assessment and planning processes create systems where professional voices are so strong that they muffle or even mute the perspectives of children, parents and other family members. The Signs of Safety risk assessment process integrates professional knowledge with local family and cultural knowledge and helps keep the safety and well-being of the child at the center of the work.

Signs of Safety is a risk assessment, risk management and case planning framework. The Signs of Safety assessment form – the “Map” – is the only formal protocol used in the model. The approach is designed to be used from the beginning intake phone call through to case closure in order to assist professionals at all stages of the child protection process, whether they be in statutory, hospital, residential or treatment settings.

The Map balances a rigorous exploration of past harm and future danger alongside indicators of strengths and safety. The format encourages the practitioner to elicit, in common language, the professionals’ and family members’ views regarding concerns or dangers, existing strengths, safety, goals, and day-to-day plans. The balance of looking at the dangers and the safety factors deepens the assessment; the emphasis on doing the assessment with the family allows for an open working relationship with the family and their network. These two factors differentiate The Map from usual problem-saturated risk assessments.

There is no single prescribed right way to apply the approach. Each time a child protection worker uses the Signs of Safety model in the field and then describes his/her endeavors, the approach continues to evolve.

Learning and Growing in Social Work Practice – Appreciative Inquiry

Signs of Safety grew from a process of action research/appreciative inquiry. (For more information about action research and appreciative inquiry, see Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987; Watkins, J.M. and Mohr, 2001.) The collaborative inquiry process is essential to the success of sustainable growth of an agency toward the Signs of Safety model. This appreciative inquiry has been a cornerstone to the Signs of Safety work in many jurisdictions (i.e. Olmsted and Carver Counties in Minnesota, USA; Gateshead, England; Nagoya, Japan; Drenthe, Holland; Stockholm and Trollhatten, Sweden.)

As a part of the ongoing quest for learning, the Signs of Safety community continues to ask and answer questions like:

  • “What does good social work look like, even in hard cases?”
  • “How do workers build partnerships with parents and children in situations of suspected or substantiated child abuse and still deal rigorously with the maltreatment issues?”
  • “What are the best ways to describe how to do child protection casework?”
  • “How could the ideas and thinking of brief therapy apply to child protection case work?”

This action research/appreciative inquiry method closes the usual practice gap in child protection theory and is a very different way of theorizing child protection practice. By drawing upon practitioners’ experience and wisdom of what works, a second Signs of Safety 3-column assessment framework evolved (covering “What are we worried about?”, “What’s working well?” and “What needs to happen?”). This parallels the Three Houses and Wizard/Fairy tools that were developed for working with children in New Zealand and Western Australia respectively. The Olmsted County, Minnesota, implementation has focused on using conferencing with all high-risk cases and thereby brought the Signs of Safety framework into collaborative conferencing processes. The Gateshead, England, and Carver County, Minnesota, implementations have refined and deepened ideas for using the Signs of Safety at the initial investigation. These are some of the ways the Signs of Safety approach has continued to evolve.

Andrew’s and Steve’s development of the Signs of Safety approach during the 1990’s was influenced strongly by the Resolutions approach (to working with ‘denied’ child abuse) of Bristol’s Susie Essex, John Gumbleton and Colin Luger. The Resolutions model provided the Signs of Safety approach with inspiration and rigor in detailed safety planning and ideas for involving and informing children by using Essex’s ‘Words and Pictures’ process.

Thousands of practitioners have contributed to the mature model that Signs of Safety is today.