Comprehensive Family
Assessments in Complex Child
Welfare Cases
Kathleen Coulborn Faller, Ph.D., A.C.S.W., D.C.S.W.
Marion Elizabeth Blue Professor of Children and Families
School of Social Work
Director, Family Assessment Clinic
University of Michigan
Federal Guidelines &
• From the Child Welfare Information
– “Assessment forms the foundation for
effective practice with children and families.”
• From the Child and Family Services
• “agency risk and safety assessments are often not
sufficiently comprehensive to capture underlying
family issues that may contribute to maltreatment.”
Too often in child welfare
• Interventions are undertaken without an
initial assessment.
• Interventions are “cookie cutter”—
counseling, parenting classes, anger
management, & substance abuse
• Interventions place unrealistic burdens on
fragile families.
Comprehensive Family
• Comprehensive family assessments should be used
– They are costly and time-consuming (2 months minimum).
– They are intrusive.
– Professionals should weigh the costs and benefits.
• Comprehensive family assessments should be familyfocused and child-friendly.
• Ideally comprehensive family assessments should
involve a team of professionals from differing
• Should assess multiple domains of child and caretaker
• Should integrate current functioning and past history.
We only know
the tip of the
Cases for which comprehensive family
assessments may be appropriate
• Cases for which the initial intervention is not successful.
• Cases with competing findings.
• Cases with repeated reports but no satisfactory
• Cases with lengthy involvement with the Child Welfare
– Should parental rights be terminated?
– What kind of plans should be made for children?
• Cases involving multiple types of child maltreatment and
other problems.
• The goal is to assess children and their
families historically (over time) and at a
particular point in time.
• The goal is to address specific questions
posed by the referring
• Often the goal is to obtain consensus
among agencies about a plan for
Comprehensive Family
Assessment Process
• Conduct a telephone intake with the referring professional that focuses
on issues and questions to be addressed.
• Gather and review background information.
– CPS reports, other child welfare records, school records, past
treatment reports, etc.
• Interview all children.
– Children in our program receive at least 2 interviews.
– Give children more than one chance to talk.
• Caretakers need to be interviewed.
– This is a chance for them to tell their story.
– Caretakers are interviewed for 2+ hours.
– Caretakers may be afraid to tell, too.
– Interviewer obtains permission to call the adult with follow-up
Comprehensive Family
Assessment Process
• Psychological testing is conducted separately from the
– There is no magic in psychological testing.
– Tests must be appropriate to the problems being
– Testing must be contextualized.
• CBCL, CSBI, & TSCYC or TSC completed on each child.
• Parent-child & family interactions as indicated.
• Medical exams and consultations as indicated.
• Access medical specialties as indicated.
Comprehensive Family
Assessment Process
• Educational consultations as indicated.
• Collateral contacts add important perspectives
with caretaker’s permission & by phone.
– Professionals.
– Non-professionals.
• Substance abuse assessment as indicated.
– Random drug screens, but they are not a panacea.
• Domestic violence screening as indicated.
• Psychiatric consultations as indicated
(medication review and psychiatric diagnosis).
A Team Meeting after datagathering is complete
• Invite relevant people.
• Bring all the information to address
questions relevant to child safety,
permanency, and well-being.
• Make specific and feasible
• These meetings last about 3 hours.
• Produce written reports.
• Meet with family to share summary of
• Testify in court.
• Conduct a 6 month follow-up.
• Comprehensive Family Assessment Guidelines
for Child Welfare
• Children’s Bureau website on CFA
• Faller, K.C., Ortega, M.B., & Pomeranz, E.
(2008). Can Early Assessment Make a
Difference in Child Protection? Results from a
Pilot Study. Journal of Public Child Welfare, 2(1),

Comprehensive Family Assessments