By Ellen T. Kennedy

Recent media attention to the tragic story of Abdifatah Mohamud has included references to Family Assessment Response (FAR), an alternative approach to providing services to families who have been reported to Child Protection Services.

Without FAR, CPS workers focus on whether there is evidence to “indicate” a case, meaning there is some truth to the allegations in the report. Statewide, 70 percent of reports are not indicated, and the case is closed. That doesn’t mean there are no problems in the family; rather, the problems do not rise to the level of required intervention. FAR allows the CPS worker to engage the family in a thorough assessment of family strengths and needs, and to take needed action. This may include linkage to informal supports, concrete services such as transportation and financial assistance, and formal services such as drug and alcohol treatment.

All CPS workers complete the same initial safety assessment and if, at any time, there is evidence of serious neglect or abuse the case is referred back to the investigative track. The safety of the child is always paramount.

Alternative response models are being implemented in 21 states. Evaluations to date have shown them to be effective in providing safety for children and being more helpful to families.

We need to remember that CPS was established to protect children and “preserve and stabilize family life whenever possible.” Of course, the first task is to make sure that the child is not in danger. The worker does not have a crystal ball, however. The determination of safety depends on what can be observed and what information is received from family members and other relevant parties. It is rare that a worker is immediately presented with evidence of serious injury or risk of imminent harm. The task of the worker is then to develop a trusting relationship with the family, that will lead to a full assessment and a service plan that focuses on improved family functioning and reduced risk of future neglect and/or abuse.

Despite the best efforts of social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, law enforcement, judges and others, violent behavior cannot be accurately predicted. Sadly, tragedies occur. This does not automatically mean that a worker is incompetent or that the system is broken. There may not be a person to blame for the tragedy. CPS workers have a very difficult job, and do their best to keep children safe and help families.

We do know that the old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is still true. There are model prevention programs, such as home visiting, that have been proven to reduce future abuse and neglect. One way to help prevent another child abuse tragedy is to urge state legislators to provide adequate funding for prevention.

Ellen T. Kennedy, MSW, is chairwoman of the Western New York Citizen Review Panel.