Anyone interested in learning more about the Signs of Safety® is encouraged to obtain and study the written materials from Andrew Turnell. Recommended materials include The Signs of Safety book, The Working with ‘Denied’ Child Abuse book, and Andrew’s Comprehensive Briefing paper.
To implement the Signs of Safety contact a Signs of Safety trainer or consultant near you.
Risk assessment map with harm and danger statements, safety goals and safety scales
The Signs of Safety Risk Assessment Map, which includes the 3 columns and 6 parts above, is created through well-constructed questions that elicit clear forensic details about the worries for the children and the strengths we have to work with. The details are described in summary statements that connect strengths, when available, to the worries. The statements are inverted into safety goals that artfully describe how things will be when there’s no longer reason for worry. Each statement/goal pair is put into a scale to use to involve everyone around the children in the risk assessment process. Finally, small next steps are identified that will move the situation from where it is at present toward the goals. The map is described in much more detail in the Signs of Safety Book. The most current thinking around this tool can be found in Andrew’s comprehensive briefing paper.
My Three Houses
The free My Three Houses app teaches social workers how to use the Three Houses tool with children in order to clearly get their perspective into the map and help their parents and safety network members to understand their perspective. When doing Three Houses and maps with children and youth, it’s extremely helpful to find out who they feel safe with and who they trust. Some questions to ask include:
- Who listens to you?
- Which grown-ups do you trust?
- Is there anyone who scares or frightens you?
Susie Essex used variations of this safety circle to help parents identify safety network members. See page 92 in the Working with Denied Child Abuse book.
Words and Pictures Stories
Words and Pictures stories are created together with parents to help children understand that even when some things have gone well in their family, there are worries for their safety that are being addressed. The stories tell children who’s worried, what they’re worried about, and what’s being done to keep them safe. As social workers help parents create these stories from the map, they get even more clear about strengths and worries for the children. The stories give everyone involved the same words to use as they talk with the children about what has happened and what’s happening now. The stories help safety network members quickly understand what needs to be done to protect the children. There’s a strong sign of partnership around the children’s future safety when parents and the agency agree on the story. Children see the people coming around them to keep them safe as the social worker reads the story to the children with parents and safety network members present. Most importantly, when children have a clear story about what’s happened and what’s happening now, and they can go back to it again and again, they’re far less likely to make up a story in which they blame themselves for what’s happening in their family. For more information about Words and Pictures refer to Chapter 5 of the Denied Child Abuse book or to Andrew’s comprehensive briefing paper.
The research on ACEs, resilience, and trauma all tells us that children heal in the context of their relationships with the people with whom they belong. We’re learning that taking children out of these relationships can lead to lasting harm and that supporting and building up these relationships is what best helps children thrive. Even when children are in care, the network of people with whom they belong provides stability and continuity that’s often sorely missing in regard to the children’s physical placement and virtually eliminates the risk of children running away from care. The networks most critical role is to help parents and other network members create safe, lasting plans for children, and to hold each other accountable to the plan. Without a network, what’s often passed off as a safety plan is either a list of instructions or a list of promises.
Kevin Campbell says, “The first step to healing and permanency begins in the family meeting, not in foster care.” Often the people caught up in the child welfare system have learned not to trust others, even, or sometimes especially, the people with whom they belong. Yet the Harvard Study found that close relationships are key to health and happiness for adults, as well as children. These meetings become the forum in which we use all of our best professional skills to help participants figure out how to manage their most important relationships for their children’s sake, which is most often a powerful motivating force. It makes sense to plan these meetings as carefully as we can.
1. What will a successful meeting look like?
2. Who from the agency should be at the meeting to help insure it will be as successful as possible?
3. Who’s the best person to lead the meeting?
4. How can we make the agenda as clear and transparent as possible?
5. How can we make the meeting as safe and blame free as possible?
6. How do we best keep the meeting focused on present and future safety and well-being and stop people from fighting about the past?
7. When should we meet again?
Family or network meetings are ongoing over time, as information is shared, connections are made, trust is built, and plans are developed, reviewed, and improved.
Adult Safety Plan
A plan is just a plan until we see it working. At the same time, every plan is unique to the family situation and the network. Someone needs to write down the ideas that are brought up at the meeting. Usually this includes a list of the people that are part of the safety network and a list of rules to be followed to keep the children safe and meet their needs. It will often include a list of triggers or red flags for network members to look for as a sign that something needs to be done to insure the children’s safety or well-being.
Once the initial plan is created, the social worker, parents, and network members all need to pay close attention to see if the plan’s being followed and if it’s working to keep the children safe and meet their needs. If the plan’s not being followed or not working, it doesn’t mean the plan has failed. It does mean that the social worker, parents, and network members need to get back together as soon as possible to improve the plan until it does get followed and it does work. Many of the best safety plans were improved several times to get to the point where they worked well.
The research on resilience in children tells us that children do better when they have a sense of control of their situation. Because children sometimes struggle to find the right words to use to say they aren’t feeling safe, the safety object gives children an easy way to communicate with their parents and with their safety network members. Children are asked to pick an object that’s important to them and to figure out a place to keep it when they’re feeling safe and things are going well. If they get scared or worried, all they need to do is move their safety object. When parents, network members, or social workers notice the object is moved, they take time to listen to the child to understand what’s going on and what needs to happen for the child to feel safe and confident enough to put the safety object back where it signals that all is well. Getting to that point again may require a network meeting and improved safety plan.
Safety is defined as “strengths demonstrated over time.” The safety journal is a tool to use to document the things that are being done to create safety. It can be a place for network members to document doing what they agreed to do, documenting whether the rules of the safety plan are being followed, or not followed, documenting that they’ve looked for triggers or red flags, and/or documenting that the safety object is in place, or not. Sometimes text messages or cell phone pictures are shared with the safety network to create or enrich the safety journal.
Words and Pictures Safety Plan
Because the children need to understand what’s being done to keep them safe, just as soon as we have an adult safety plan that’s being followed and is working, we want to incorporate the plan into the Words and Pictures story that can be read to the children in much the same way the initial story was read. We want to make sure children have a copy of this story they can go back to it as often as needed until they fully understand who’s doing what to keep them safe.
Safety plan rehearsals
A good way to make sure children, parents, and network members understand and follow the safety plan that’s been created is to creatively rehearse the plan. These rehearsals might include having parents or children call network members to see if they really will come over as promised, having children move their safety object to see if parents and network members notice and respond, or having a network member or someone else ask a parent to break a rule in the safety plan (while also stopping them from doing so, if necessary) to find out if the parent has enough strength and support to follow the rule.
Trajectory and Time Line
Both the Signs of Safety and Family Finding seek to make the work as transparent as possible. One part of doing this includes making a plan together with the family and network about what needs to be done, and the desired timeline for getting it all done. When there’s a strong partnership and everyone is working well together to urgently keep children safe at home or return them home, the trajectory might be hammered out in a verbal discussion. When planning is more complex or when cases appear to be stuck, working out a mutual written trajectory for getting the children home or closing the case can help build a sense of partnership and help get things moving forward again. One way to create a trajectory is to put the harm and danger statements on the left side of a page, put the safety goals on the right side, and in between write down all the small next steps that need to be taken to achieve the safety goals.
Especially in a written trajectory, take care not to let a single small step cause the whole process to get stuck. If a planned step isn’t getting done, what is it about that step that keeps it from getting done? Is there another way to accomplish the same thing? Does the step need to be broken down into smaller and more manageable steps? What happens if that particular step never does get done?